A Sociological Take on Imposter Syndrome

Updated: Feb 5, 2021

Plagued by perpetual feelings of inadequacy? You're not alone. Let's take a dive into the social engineering of the Impostor Syndrome.

Among Us Coming To Life?

Ever heard an internal voice telling you that you are not enough - that you do not deserve your achievements? Ever felt that you are putting up a pretense to impress and feared that you will be exposed as a fraud?

If the above description resonates with you, then welcome to Among Us - Real Life Edition. You have been chosen as the impostor (by yourself).

Edited from source

The Impostor Phenomenon

Jokes aside, on a serious note, the symptoms described above are signs of Impostor Syndrome. The syndrome is commonly defined as a psychological pattern characterized by feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy, coupled with the fear of being unmasked as a fake, despite signs of competency.


Before this description scares you - perhaps you will find some comfort in knowing that this syndrome might be more of a phenomenon: research studies have found that up to 82% of individuals experience impostorism. In fact, even famous figures that people commonly looked up to, like Michelle Obama and Albert Einstein have reported similar sentiments. So just like many ongoing studies, rather than understanding this syndrome pathologically, we can perhaps explore how the systems and societies we are situated within tend to induce impostor-like feelings. Yes, I am saying that the impostor phenomenon - to some extent - might be socially constructed.

Gaps in Our Stratified Social Reality

Impostor Syndrome represents a gap. It is primarily a mental gap between how we perceive ourselves and others:


But how is this mental gap formed? As sociology students, we would of course tend to look for structural reasons. Along this line of thought, it might not come as a surprise that the Impostor Syndrome was first widely identified and studied among high-achieving professional women. The 1978 study found that aside from family backgrounds, internalized gender stereotypes and gender roles are prominent causes of impostor-like feelings. Since then, more research has revealed that this phenomenon is not unique to women - it applies to men as well and is particularly prevalent among ethnic or racial minorities.

Indeed, think about it: in a society divided along fault lines like gender, class, and race, how is it possible to accept your success without experiencing the Impostor Syndrome at least once in your lifetime? If you belong to a social category labeled as "socially disadvantaged", you need to overcome internalised stereotypes that you are less likely to succeed. If you happen to land on the “privileged” end of the social spectrum, at the back of your mind, you know that structural discrimination may have played the game in your favor. Either way, there is no escape from feeling like an impostor. The internal struggles that we face towards validating our achievements stem from a gap between the ideals of equality and a highly stratified social reality: we all know that the meritocratic ethos (that we deserve our socio-economic status/ achievements) is not entirely true.


Anxiety-driven Capitalism and Neoliberalism

Besides, what if feelings of loneliness, inadequacy, and distress are already engineered in the functioning mechanisms of our society?

In a profit-driven capitalist system that thrives upon competition, is it any surprise that we are caught in a rat race with ever-increasing standards for productivity and work performance? Not to mention that neoliberal policies marked by privatization, market deregulation, and austerity continue to fuel our financial insecurities and obsession with productivity. Who has not felt the pounding guilt of slacking and the perpetual need to maximise your productivity?

Furthermore, the bureaucratic nature of workplace and education systems manifests in the operationalization of an individual’s performance using subjective markers like KPI and CAP. On one hand, arbitrary standards like “those in the top 5% make it to the dean’s list” or “those who hit a certain KPI gets promoted” begin to affect people’s sense of self-worth (just look at NUSwhispers). On the other hand, do people who fall into that “right” side of the bell-curve really feel that they earned the title or reward? The more insidious repercussion is: if you made the mark once, and failed another time, the impostor syndrome can hit even harder, potentially ensnaring us in a never-ending cycle of validation and self-disappointment, generating unrealistic standards and unhealthy perfectionism.

Source: Nuswhispers

And I think we all know how the pandemic basically exacerbated the productivity crisis and our anxieties. These infographics tell it all:


So… What?

Knowing that our misery and impostorism take roots in a myriad of structural problems may not exactly be any more relieving, because these issues are so vastly complex and inextricable from how modern societies function. But on a positive note, as individuals, we do have control over how we interpret the syndrome and phenomenon. Perhaps the next time the impostor syndrome threatens to strike again, you can re-evaluate the basis of these feelings and cultivate a more self-compassionate perspective of your accomplishments and areas requiring growth. Remember - you are not alone in this fight, and there are ways we can combat the feelings of worthlessness that might have been socially engineered in us - both through managing our personal emotions and expectations, and working towards tackling structural issues on a collective level.


Disclaimer: there is no intention of downplaying the extent of psychological distress that this syndrome can induce - this article merely hopes to shed light on potential social-structural causes. If you have been experiencing severe and persistent distress from this syndrome, it may be a sign of depression or other psychological conditions. In such cases, it is important to do more research and ultimately seek counseling or other forms of professional help!

By Zhang Yue, Year 2, Psychology & Sociology Major


Further Readings/Materials:

More about the Impostor Syndrome:

How to deal with the Impostor Syndrome:

The Impostor Phenomenon during COVID-19 pandemic:

The impact of capitalism on mental health or how it induces anxiety:

Impostor syndrome test:

UHC counseling service:

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