Image Credit: Amy Anaiz

Blame Your Imposter Syndrome On Someone Else

This following is an adapted excerpt from the new book Democracy in Retrograde: How To Make Changes Big and Small In Our Country and Our Lives by Betches cofounder Sami Sage and Emily Amick, out Tuesday July 9th.

As we continue to experience the most brutal election cycle yet, one point that a vast majority of the country seems to share is a sense of disbelief that our current presidential candidates are really the best that America has to offer. Do you ever feel like the people who would make the best leaders are the ones who are least inclined to put themselves forward, and the least likely to hunger for the power and influence that come with leadership? Somewhere between feeling like an imposter and having an overinflated sense of self is the healthy self-esteem zone, and learning to separate a healthy level of self-esteem from a prolific ego is critical for anyone in leadership who wants to guard against becoming an actual imposter.

Image Credit: Amy Anaiz

History shapes our idea of what makes a “leader.” Yet the characteristics that many Americans typically associate with leaders of the past (e.g., strong, powerful, loud, male) don’t reflect either (a) all the different types of people who are good leaders or (b) the actual qualities that make someone a good leader. Leadership doesn’t need to mean running for President, it means being the steady individual who can steer the ship to safety, to better shores, or even to a whole new world. Parents use leadership skills every single day as they take care of their family’s life, managing healthcare, sports, transportation, schooling, general emotional well-being, making meals, schedules— you name it, parents do it. Leaders are those who can inspire people to trust and follow them. 

If you’ve ever found yourself feeling like a fraud, doubting your achievements, or living in constant fear that you’ll be “found out,” you’re not alone. Imposter phenomenon is super common, especially when we step into roles of leadership or influence. 

The term “imposter syndrome,” now known as imposter phenomenon, was coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes to describe a phenomenon where high-achieving individuals are unable to internalize their accomplishments and fear being exposed as a fraud. Their study subjects were a group of high-achieving women from various professional fields who, despite their objective successes, felt they did not deserve their achievements and were constantly in fear of being exposed as undeserving. They tended to focus on evidence that supported their belief that they were imposters, while ignoring or downplaying evidence that contradicted it.

Although Clance and Imes’s original study focused on women, subsequent research has shown that it can affect men and women alike. Further studies suggest that an estimated 70 percent of people experience imposter phenomenon at some point in their lives, and this prevalence cuts across different demographics, including age, gender, ethnicity, and profession.

Imposter phenomenon has consequences that reach far beyond the individual, and nowhere is this more evident than in the arena of political power and participation. It is a major impediment to diversity in political spaces, and thus in resulting policy. The adversarial and esoteric nature of discourse, the high financial and emotional costs, the complexity and bureaucracy, and the good old boys club (though the glass ceiling has more cracks) can all intensify feelings of being an imposter. You may feel that you lack the expertise, the eloquence, or the credibility to engage in political dialogue, even on matters that directly affect you. This is by design, to ensure that America’s halls of power maintain the spirit of a Norman Rockwell scene. The systems that were conceived by the most historically powerful individuals—white, straight, wealthy, Christian men—were carefully designed to be inaccessible to those who don’t fit their values and aesthetic. They’re incentivized to keep others out to maintain their own power, if not by law, then by norms. If not by norms, then by vibes.

Imposter phenomenon is not necessarily your personal failing, but a legitimate feeling that reflects the intended outcome of institutions that were created to exclude you.

Engaging in civic life or activism inevitably requires speaking out and challenging prevailing norms and power structures. The experience of taking on such a role can be daunting. In practice, this results in women and people from marginalized communities, especially communities of color, being less likely to run for elected office. They know they’ll be working twice as hard for half as much, with double the criticism. Lack of surety manifests as a reluctance to participate, not just in running for office but also in voicing one’s opinions, joining campaigns, or leading grassroots or local movements.

We’ve heard countless times that people feel they aren’t knowledgeable enough to be civically engaged, that they don’t have a place at the table, and that getting a seat is about as realistic as getting through a Ticketmaster presale. To that we say: When has sounding like a completely ignorant moron ever stopped our elected officials? Never, that’s when. You’re going to make mistakes, and even if you don’t, we promise you will still feel stupid at one point or another. It’ll pass, and no one was paying that much attention anyway. Move forward with a sprinkle of the delusion that your least favorite politician would proudly display. As the internet says: delulu is the solulu. 

One way to counteract these feelings is to engage in community activities that align with your values and interests. Working closely with people who share your values will give you a sense of purpose and possibility in a way that nothing else does. You will experience challenges and disappointments in the process, but then you will see the potential you have to change people’s lives for the better—and once you get a taste of that you won’t ever want to give it up.

Civic engagement also provides a unique opportunity to build personal connections and combat loneliness. The power of civic engagement to fight loneliness and add meaning to our lives is rooted in the personal connections we build. But to do that you have to make friends. For most of us, it’s super daunting to show up at a new place without knowing anyone, but the reward is sweet. There’s something incredibly special about the relationships you have with people who share your values (not just your interests), the people who also want to spend a Tuesday night learning the intricacies of education policy or talk about what’s happening in a commerce committee. And inevitably, as you face hardship and success, everything is richer and sweeter when experienced with friends.

Image Credit: Amy Anaiz

The goal of our book Democracy in Retrograde is to empower you to find a way to weave civic engagement into your everyday life in a sustainable way, however that looks. There’s a quiz to figure out your Civic Personality, journaling prompts to combat your hopelessness and worksheets to help you find your personal mission statement and develop your civic calendar. It’s about finding a way to get involved that fills your cup, builds community and pushes for changes that reflect the things you care about most.

Confronting imposter phenomenon is not just about overcoming personal insecurities; it’s about recognizing and challenging the systemic barriers designed to keep you out. By engaging in civic activities, you not only build your confidence but also contribute to creating a more inclusive and representative political landscape. So take that first step, and remember: if they can, why can’t you?


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Sami Sage
Sami Sage
Sami Sage is a cofounder and Chief Creative Officer of Betches Media. In her spare time she stares at her dogs and opens and closes the instagram app continuously.