Growing up, we’re taught that if we work hard and do our best, we’ll put ourselves in positions to succeed. At the very least, we’ll be recognized for our accomplishments.

This idea sounded good and it made sense to me. But over time, as I worked and succeeded, I found that my moments of recognition started to feel more like moments of exposure.

Every accolade I received in school brought with it a feeling of dread, even shame. For some reason, I believed, deep down, that I wasn’t deserving of what I got.

When I first heard the term “impostor syndrome,” it immediately clicked for me. I had felt like an impostor.

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I was a working-class kid who went to an upper-middle-class school. There was an expectation that most of the high-achieving students were from upper-middle-class families.

So from the beginning, I already felt like I didn’t belong. And although I was a high-achieving kid (rebellious of me, I know), I felt like I was actually a stupid person who stole my good marks — and that one day, everybody would see me for the fraud I was.

These feelings have carried over into adulthood and into my career — where there’s already an ongoing struggle to maintain a healthy sense of self-worth in an unequal environment. But trying to pinpoint where this mental state comes from has been a struggle all its own.

The concept of the impostor phenomenon was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes.

Impostor phenomenon

an internal experience of intellectual phoniness that appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high-achieving women

There are many who deeply feel that their achievements are undeserved. Because of this phenomenon, no amount of credibility or accomplishments can fend off the feelings of being a fraud.

It’s certainly not just about class and gender, though. A 2017 study found that feelings of impostorism exacerbate the impact of discrimination. For instance, African American college students who had high levels of impostorism tended to have higher levels of anxiety and depression.

In recent years, impostor syndrome (as it’s now more commonly known) has become a mainstream topic, broadened to include people of all genders and races. It’s a recognized issue that life coaches and psychologists often address. While impostor syndrome is not considered a mental illness, it’s considered to be a mental health issue.

Most mainstream discussions about impostor syndrome frame it as an internal problem stemming from a lack of confidence in the workplace, for example. But was I really experiencing impostor syndrome, or was it a natural reaction of a working-class person living in a classist environment? Perhaps I felt like an impostor because I was treated like one.

Maybe the women in the original Clance and Imes study felt like frauds because they were successful career women in an era when many still believed women only belonged in the home. The authors themselves noted that the world is hostile toward high-achieving women, and that this discrimination might maintain the impostor phenomenon.

While the term “impostor syndrome” has helped me to articulate my complicated feelings about my own achievements, it’d be dishonest to pretend the problem was completely self-induced. Cultural conditioning plays a big role.

When you’re conditioned to believe that you shouldn’t be paid what you’re worth, when you seldom see people who look like you represented as high-achievers, and when your peers imply you only got this far because of affirmative action, that’s fertile ground for impostor syndrome to grow. This is a factor that’s far too often ignored.

Imes and Clance noted that women with impostor syndrome often attribute their success to an external factor, like luck. While that can seem minimizing, there is an external factor that can contribute to the success of even the highly driven and hardworking among us: privilege.

During the times I do question whether I deserve my achievements, I often wonder if it’s my impostor syndrome creeping in, or if I’m simply checking my privilege. While it may not seem like privilege is always equally distributed, it does exist and it does have an impact.

In order for us to address all levels of discrimination in our careers, we need to ask ourselves, “Do I deserve this more than the next person, or is my privilege coming into play?” However, a lot of the mainstream self-help advice suggests that we not question our achievements precisely because it can sound like impostor syndrome.

I’d argue that impostor syndrome actually makes it harder for people to check their privilege. When I feel afraid of being “caught out” as a fraud, I don’t want my accomplishments questioned.

Instinctively, I get defensive instead of actually engaging with my privilege, because acknowledging privilege means accepting that maybe I am a fraud. It means that some opportunities and accomplishments came about as result of discrimination against others instead of my own qualifications.

Maybe if those with privilege would question their achievements more often, it might bring about more self-awareness, which might bring about more active support for those who are marginalized.

How do you tell the difference between impostor syndrome and the act of checking your privilege? There are no easy answers to this. But instead of avoiding the uncomfortable questions, we need to sit with them.

While it’s important to work on our self-image, it’s also important to think about impostor syndrome in the context of a society that is far from equal. We can’t self-help our way out of oppression, but we can continue to achieve with the right mindset.

Siân Ferguson is a freelance writer and journalist based in Grahamstown, South Africa. Her writing covers issues relating to social justice and health. Find her on Twitter.