This Is What Imposter Syndrome Looks Like

Unless you have been living under a rock, you will know that Emma Watson gave an extraordinary speech to the United Nations on Saturday last.

Watson was launching the UN Women #HeForShe campaign for gender equality.

In a brilliant address, she challenged contemporary views of feminism, rightly identifying it as the belief that men and women should be in all respects treated equally. Watson identified and spoke eloquently about the challenges that not only women, but also men, face in confronting prejudices and societal norms. She highlighted the very real biases and values that undermine women’s confidence, credibility and commitment. She made compelling arguments for the need to change. It is a powerful, moving, inspirational and important speech.

There is one point, however, where Emma Watson falters. It appears right at the 9:05 mark. If it were me, I would be unbelievably proud of the speech that I delivered, but secretly wishing that one portion could be expunged from the record, never to be seen again.

What she says is telling:

“You might be thinking, who is this Harry Potter girl, and what is she doing speaking at the UN? And it’s a really good question. I’ve been asking myself the same thing.”

The self conscious laugh and grimace that accompanies the statement strongly suggests this is a powerfully true statement. Yet in this one brief passage, she threatens to undermine herself; she questions her credibility and her right to be speaking, and invites the audience to do the same. While I cannot pretend to speak for her inner voice at that point in time, to the external observer that one snippet exemplifies and personifies imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where people struggle to internalize their accomplishments or give credit to their past success and achievements. Often the domain of high achievers, those with imposter syndrome believe they are frauds, fearful of being caught out, whose success is the product of luck rather than skill and ability. What to others are innate talents and abilities to be envied they view as normal, common and available to anyone. Because people with imposter syndrome cannot appreciate their own abilities, they question their status, their worth and their relevance. The consequences for individuals can be severe and debilitating.

For Emma Watson, what is astonishing is how markedly different this one brief snippet is from the rest of her speech. Consider what she says about feminism, about inequality, and about societal injustice. The essence of her eloquent speech, crudely summarized, is:

  • This is something that I know.
  • This is something that I have experienced.
  • I have been treated inequitably and unfairly.
  • Others I care about have been treated inequitably and unfairly.
  • Most women are treated inequitably and unfairly.
  • Men are also held up to unreasonable standards, and those standards prevent them from speaking about the inherent unreasonability of expectations that they live with.
  • I have spent time and effort researching this.
  • I am committed to investing time and effort to change this.
  • I know what I am talking about.

She is poised. She is clear. She is confident. She is passionate. She does, indeed, know what she is talking about. She has every right to be in the room. She has every right to hold her appointment to the UN. She is being the articulate, persuasive ambassador the UN no doubt sought when appointing her. And yet she questions her entitlement to be there, on that stage, in front of that audience, saying those words.

To be clear, I am not saying that Emma Watson is an imposter. On the contrary, I think her to be smart, dedicated, passionate and brave.

What I am saying is that her words and actions in that one brief moment suggest that she may feel herself to be an imposter. They are the words and behaviours of those of us who have questioned our position, our credibility, and our right to be in the room. I have been there. Others have been there. Still others will find themselves there in the future. That is the challenge, and that is the concern. To not be in that room, to not say those words, would be tragic.

For everyone who views themselves as an imposter, they undermine their relevance, underplay their message and undercut their credibility. Those who suffer from imposter syndrome fundamentally question their expertise, influence and impact. They believe their position to be a product of luck, and fear being called out, questioned and undermined.

Self-perceived imposters, in short, do themselves a severe disservice. While they may be the most capable, they are of themselves the most questioning. They can hesitate to share their insight, despite its value and brilliance, because they fear it to be base and dull.

In the closing of speech, ironically, Emma Watson confronts the truth of this situation head on: “If not you, then who? If not now, then when?” Each of us has a role to play. Each of us has value to contribute. Our failure to see this role, and our willingness to suppress this value, is one of the most significant forces preventing us from moving forward, individually, within communities and as a society.

Put aside your feelings of inadequacy. You are the person. Now is the time.

Embrace it. Own it. Live it.

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