Columnist Rachel Peters temporarily experiences imposter syndrome, before recognising society’s fixation with self-confidence might be the real imposter

Recently, I had the unbearable task of listening to my own voice as I transcribed an interview I had conducted. I noticed I said “kind of” and “I guess” and “um”, I guess um… kind of a lot. I sounded timid in contrast to all the older men I interviewed, who spoke with clarity and confidence.

Why do I lose my ability to speak well in a professional setting? Why do I hedge everything I say when I almost have a PhD in the interview topic?

I downloaded another book on overcoming imposter syndrome to my Kindle – and later in the evening, I looked up from my reading to confess my self-diagnosis to my partner.

“Imposter syndrome,” I said. “You’ve never heard of it? It’s what the girls talk about at parties while you’re talking about fishing. It’s when you don’t believe in yourself but everyone else does. It’s when you don’t feel confident or competent, even when, objectively, you should. It’s me thinking everyone else’s PhDs are worthy of respect but mine is nothing special.”

He laughed at my lack of self-awareness. “You’re the most confident person I know,” he said. “You’re the loud one in our group. You’re opinionated. You literally lecture people and write columns”. I rolled my eyes, but beneath my dismissal, I was struck by the uncomfortable truth. Do I have imposter syndrome at all?

Since I embarked on my PhD, I have felt an unravelling of my previously-held convictions. The further I got through post-graduate study, the more I read, the less sure I felt about anything. The theories that I thought were empirically true were riddled with contradictions when closely inspected. I have been living in a stifling, ongoing, epistemological crisis.

Not satisfied with the discussion I had with my partner, I delved deeper into the nature of my self-doubt with my brother. “That doesn’t really sound like a problem” he told me, “It’s a good thing to be open minded. It’s good to worry a little bit about your work. I wish more people were like that instead of always thinking they know everything.”

It is hard to know who exactly who imposter syndrome actually affects and to what extent. If you look online at news articles on the topic you will see all sorts of numbers thrown about. 64 percent of the workforce, 75 percent of women, on Medical News Today it reported that 9-82% of people experience it. It seems most articles which discuss imposter syndrome focus on the experiences of millennial women. Almost every article contains a stock photo of a woman in a pencil skirt suit looking insecure at her desk. It aligns nicely with corporate feminism where there is an idealised concept of every woman having the confidence of straight white men, shooting off CVs for jobs they are under qualified for as if they are Jake Bezzant. Are millennial women too insecure or are these successful business types overly confident?

One area where competency holds men as the standard is in conversational language. In the field of linguistics, it is understood that Māori use ‘aye’ more at the end of sentences, because in collectivist cultures getting agreeable feedback during a conversation is prioritised. The group second most likely to use ‘aye’ in a New Zealand context is young women. The tentative, hedging language of young women is more agreeable, and places more emphasis on group cohesion.

Many language books focus on women using language more like men especially in a professional environment. Don’t say “kind of” and “I guess”. Get to the point, argue your opinions, negotiate your salaries, don’t feel uncomfortable with silence.

In defence of agreeable language, it evolves from wanting people to be on the page as you. It’s fundamentally inclusive. In some situations, it may even be preferable.

Instead of painfully examining every part of our inner dialogue to understand why we feel like frauds and imposters around the office, we should be expanding our ideas of what competency looks like.

In an age where we are surrounded with everybody’s best version of themselves presented on social media, confidence is king. On reality TV, all shyness and self-consciousness is discarded for 15 minutes of fame. Contestants readily make fools of themselves to gain some notoriety. These incredible levels of confidence shouldn’t be our norm, nor considered healthy.

Before diagnosing yourself with imposter syndrome and chanting affirmations in the mornings, consider that being a little bit self-aware and self-critical is not, in fact, a problem, and perhaps a society which values confidence over self-reflection is.

Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist, and speak only from my personal experience, if feelings of self-doubt or anxiety are crippling, please seek professional help.

Rachel Peters is a media and communications researcher and lecturer at Auckland University of Technology.

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