About the Imposter Police


Imposter by meckert75, on Flickr

It’s a funny thing – whenever I mention the Imposter Police, women immediately know what I am talking about, and men look at me as if I have two heads.

I first encountered this concept when I was a student in the Physics Department at the University of Amsterdam. I helped organise a symposium about women in science, and we called it “Stepdaughters of Pythagoras and Archimedes”, talking about how many women feel uncomfortable in the sciences, as if they don’t belong there. One successful woman scientist mentioned the Imposter Police, the ones who were going to come and take us all away for impersonating scientists. We all knew exactly what she meant. Despite our demonstrated competence, we are sure that we couldn’t possibly be as good as those confident guys (who are probably just as lost sometimes, but would rather die than admit it). It’s a problem, and while it is probably not entirely unique to women, it does seem to be more prevalent in that population.

I know scientists, mostly male, who fit perfectly in their professional skin. They work extremely hard and sometimes get frustrated, but they do not doubt their basic calling. In particular, one scientist told me that he studied physics because he loved it and found it intriguing and worthwhile as a career, and that he did not once pause to consider anyone else’s opinion of his choice.

For the rest of us, struggling with the Lizard Brain, that fear of being found unworthy by whomever judges these things can be incredibly paralyzing. Of course, one could ask who gave those supposed judges authority over us in the first place. I think this connects with the akrasia post from earlier this week – quite aside from physical cravings that could be connected to food addictions such as wheat or sugar, or micronutrient deficiencies such as minerals or salt.

I would love to delve into the way women sabotage themselves, put themselves down and deliberately destroy their health. I know that men do all these things, too (heck, the Greek philosophers who coined the term were almost all men), but I imagine that the forces behind the behaviour are different – I could be wrong.

Who is with me on this journey? I would love to hear your thoughts and insights. Especially if you disagree with me!

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29 Responses to “About the Imposter Police”

  1. Asdis Says:

    I’m actively working on destroying the Imposter Police. You don’t even have to be a scientist to imagine it looking over your shoulder all the time. I’m talking positively to myself whenever these doubts show up and waving the IP goodbye. If anything, I definitely don’t need myself doubting me, do I?

  2. Hadass Eviatar Says:

    Oh, honey. I didn’t mean to imply that only scientists have this problem. That’s where I have encountered it. We need to think about the reasons that women cannot accept the picture of themselves as strong and competent. What do we lose if we are strong and competent?

  3. Asdis Says:

    I’m not sure we would actually lose anything (except the Imposter Police off our shoulders). The issue for me is that I have had to learn to be my own cheerleader. I had no idea I *should* even do that not so long ago. But the naturally confident people are exactly that: their own cheerleaders! Why weren’t we taught that from an early age? I’m starting on my daughters right now!

  4. Hadass Eviatar Says:

    Generally speaking, every behaviour has a pay-off, even if it is a negative one. Curious to know what we get out of the timorous behaviour – we’ve got to get something out of it or we wouldn’t do it.

  5. Asdis Says:

    (I had to google ‘timorous’)
    I’m pretty sure I would have spent my first 40 years in a completely different way had I not been so incredibly timorous in the core of my being. So many big decisions in my life have been made with the least effect on anyone or anything being the prime reason for said decision. There are so many things I wanted so badly, longed for with a passion and I’ve basically hardly ever let that passion out. I’m soul searching now and doing my very best not to regret anything I did or did not do. The Imposter Police has been a steady part of my life, professional and personal, and I’m so tired of having it on my trail.

  6. Hadass Eviatar Says:

    Hugs, honey. I’m sorry you felt you needed to take up as little space in the world as possible … but now you are spreading your wings, and we are all applauding!!

  7. Kanga Jen Says:

    Hadass, I’ve been wanting to reply to this for a while, but just CAN’T come up with anything. I don’t know WHY women are so particularly susceptible to the imposter police. In my case, I’ve not let them keep me from doing anything I want to do (I am also a very stubborn person), but their voices are very loud in my head. I’ve kind of grown to accept it is a fact of who I am – and work through/around it rather than let it affect me. But it is so very true that they are there, and they are loud. Why is that?

