How Nicola Andrews changed my thinking about impostor syndrome (Librarians Speaking Truth to Power, #1)

This is the first in a series of posts in which I reflect on librarian-authored writings that I find courageous, inspiring, and thought provoking.

The first time I heard the term “impostor syndrome” was years ago, when someone I knew used it in reference to herself. The way she explained it, it had something to do with self doubt and fear of being seen as unworthy. It seemed like a good way to describe those feelings that she, I, and many other women have had at times about our abilities and potential. I didn’t really care enough about the term to research its origins. Impostor syndrome sounded like just another neurosis to me, one that wouldn’t actually harm you as long as you were aware of it and dealt with it in the moment. Later, I would think about the term casually when I felt my confidence slipping. I would hear other women using it and nod in agreement and understanding.

Then along came Nicola Andrews. In June, Andrews, an academic librarian, published an extraordinary article that made me question the whole concept of “impostor syndrome,” what it means, and what purpose this term actually serves. The article, called “It’s Not Imposter Syndrome: Resisting Self-Doubt as Normal for Library Workers”, appeared in the journal In the Library With The Lead Pipe. Although Andrews wrote the article for a library professional audience, you do not need to be a library professional to relate to what Andrews is saying.

In Andrews’ article, impostor syndrome is defined as being when “a person doubts the validity of their accomplishments, attributes them to external forces, and has an irrational fear that they will be revealed as a mistake.” Andrews argues that labeling someone with impostor syndrome– which essentially puts the burden on the employee to “fix” their own self-doubt and fear – is not an effective response to the challenges that so many workers are facing in their professional environments. In fact, as Andrews points out, it enables management to avoid addressing an unhealthy environment that breeds insecurity and anxiety, regardless of how much confidence employees have.

Struck early on by some people’s insistence that impostor syndrome is an inevitable professional crisis to be dealt with on an individual level, Andrews has come to decidedly different conclusions: that many employees do not have impostor syndrome at all; that their anxiety is often a product of their toxic work environment; and, that, instead of blaming employees, workplace management needs to step up and hold themselves accountable for the practices that are creating unhealthy circumstances and work to change the situation.   

Nicola Andrews’ critique of the “impostor syndrome” label was not the first ever, but it was the first one I had ever read, and it really opened my eyes.  Until I read it, I had no idea the  “impostor syndrome” concept had been around since the seventies, nor did I realize that streams of workshops and seminars had sprung up around it both beyond and within the library profession. There are certainly people who do feel impostor syndrome on a regular basis and who can benefit from training to help them overcome it. However, Andrews made me consider to what extent impostor syndrome and many other so-called “syndromes” and “behaviors” are being commodified, while the inequities and discriminatory practices that may have given rise to them go unaddressed.

The article also made me think about whether my own experiences really fit the impostor syndrome definition. Sure, I’ve experienced self-doubt. There are times when I feel that I have accomplished a lot, and there are times when I feel less sure. For me, these feelings are part of the vicissitudes of life; they are not tied to any particular professional experience. There have definitely been times when I felt in over my head. But I didn’t respond to that feeling by simply labeling myself a fake. I identified what it was I needed to learn and went ahead and learned it, or if I didn’t feel that a particular situation was right for me, I chalked it up to life experience and moved on to a better opportunity. When I have feelings of doubt, I recognize them as such – feelings that can be acknowledged, dealt with, and overcome, not an immutable verdict on my accomplishments or abilities.

