Imposter Syndrome: Women’s Experience of Self-Worth in the 21st Century

Illustration by Karolina Varvarovska

Picture this: you’ve recently uploaded an Instagram post and you eagerly turn your notifications on, impatiently fidgeting while you wait for your very own virtual community to come across and subsequently approve it with an array of likes and reactions. You can breathe again. The outside world has validated your existence once more, and in that moment you’re attractive, likeable, powerful and – in its most primitive form – worthy.

We have all lived some version of this story. As an accredited member of Generation Z, I’ve lived this reality on more occasions than I’d care to admit. Thus, I ask, what are we compensating for? Is this undeniable feeling of inadequacy limited to the digital age? Why are we all, particularly women, wearing ourselves thin to impress an online population that we may or may not have a personal relationship with? These questions are large and complex - one size simply won’t fit all. From a purely aesthetic point of view the media can largely be held to account. Women are increasingly becoming aware of the negative effects caused by social media, often to the detriment of our body image and our mental health. Common findings include the damaging impact of excessive photo editing, the tendency to engage in upwards social comparisons and the inherently female ability to self-objectify, which is harmful to both our mood and self-esteem. We live in a society that actively encourages us to alter ourselves, one that puts women under the microscope and never quite allows us to reach contentedness.

Unfortunately this mindset can hugely impact peoples wellbeing, and non-suicidal self-injury in females is highly correlated with body shame factors. This scrutiny is not exclusive to women either, and 1 in 5 adults in the UK have felt shame over their body in the last year.

However, moving away from Instagram and the sphere of beauty standards, these modern dilemmas feed into larger sociological problems. What if the fraudulent feelings we’ve all come to know and hate extend beyond our social media profiles and into our relationships, our education and consequently our career? Originally coined by Pauline R. Clance in 1987, Imposter Syndrome defines the insecurities we have previously discussed, where women cannot recognise their intellect or talent and instead internalise the fear of being exposed as a fraud. Instead of self-appraisal, many suggest that they are incompetent or that their achievements are a result of a series of fortunate events, despite being persistently validated by friends and colleagues. Ironically, Clance often found that symptoms of Imposter Syndrome were more likely to arise in high achieving women and in more recent years are most commonly found within spaces of higher education. Studies consistently show that students across all disciplines doubt their ability repeatedly, with increased occurrence within minority groups studying on predominantly white campuses. These incredible women may not reach their full potential due to socially induced insecurities, with statistics showing that 60% of women who have previously considered starting a business refrain from doing so out of a lack of confidence or what they consider a lack of 'deservingness'.

The positive correlation between Imposter Syndrome, anxiety, depression and psychological distress illuminates the point that although Imposter Syndrome isn’t a disorder itself, it has a huge impact on wellbeing. Perhaps the most disheartening element of Imposter Syndrome is that it cages us in. We pass up opportunities and never take risks, almost embarrassed to chase what we really want. By highlighting this however I am trying to encourage change. Feel empowered by the fact we all share similar anxieties and try to push through. Go get that degree, apply for that job, start your business. After all, you are not alive to just pay bills and lose weight. You are more important than that.

Written by Lara Paterson