Imposter syndrome, gender dysphoria, and patriarchy

· August 24, 2020

Nicola Andrews’ recent article “It’s not imposter syndrome: Resisting self-doubt as normal for library workers” in In The Library With The Lead Pipe resonated with me. It got me thinking about the way my male privilege combines with my transgender history to leave me in a state of perpetual self-doubt that is invisible to and unsupported by my professional environment.

My experience of gender dysphoria was one of living as an imposter for the first 28 years of my life. The person everyone around me saw and interacted with was not who I really was. This made me feel unrecognised, invisible, alien. I was hiding in plain sight, a fraud, not the person everyone thought I was. Not being recognised for who you are does psychological damage to a person. It dents your confidence. It harms your sense of self and leads to constant, gnawing self-doubt. If I achieved success or people complimented me, these were achievements attributed or compliments paid to the outer imposter, the external self to which I could only relate dysphorically. The inner me remained unseen, unappreciated, and riddled with doubt.

As someone who has thought a great deal about gender, I am all too aware of patriarchal gender structures and power dynamics. Once I began being read as male, I worried that any successes I achieved or opportunities I was given were only the result of male privilege and had not really been earned by me at all. Because I had a history of doubting my own worth and merits, I continued this pattern, only now my reason for doing so was male privilege instead of gender dysphoria.

Now, and in recent years, there have been numerous occasions where I’ve been given opportunities to take on responsibilities that I haven’t felt capable of or prepared for. To be successful in these roles, I would have needed support, encouragement, coaching, and mentorship. I think these are things that men especially are not supposed to want or need. I did a lot of self-socialisation with regards to gender, so was socialised in the same way as other boys. It’s been hard for me to shake off my social training and learn to ask for help, but when I did it wasn’t always forthcoming. I’ve ended up turning down opportunities, sometimes by making the excuse that I, as a white man, should stand aside to make room for others. Other times I’ve taken on jobs where I’ve felt out of my depth and unsupported, against my better judgement, only to end up having to bow out again when the experience takes its toll on my health and wellbeing. As someone with chronic health conditions, I also worry that I’m not good enough because of the limitations my health places on me.

The Institutional Imposter Phenomenon Test that Andrews proposes in Appendix A is something that, if applied by managers and institutions, would be beneficial for staff in my situation: those who are not visibly minoritised but who may have invisible lived experiences that affect their confidence in the workplace. In my case, I pass as cisgender and as able-bodied, but I am neither of those things, and my lived experiences affect me in ways that might not be apparent to those around me in my professional life. The tools Andrews proposes wouldn’t only make institutions better places to work for Māori people like them, but also for white men like me.