Once, sitting at a Cook Out (a southern fast food joint, sadly missing in the “great” white north) at around midnight with my friend Hannah, the topic of nepotism came up. I bemoaned to her about my fears of never truly knowing my worth in the creative industry because I happened to be following in my parents’ footsteps. My mom is a broadcast media professor and my dad sports a 40-year radio career. And now, I am an aspiring media professional who does radio on the side. It all just felt a bit too close to home. How could I ever know if I’m actually good at what I do if I’m always being told where to apply and who to contact?
Hannah, never one to parse words, looked straight at me and asked “What does it matter?” She goes to a much more “WASP-y,” predominantly well-to-do school than Concordia, where many of her peers wear their generational wealth on their sleeve, so she was able to see things a little more clearly than I.
“Hey, if John Rockefeller Vanderbilt the fifteenth is using his nepotism, why shouldn’t you? At least you’re a woman,” she said.
She was right. I was using my fear of what little nepotism I am capable of gleaning as a smokescreen for what was really going on — imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is basically when you feel like you’re a fraud despite ample qualification. It’s the gut feeling that you don’t deserve any of your accomplishments, despite having worked for them. It’s the difference between me and John Rockefeller Vanderbilt the fifteenth— he believes he is good enough for the position, regardless of circumstances, while I do not.
Imposter syndrome is not solely personal, though. It’s intrinsically tied to how society values the labour of certain people over others. If you’re conditioned throughout your life to believe certain fields aren’t meant for you, or you never see people who look like you reflected in your desired job, it only makes sense that you’d still feel like you don’t belong even after you’ve beaten the odds. For that reason, women are much more likely to experience imposter syndrome than men, and women of colour tend to experience it the most.
It’s extremely hard to break the cycle of negative thinking when it’s so ingrained in our culture. And exclusionary and toxic work environments only exacerbate these issues. It would be easy to say that women and POC should just put on a smile and “know their worth.” But that sort of #GirlBoss logic doesn’t fix the reasons why so many are plagued by feelings of inadequacy.
To actually stop imposter syndrome, we’ll need to address the structural reasons why people feel inadequate in their careers in the first place. The vast majority of workplaces were never constructed with women or marginalized people in mind, so of course those trying to navigate these structures will feel alienated. Additionally, a capitalist structure which views professional failure as akin to death doesn’t really help us put our careers into perspective.
It helps to know that imposter syndrome isn’t just you, because most of us all feel unworthy every once in a while. Keeping that in mind may just help you navigate our capitalist hellscape a little bit easier.
Feature graphic by Taylor Reddam