  8. Hadass Eviatar Says:

    Jen – here’s a project for us to work on! I’m thinking we should find out ;-).

  9. Halyna Claudia Says:

    Fear of success is a much greater force than fear of failure for us women. I suspect it has something to do with our need to maintain our female relationships. Unfortunately we have been taught that success (in the traditional male sense) is in conflict with this. The voice in our head says “you are a traitor”. We need to turn that around to say “when I shine, this gives permission for all of us to shine”.

  10. Rebecca Says:

    “Fear of success is a much greater force than fear of failure for us women.”
    Yes. I believe this is a piece of it. The question flowing from that is, how does one cure fear of success?

  11. Hadass Eviatar Says:

    What bad things will follow from success?

  12. worthingtonpost Says:

    Stereotypically, jealousy, competition, pressure to keep it up, much more of a tendency of people to scrutinize a woman’s success, follow it closely, and place bets on when and how she will fail – all these things come to mind. Marissa Mayer was a great example of that.

  13. Hadass Eviatar Says:

    So if we are too successful people won’t love us anymore?

  14. Rebecca Says:

    “What bad things will follow from success?”
    My most immediate, visceral reaction is “the chance to fail with even more people watching and even higher stakes.” And if you succeed at that challenge … then even MORE people watching and even HIGHER stakes.

  15. Hadass Eviatar Says:

    And? What bad thing will happen then? I’m being serious, not facetious. How high are the stakes? When are they not worth the risk any more and we need to shrink back?

  16. Lynne Thompson Says:

    My first impulse is to say that women feel this because they are still forced to operate against a backdrop of patriarchy. The context they are in, the societal fabric against which they are measured tells them subtly and not so subtly that they don’t belong in the room and must be “faking it.” Anything that is this pervasive HAS to be systemic, yes? I know this is not a satisfying answer, because it kind of makes the problem bigger. Sigh. Have you ever read Marilyn French’s nonfiction book “Beyond Power: Women, Men, and Morals”? It’s a big treatise on the beginnings of Patriarchy, its evolution, and the gender differences that exist in how power is exercised and used in society. It’s a great read and I always find myself returning to it because it explains a lot.

  17. Halyna Claudia Says:

    Reading Marilyn French’s Beyond Power 25 years ago changed my world! Thank you Lynne for sharing.

  18. Hadass Eviatar Says:

    I haven’t read that particular book but I actually did a project on Women and Science when I was an undergraduate in the 80s. Kind of depressing to see that things haven’t improved much since then. Actually that’s not true, objectively they have but our heads haven’t caught up.

    Makes me think of the paleo stuff – our bodies haven’t caught up to our minds, and our emotions haven’t caught up to the new realities, either.

  19. Lynne Thompson Says:

    Halyna, That’s about when I first read it and it changed my world too! Amazing what she did with that book. She was so much more than a fiction writer…:-)

  20. Holly Jahangiri Says:

    This may well be true. I think I was well insulated from this notion, growing up. I have my family to thank for that – and my teachers. I don’t recall EVER feeling that I didn’t belong in the room, except maybe during Bridge and Pinochle games, but that’s because I was a CHILD, and couldn’t play (wasn’t even remotely interested in learning how), and it was late – not because I was a GIRL child and unwelcome.

  21. Halyna Claudia Says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. Kanga Jen Says:

    Lynne, I suspect you are right, but man is it SUBTLE, at least to me. I have to say that I have been blessed – in my career, I have hardly ever come up against discrimination, even in subtle attitude, much less something more obvious. Yet even with my happy experiences, there is obviously something there that is eating away at any feelings of success.

    Halyna – that is a very interesting path of thought. There ARE differences in the instinctual cultures of men and women – women weighted toward happiness of the clan, and men weighted toward individual success. I don’t believe it’s all caused by societal influences – I think there is a certain amount of nature involved. And it is interesting to take note of that against the backdrop of women moving into places of power that they haven’t historically had. In the workplace, we find ourselves having to play both the “happiness of the clan” and the “individual success” rolls. I suspect we’re not hearing from the imposter police when our company or our group wins awards or makes big successes…

    Will check out the Beyond Power book!!!

