What Sheryl Sandberg Misses About Impostor Syndrome: There are Two Versions, One for Women, the Other Reserved Exclusively for Men

The most controversial, and troubling, aspect of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, is her advocacy of Lean In Circles and the way she pitches them to prospective members. Like empowerment groups, Lean In Circles are promoted as forums in which women are urged to share their personal stories – stories that emphasize positive, morale-building experiences. To join a Lean In Circle, women must commit to a disciplined curriculum of monthly meetings (missing no more than two per year) that adhere to a standardized format of 15 minute check-ins, 3 minutes to each participant for personal updates, a 90 minute presentation, and then discussion. These groups are heralded by Sandberg as a potentially valuable therapy for imposter syndrome, the shameful feeling that women are much more likely to carry inside them (supposedly) than men; that if they try to do something a man normally does, they’re likely to be exposed as frauds.

A cartoon that recently appeared in Ph.D. Comics provides a moving illustration of impostor syndrome. A woman is seated between two men in an engineering class and realizes that she’s the only female in the class. “It’s ok, no pressure…,” she tells herself. But then, “Aaaahh…,” she’s hit with the thought that “I’m representing all of Woman Kind!!” Then she loses it while two guys on either side of her think to themselves, “Ditz”…”Psycho.” The deep, painful core of imposter syndrome for this young woman is not so much the two men judging her – although they certainly don’t make it easier – but the horrible feeling that overcomes her, the feeling that she’s wrong for even being there.

It’s not hard to see why Sheryl Sandberg’s lean in message wouldn’t be very reassuring to the young woman in that engineering class. Indeed, it would probably increase her anxiety. Given the Gung Ho nature of Sandberg’s message, I suspect it would be a lot more palatable to the two guys seated on either side of her. Sandberg could easily fill the boots of a U.S. Marine Corps drill instructor indoctrinating female recruits at Parris, Island because, make no mistake, from her singular perspective there is virtually no room in Lean In Circles for woeful tales of missed promotions, broken marriages or emotional breakdowns that could weaken morale and undermine their mission: Win at all cost because you can!.

Rather than casting Sheryl Sandberg as a Marine Corps drill instructor, Maureen Dowd in the New York Times would have her play “The Pompom Girl for Feminism,” promoting Lean In Circles as an animated “PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada Ankle Boots reigniting the women’s revolution.” Dowd also credits Sandberg with possessing an “infectious insistence” that enabled her to found Harvard’s aerobics program in the 80s, no doubt “wearing blue eye shadow and leg warmers.” I suspect that Dowd might also be tempted to cast Sandberg in the Enjoli perfume commercial of that era. Imagine a beautiful, sexy, twenty-something Sheryl Sandberg belting out the lyrics for Enjoli:

Cause I’m a woman,
I can bring home the bacon,
fry it up in the pan,
and never let you forget you’re a man.
I can work till 5 O’clock,
come home and read you Tickety Tock.
And if it’s lovin’ you want I can give you
and give you the shiverin’ fits.
(Voice Over)
Enjoli, the 8 hour perfume for your
24 hour woman.

From a historical perspective, Sandberg’s message is simply a remake of the social activist feminism advocated by Gloria Steinem and other prominent feminists in the 70s who campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment and co-founded political organizations such as The Women’s Action Alliance, The Coalition of Labor Union Women, Choice USA and The Women’s Media Center. In their own unique ways, each of these organizations put out a clarion call for greater entitlements for women based on the same assumption in the Enjoli commercial: That they could not only have it all but do it all. Today, in the aftermath of a housing bubble and an economic recession from which we’ve barely begun to recover, these assumptions are being seriously questioned and Sandberg justifiably criticized for placing more pressure on women who are already struggling to fulfill impossible demands and blaming other women for not trying hard enough.

