Every time I hear someone say something about their imposter syndrome, I cringe. Not that I doubt they are suffering from feelings of being an imposter; I have suffered from those feelings. I just don’t like the term.
I understand the feelings associated with what people call “imposter syndrome,” but the term puts the onus of responsibility on the person suffering and not the person or group of people responsible for causing the suffering. I prefer to call it social hobbling.
After more than a decade of pursuing a doctorate in psychology, I finally finished. I turned in my dissertation. You’d think I’d feel jubilant. You’d be wrong. I felt…relief wouldn’t be the right word. It’s like if your leg was being sawed off without anesthesia. You’d still be in pain from your amputated leg, but you wouldn’t have the pain of the saw. That’s kind of how it felt because, by that point, my husband and I had moved from where we went to graduate school. Because my degree took so long to complete, my circumstances transformed and I faced a life that I had built in parallel to my finishing my doctorate. You may wonder why it took me so long and why I had built a life separate from pursuing my doctorate and the answers to both is the same: negligence
This negligence was not universally applied. The passive voice is intentional here. I refuse to take responsibility for being the target, and sure as shit, those who were in power aren't going to take responsibility for what they did to me. So, what happened to me was with no agent.
My master’s advisor would make weekly appointments only to greet me with, “I don’t have time to talk to you; come back next week,” which could go on for months. I ended up being put on academic probation before he ever read my proposal in full. I actually had the first draft written within the first six months of being in graduate school.
My doctorate advisor wasn’t much better. Once you met the requirements to propose your dissertation, like finish all of your classes, it was university policy that I didn’t have to live in state to continue working on my dissertation. I asked if it would be okay with my advisor to move with my husband out of state. He said that it was up to me. He didn’t read any of my drafts of my proposal for six months while I was out of state. Not only did I have to fly back to the university for him to read my drafts, but I also had to sit in the room with him while he did.
Since I had to fly in to have my drafts read and even after I had flown 6000 miles so that I could sit in silence while my advisor read my draft, my dissertation advisor skipped a few weeks to make an appointment (when I could've been home with my husband), so that he could see a male student. This same advisor even quit being my advisor a month before I ended up defending my dissertation, because of a "miscommunication" from the graduate chair who I thought told me to schedule my defense.
Both advisors also let it be known that they did not think very highly of me. Where my doctorate advisor was more passive-aggressive about it, complimenting my creativity rather than my brilliance (he didn’t value creativity). My thesis advisor called me a fucking idiot and said that I would probably need to get a ghostwriter for my career because I can’t write well.
I believe, most people who suffer from so-called imposter syndrome were told at some point by someone that they couldn’t do something. That’s not on the person being told, that’s on the person doing the telling. That’s social hobbling. The social hobbler is telling a person that they can’t because they want the person to feel as if they can’t do it. That’s what social hobbling is. It is to prevent others from doing things.
I hear too many people say that their imposter syndrome is acting up. Their. They are owning the emotional effects of someone telling them that they couldn’t do something. Why? It’s not theirs to own. Yes. They are suffering the ill effects of someone else’s actions, but that doesn’t make it theirs.
My thesis advisor was a misogynist. He would never admit it, but there was a definite gender bias in who he deigned to give the time of day to. My doctorate advisor was also a misogynist. He was fine with me, while I feigned… being less independent than I am. But for the male students, both advisors were more attentive and open.
These people made me feel less than. They made me feel like I didn’t deserve my credentials. They made me question my ability, my work, my training, and myself. They emotionally hobbled me. I have never had imposter syndrome. I have just been in recovery after having been emotionally hobbled. Every once in a while, I still get an ache where that injury was. But no, I don’t own that. I didn’t do that to myself. That injury was done to me.
The term drives me insane because it chains people to an injury that was never theirs to own. In a darkly ironic nomenclature, it does the exact opposite of inviting healing. It ensures that the hobbling continues to fester. It excuses the person responsible for the injury. Calling the effects of social hobbling “imposter syndrome” is not only letting those who perpetrate social hobbling get away with it, but it also allows them to continue to engage in social hobbling with impunity. Don’t let them do it. Call it what it is. Social hobbling.