  23. Rebecca Says:

    I sometimes think it’s a limelight phobia – if you really are at the top, there’s no avoiding attention, and women are still conditioned to be more self-effacing than men, so perhaps it makes more sense to assume you’re there by mistake. But I know women who adore attention and being onstage and they have this too.

    This week I spoke with someone who organizes a mentoring program for women, and she said that one reason why women are underrepresented in top jobs in business is that if a man meets 80% of the criteria listed for a senior position, he’ll tend to think “I’m perfect for it – and the tiny bits I don’t know I can learn as needed!” and therefore apply – while a woman who meets 80% of the criteria will think “I’d like to, but I don’t fit the bill exactly, so I’m not eligible” and not apply. This isn’t really an explanation, but a different facet of the same thing – (in general, not in all cases) men seize on the ways they deserve and are right for something, while women seize on their shortcomings and why they don’t deserve it, even if objectively they have identical qualifications.

    Maddening, isn’t it?

  24. Holly Jahangiri Says:

    I’ve read that statistic before, Rebecca, and I think it’s accurate and very telling. I’ve informally polled coworkers, male and female, on “what percentage of the job do you think you need to know before you apply and interview for it?” and the estimates given align well with this. I know it’s been largely true for me, except with the jobs that have (ironically) led me to the greatest leaps in salary. In fact, the one that brought me to Houston was probably the one I knew least about, admitted that UP FRONT, and gamely went on to learn. The salary was a 40+% increase over my previous job, at the time (and the hiring manager was well aware of that, too!) Those kinds of things can give you a huge confidence boost and teach you that it’s true – you don’t HAVE to know it all, you have to be curious and willing to learn fast and work hard. THAT I can do!

  25. arkee_titan Says:

    Nothing unique to women here, men have the IP just as well. Charlie Kennel was sitting in an auditorium in Washington waiting to be inducted into the Academy of Science at age 51. Suddenly he was hit by an anxiety attack that police would come running in to stop the ceremony shouting “Kennel is a fake” and to take him off to imposter jail. I know that I am an imposter and am pleased that I have gotten away with it for so many decades. I will be off to a Cassini team meeting in Boulder in February and have actually conned NASA into buying my ticket. Imposters Unite, you have nothing to lose but your fakery!

  26. Kanga Jen Says:

    I think there’s a lot to be said for being able to evade the IP for so long. I’ve kept it up for ~25 years now. That takes talent in and of itself.

  27. Holly Jahangiri Says:

    I haven’t felt this way since early in my career when I actually WAS impersonating a systems engineer. Even then – the systems I was responsible for rarely crashed, I always managed to fix what was wrong, and nobody died or even got a paper cut.

    As a writer, I have complete confidence in my abilities. On the other hand, when someone comes up to me and prefaces a question with, “I figured I’d ask you – you know everything…” the sirens in my head start to wail. But I remind myself there’s a reason they think that; it’s not because I’m holding myself out as a know-it-all, but because I have provided useful answers to them in the past.

    I think it’s largely because we are intelligent and humble enough to recognize that there are always going to be LOTS of people who know more than we do about our areas of expertise. We’re very aware that we’re not the BEST in our field. We worry that there’s some great gaping hole in our brains and we’re going to get called on it publicly and humiliatingly. I don’t know if men are lacking this awareness, just don’t care, or figure if they admit openly to it, someone’s going to drag them into Imposter Jail. I suspect they just view it differently – are more accepting of it. We’re all experts to SOMEBODY – to anyone who knows less about a subject that we do, in fact. We don’t have to be on top of the mountain – we just have to be higher than some of the people looking to climb it or wanting a description of the view they can’t see.

  28. Lynne Thompson Says:

    Returning to this excellent subject, I would guess that this problem is pervasive both because of nature and our culture and that it was also put there in your psyche for many of us when we were very young. You may think you were not raised this way (I know I had a father who treated me very seriously), but the world at large raised you too.

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