‘Impostor syndrome’ is a pseudo-medical name for a class problem

Nathalie Olah
Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA

The term “impostor syndrome” has enjoyed a lot of airtime in recent years, yet it’s always troubled me. One person who I’m sure has never suffered from it is Boris Johnson. Between fortifying racists and humiliating our country on a daily basis, I’ll admit that there aren’t many positives to be taken from his shambolic premiership. But one thing it has done is finally shatter any illusion that many of today’s politicians – and by extension business leaders, media executives and even lawyers – are there on merit. I’ve got a radical idea that instead of focusing on the symptoms of poor mental health, as we so often do, we should begin to look at some of the causes, starting with the assumption that those in power got there entirely under their own steam, and that millions still struggle to make ends meet because of their own personal failings.

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Watching a leader such as Johnson bumble his way from one disaster to the next should make us all deeply sceptical about this idea of social mobility. Not only does the concept necessarily create losers, but it also neglects to mention the elusive, middle-class “club” mentality that underscores so many success stories. Decoding the language, styles and tastes of the upper classes creates a huge amount of uncredited and unremunerated labour even for those who do climb the ladder and manage to work the system to their advantage. And once they do achieve success, the sense that they are impostors, and that their success is somehow undeserved, seldom goes away.

The seemingly medical nature of the term “impostor syndrome” is also problematic, suggesting a psychological shortcoming on the part of those who suffer from it. But far from being the product of a pathology, what seems more likely is that impostor syndrome is a rather natural reaction of anyone from a working-class, disadvantaged or minority background to the various biases they face on a daily basis.

Consider the fact that while those who have been privately educated account for only 7% of the UK population, 65% of senior judges and a similar proportion of the current cabinet nevertheless went to private schools. The media and creative industries are even worse: according to a study published in 2018 and undertaken by Create London, in conjunction with sociologists from the University of Edinburgh and the University of Sheffield, only 18% of people working in music and the performing and visual arts grew up in a working-class household. In publishing ,it’s a pitiful 13%; in film, TV and radio, it’s only 12%. With this in mind, if you’re a state school graduate from a working-class background working in the media, then it’s understandable if you feel you are an impostor.

What far-reaching and harmful message are we sending out when we paint the natural reaction of working-class and marginalised people as evidence of some kind of “syndrome”? Some will say it’s only a word, not a medical diagnosis, but it represents an attempt to individualise a structural issue, and to place the burden of responsibility at the door of the undervalued, or excluded. This only adds to the list of things that working-class and marginalised people already have to contend with in the continuing struggle to achieve any kind of self-esteem.

When we think about “impostor syndrome”, there are several underlying biases we should address: the unquestioned deference towards the displays of confidence taught by private schooling, not to mention the painting of confidence-verging-on-egoism as “normal” and “sane”, while everyone else is painted as deficient. But every month I see fresh takes in the media on how to overcome the feeling of being an impostor, by ironing out tendencies that diverge from the prescribed, middle-class standards of professionalism, and embodying that same “confidence” taught by private schooling.

It takes a huge amount of confidence to care for the elderly, to conduct yourself in front of a room full of screaming children, or to drive a bus on the streets of London. Yet the pervasive definition of confidence – the one that we’re told to perfect, if we want a white-collar job – precludes these notions. It’s about oratory, debating style and being able to push through your agenda at the expense of any kind of careful thinking, or discussion. How many instances of sociopathy have we collectively permitted as a result of this way of thinking?

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In a society that is drunk on market logic, that sense of impostordom may just be the guiding light you need to see things clearly. However, while it may go against the ideas peddled by most self-help and management books, I would suggest we don’t internalise the structural shame imposed by the corporate workplace, as well as by certain seats of learning and certain social circles. It’s important for all of us to remain vigilant to the many ways in which it dehumanises us and strips us of our identity.

With class very much back on the public agenda, it’s time to consider some of the quieter but no less harmful permutations of a deeply classist society – starting with the idea that the issue is in our minds, and not a deeply entrenched system of bias and discrimination. That’s where the problem really lies.

Nathalie Olah is the author of Steal As Much As You Can