But Am I Really an Activist? Dealing with Impostor Syndrome by Annie Pho

by Annie Pho

APALA is an organization invested in librarians and library workers as people. A significant part of librarianship is advocacy, whether it is on behalf of our organizations, our fellow library workers, or the communities we serve through our libraries and other civic organizations. In anticipation of APALA’s 35th Anniversary & Symposium,  we take a closer look at the very human aspect of advocacy work–fatigue. 

This second essay in APALA’s advocacy fatigue mini-series, written by APALA member Annie Pho, is about impostor syndrome. She writes about how impostor syndrome relates to librarianship, advocacy and activism.  

~ Melissa I. Cardenas-Dow, APALA Web Content Sub-committee Chair, 2012-Present


Annie Pho, 2014When I was first asked to write an article about being an activist librarian, I was really surprised that someone asked me to write about activism in libraries at all. I have never called myself an activist. To me, activists are very organized, well-spoken (and outspoken), proactive in spreading the messages of their cause, and inspire others to be better. While I do care about social justice, I often find myself struggling with the right response to those who critique social justice movements. I consider myself someone who is constantly trying to learn how to be a better citizen, not necessarily someone who inspires others. That’s when I realized the depths of impostor syndrome—always feeling like you are impersonating the role that you currently fulfill. Impostor syndrome is an issue in our profession, and something that permeates many spaces in librarianship.

What is Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor syndrome was first coined by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who studied the feelings of inadequacy of high achieving women. While women are not the only ones who suffer from this syndrome, it’s not surprising that librarians (a profession that is predominantly female) battle this syndrome. The Geek Feminist Wiki defines impostor syndrome as “a situation where someone feels like an impostor or fraud because they think that their accomplishments are nowhere near as good as those of the people around them.” The negative effects of impostor syndrome can include “generalized anxiety, lack of self confidence, depression, and frustration related to inability to meet self-imposed standards of achievement” (Clance & Imes, 1978). Feeling these effects over a long period of time is exhausting and leads to burnout.

So what does it mean to be an impostor activist? Or more importantly, what does it mean to be an activist? The word activist suggests a sense of authority or knowledge, the ability to organize, and have the right response to naysayers. I constantly feel like I am not doing enough, especially in comparison to those whom I consider to be great activists, those who seem to have a lot of impact in their communities. There’s no way I could do the same. However, thinking like this has a negative impact on your self-esteem and can really hinder your own ability to be the person you want to be. People often express the sentiment that it’s hard to even try to advocate for any social cause because in the end, it doesn’t matter. That change is too hard to create and it’s easier to ignore it (if you have the privilege to do so). It’s extremely difficult to measure any impact that an individual can make on larger societal issues. It’s not always something tangible that you can see. As a result, I think this also adds to the impostor syndrome in seeing yourself as an activist.

Getting Over Impostor Syndrome

It wasn’t until a friend (and someone I look up to as an activist) told me that activism means different things to different people. It was then that I began to understand that there is no one way to be an activist. You can contribute to the cause in many different ways. Organizations might need people to do data entry, or to write, or to design graphics. It’s important for me to remember that even doing a little thing is better than not doing anything at all.

There are a few tactics that you can use to combat impostor syndrome. A recent study published in College & Research Libraries looked at impostor syndrome among librarians and recommended that those who have these feelings should distinguish between feeling incompetent and actually lacking the skills needed to do the job. This is an important distinction, figuring out what is just how you feel versus what you are actually capable of. Asking for feedback and communicating with peers can also help quell these feelings. I participate and sometimes moderate the #critlib Twitter chats, which helps me connect with other librarians who have an interest in critical librarianship. Talking to the #critlib community gives me plenty of things to think about and keeps me connected to the activist librarian community.

I’m not sure if you can ever truly get rid of impostor syndrome, but I think it’s something that you work on over time as you build upon your experiences (and your self-confidence hopefully). For me, building community helps me realize I am not alone and that we are all continually trying to learn and improve ourselves as activists. All we can do is try to be better and do good for the world.


Further Reading

Perceived Inadequacy: A Study of the Imposter Phenomenon among College and Research Librarians by Melanie Clark, Kimberly Vardeman, and Shelley Barba

Low Self-Esteem and the Academic Librarian. Maybe it is just me. It is probably just me. by Erin Miller

The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes


Editing assistance provided by Jaena Rae Cabrera and Melissa Cardenas-Dow.

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