Often, self doubt is not even the main issue. Throughout the article, Andrews argues against the idea that feeling out of place is always rooted in a lack of confidence in one’s abilities. One example of this is in the powerful statement below, a statement that I am sure will resonate with many professionals of color:  

“As a Māori, takatāpui, immigrant, person of colour, and first-generation scholar, I know that libraries and academia were not constructed for my benefit; and that systems of colonization, white supremacy, misogyny, and hatred continue to operate within them and wider society.  The lack of belonging I felt did not stem from a lack of self-esteem, but from the knowledge that libraries and academia as institutions never intended I belong.” – Nicola Andrews

In these words, Andrews expresses an unequivocal refusal to conform to the parameters of someone else’s diagnosis. This challenge to management-administered psychoanalysis is one important act of self-empowerment. Another is Andrews’ refusal to normalize workplace fear and anxiety. This second stance really resonated with me. I have often felt that unhealthy work situations bear many similarities to abusive personal relationships.  Good workplaces, while they can be rigorous and challenging, should not be dehumanizing spaces of emotional and psychological manipulation.

As Andrews notes, people who mistreat workers should be held accountable, and institutional practices that enable mistreatment need to be changed. I like that the article includes testing tools not for employees, but for their institutions, urging the assessors in charge to turn the microscope on themselves.

 “When are we going to stop signalling that fear and anxiety is normal within our profession, and instead examine how these narratives are the result of institutions deflecting the need for change?” – Nicola Andrews

Of course, accountability is an ongoing challenge. Ideally, institutional powerbrokers would implement progressive changes on their own, and there are some that do seem to be making moves in this direction. Unfortunately, there are many that do not and will not unless faced with high-profile legal action, substantial fines, or negative press attention.

It does not help that in the U.S. at least, priorities are skewed toward prestige and money. Workers are encouraged to go after the big job title; the higher salary; the difficult, demanding work; the great big responsibility. For so many years, we have been asked to set the bar so high when it comes to these “hard” factors – and often criticized when we don’t. The fact that we have only in recent years reached a point where it is becoming widely acceptable to set an equally high bar for mental and physical health and quality of life – the fact that U.S. workers in the 21st century are still fighting for what should be the bare basics: a living wage; pay equity; the right to not be discriminated against; non-panic inducing workloads; decent, humane treatment – all of this says a lot, a depressing lot, about just how far we are, in this country, from remedying the issues that help create the toxic situations Andrews is writing about.

Yet, Andrews’ words give me hope. When deep thinkers like Andrews question terms like “impostor syndrome” the way Andrews is questioning them – not just on the surface, but really getting underneath them and unthreading them at the base – it feels like something is changing for the better.

Andrews’ article is a reminder that supposedly neutral terms like “impostor syndrome” are actually quite rife with unstated agendas. And as Andrews observes, these terms are often rooted in centuries of misogyny and white supremacy. I am still a little alarmed by how unquestioningly I, an African American woman, incorporated the term “impostor syndrome” into my lexicon without even considering how it might divert attention away from the confidence-battering effects of racism, sexism, and plain workplace abuse in general. It took Andrews’ words to get me thinking about what I was buying into.

Interestingly, the “impostor syndrome” diagnosis itself implies a type of privilege; the very fact that you can feel unworthy of some professional accomplishment implies to me that you have reached a level in your career that many others have not. When you consider that leadership positions in the U.S. are disproportionately held by white people and men, Andrews’ critique of the term’s context becomes all the more convincing. 

I certainly do not hold other people responsible for every doubt I have experienced or every sense of unbelonging I have felt. At the same time, I know that there were moments when these feelings came about not because I perceived myself as some sort of “impostor,” but because I was being treated like one by someone who did not respect the skills or experience that I brought to the table. There is a difference between being an impostor and being treated like one – and yet, if the treatment goes on long enough, anyone may start to question their abilities, in spite of their own best judgement.

I cannot think of a better time for Andrews’ words to be coming out than now, when so many people are mounting the most forceful challenges I’ve seen in years against longstanding power dynamics and oppressive social structures. I urge you to read It’s Not Imposter Syndrome in its entirety. It is the real thing, and it is well worth your time.  

Reference

Andrews, N. (2020). It’s not imposter syndrome: Resisting self-doubt as normal for library workers. In The Library With The Lead Pipe. http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2020/its-not-imposter-syndrome/

 

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