‘Manifesting,’ Privilege, and Imposter Syndrome

Manifesting. It’s something that seems to be making the rounds these days; ‘vision’ a goal, an idea, a thought, do it hard enough and long enough, and it will come true for you. The power of positive thinking, covered up in a hippy-dippy term. ‘Manifesting’ sounds like you’re getting the destiny, and the thing, you deserve, it’s a reinforcement of your righteousness. Yet, I find the whole idea really troubling, and at times, deeply repugnant.

I keep coming back to these two things, which are separate from each other, but each distinctly important.

I. ‘Manifesting’ is privileged handwaving

Many of the people who talk about this phenomenon, and testify to its efficacy in their lives, occupy positions of social and political privilege. In other words, they’re primarily white, middle class women, some of whom have adopted a hodge-podge of religious and cultural beliefs of which ‘manifesting’ is a component, others of whom simply think that if they want something hard enough, they’ll get it.

And when they get it, this justifies their belief in the concept. Why shouldn’t it? They’ve been spending their whole lives getting more or less that they want, and being told that if they want something, they also deserve it. Thus, there’s not a lot of examination about the deeper systems that may be at play in how and when they got something, and how hard they had to work with it.

Did something really happen because you wished for it hard enough? Or because you had the power and connections to make it happen? I’m well aware that I started writing for The Guardian, for example, not just because I was a good writer with a strong tone whom Jessica Reed thought would be a good fit, but because in all probability, someone recommended me to her at some point. And that someone was part of the networks I built up, and those networks were built in part using my access to privilege and power.

I don’t maintain any illusions that I started writing for larger publications because I wished for it and the force of my wishes made it happen, because, yay, power of positive thinking. That happened in part because I worked hard (about which more in a moment) and in part because, well, I occupy certain positions of social power. I’m white, for example, I can write in a nonthreatening way when I need to, and I have connections with other white, nonthreatening people who determine who gets printed and where. I can trace the web of connections back to its source, and while I couldn’t have gotten where I am today without some hard work and talent, I also couldn’t have gotten there without privilege.

And I’m not going to pretend that isn’t an issue. On the contrary, I need to own that and what it symbolises because if I don’t, it makes it impossible to discuss the deep problems in media. There’s a reason that people who soft-pedal issues are preferred to radicals, that white writers get more work than writers of colour, that nondisabled people write more stories about disability than disabled people do. And that issue is privilege. If you talk about social advancement as ‘manifesting,’ you’re ignoring that. And you’re reminding me on a very uncomfortable and immediate level of the concept of manifest destiny in the US, the idea that whites should invade and take indigenous land because they deserved it.

II. Manifesting is also a symptom of imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is vicious; the sense that you are a fake, a fraud, or an imposter, because your accomplishments don’t feel quite real to you. You look around at a stage full of panelists and wonder why you’re there. Want to respond to an email from an editor requesting a piece with ‘who, me? But I’m nobody!’ Submit an article to a scientific journal and reel in shock when it’s accepted. You’re competent, skilled, and respected, but you can’t believe it.

And the concept of manifesting, to my eye, really plays into that. Because instead of saying ‘yes, I worked for this, and this accomplishment is the result of my own drive,’ you’re saying ‘well, I hoped really hard and it happened.’ No, that is not what happened. You worked really hard (or not so hard, see above), and it happened. By refusing to take responsibility for your own actions, your own involvement in how you got where you are, you’re selling yourself tragically short, and you shouldn’t do that.

Yes, you, over there. If you’re fixated on the belief that you got something because you dreamed about it, you’re missing the fact that you did something to make it happen. And you probably did a lot more than lying awake in bed visualising your name in a table of contents, or imagining yourself at a panel, talking to a crowd of people you respect and watching them listen to you with equal respect and consideration. You did something to get there, and why shouldn’t you own that?

Telling that many women talk about manifesting and visioning, downplaying their own accomplishments as though they want to stress the fact that they simply have no idea how they got where they are. It’s like they think there’s something wrong with putting work into something and openly admitting that it mattered to them. Like they think that being driven and having goals is something to frown upon.

These ideas I keep coming back to, they interweave. When people credit ‘manifesting’ for something, they’re ignoring the personal and structural components of that thing’s realisation; they’re not looking at the things that might have paved the way, making it easier, and they’re not admitting to themselves that they did some work to make it happen. And in the process, they’re suggesting that people who don’t achieve their goals just aren’t thinking positively enough; it manifested for me, so it should have worked for you.