Sandberg’s most important critics to date are Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic  who argues that she’s holding women to impossible standards for the attainment of personal and professional success, and Amanda Neville in Forbes who faults Sandberg for obsessively pushing women – or leaning on them – to achieve while ignoring their genuine need for a sensitive, respectful response to the real stresses of their everyday lives. Neville also believes that “a change in conscious (and sometimes unconscious) behaviors will encourage the “partners [in Sandberg’s groups] to become more self-aware and vigilant when it comes to issues related to leaning in” such as competiveness, cattiness and caginess,” as well as envy and resentment. What Neville doesn’t say in her critique of Sandberg is that virtually all of these conflicts are a consequence of women’s unconscious struggle with impostor syndrome.

At first blush, one might consider Brene Brown – a fifth generation Texan whose family motto is lock and load – to be the last person in the world to have a deeper handle on imposter syndrome, let alone an appreciation of why Gung Ho messages like Sheryl Sandberg’s and the one embedded in the Enjoli commercial might actually make women feel worse than they already do. But Brown is special for two reasons: First, she’s spent the last 10 years doing research on vulnerability, shame, authenticity and empathy. Second, she actually had a breakdown of sorts in front of hundreds of people at a TED Conference in Houston.

Brene Brown started her career as a researcher-storyteller with a “life’s messy, clean it up, organize it and put it into a bento box” mentality which in many ways resembles that of Sheryl Sandberg. Like Sandberg, she thought she could apply “a lean in approach to discomfort, knock it upside the head, move it over and get all A’s.” Her mantra in those early, incredibly naïve years was “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” Well, it didn’t take Brown long to have her breakdown: The crushing realization that life was much too messy and complicated to be reduced to simple metrics. As a consequence, she plunged into a deep existential crisis. But she got lucky and found a good shrink – one who only sees other shrinks because “you have to have a large bullshit meter to see through other shrinks [which might also apply to high-powered, female corporate executives].” In the course of her therapy, Brown discovered two important things: First, that life is all about connection which is wired into us from birth. Second, the thing that unravels connection is shame, the excruciatingly painful feeling that I’m not worthy or good enough and believe I’m an imposter. Brene Brown calls this condition the Swampland of the Soul. She also learned from her research that in our culture shame is organized differently for women and men.

For women it’s all about “Do it all. Do it perfectly and never let them see you sweat…about unattainable, conflicting, expectations of who [women] are supposed to be.” Cultural norms dictate that they must be nice, thin, modest and use all available resources for appearance. On top of this – especially in today’s troubled economy – they must be able to bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan and never let their lover forget he’s a man. Brene Brown has no idea how much perfume was sold as a result of that Enjoli commercial but she suspects that it gave a big boost to sales of anti-anxiety and anti-depression meds.

For men it’s all about getting up on a white horse and never, ever showing weakness. Cultural norms dictate that men must always show emotional control, value the primacy of work, focus single-mindedly on the pursuit of status and applaud violence. At one of her book signings, Brown tells us of a man who came up to her and said, “You say to reach out, tell our story, be vulnerable. But you see those books you just signed for my wife and three daughters. They’d rather see me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall down. When we reach out to be vulnerable, we get the shit beat out of us. And don’t tell me it’s from the guys, the coaches and the dads because the women in my life are harder on me than anyone else.”

So, in America today we have two types of Imposter Syndrome, one reserved exclusively for women, the other for men. Almost everything in our culture encourages us to numb our vulnerability. And, as Brene Brown points out, the impact of this numbing is felt equally by both men and women: “We are the most in debt, obese, addicted, medicated adult cohort in U.S. history. We take fat from our butt and put it in our cheeks…and the saddest part is that by numbing vulnerability we also numb joy, gratitude and happiness. We further make everything that’s uncertain certain, black and white and contaminate our children” who then grow into the culturally determined imposter syndromes reserved for women and men.

Ignoring vulnerability as Sheryl Sandberg insists on doing in her Lean In Circles is not a remedy for either type of imposter syndrome. The remedy is to be found in men and women slowing down, truly listening to, showing empathy for and seeing each other for who they really are, especially on their bad days. But this is a subject for another post.

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