What Is Imposter Syndrome?
Ever get the feeling people think you’re a fraud? Or worse, that you don’t deserve to be where you are? Don’t worry, it turns out we all feel like a charlatan sometimes
How to describe imposter syndrome? Let’s take two friends of mine. I have one privately-educated, bluestocking, slim, blonde, well-spoken friend who is a successful writer. She is bubbly, attractive and married with children. She holds down a very successful career, appears on umpteen chat shows, is always on the radio, and seems to glide through life on an invisible, upwardly-mobile elevator that never breaks down.
I also have another friend who is short, slightly tubby, bald and wears glasses. He left his (northern-based) school at 15 without a single qualification, but through hard work, natural aptitude and a deeply-held belief that he must provide for his family, he has ended up being one of our country’s highest-earning executives.
He has many houses, holidays several times a year, owns various expensive cars and spends his weekends fraternising with the great and good of the land. He wears cashmere jumpers and leather shoes, and always looks very well-turned out, if somewhat uncomfortable.
I like both of these friends very much. They are kind, relaxing, amusing company and they are both generous to a fault.
But, if I asked most people which of these two people might suffer from imposter syndrome, most people, including therapists, would go for the working-class-boy-made-good.
The truth is they both suffer from it.
My upper class female friend – despite her privileged upbringing – admitted to me one day that whenever she goes out to a party/work meeting/authors’ dinner, she somehow feels she doesn’t belong there.
I couldn’t believe this when she admitted it to me. I always thought she had everything sorted out. But she told me she always feels as if people were endlessly judging her, and not in a good way.
“I feel intellectually inferior,” she said. “It’s as if I shouldn’t really be here, wherever I am. I feel tongue-tied when I talk. Outwardly, I know I look capable. But inside I’m terrified.”
She couldn’t really put it any better. Imposter syndrome is that sense that we don’t really belong where we are and that, somehow, we have pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes.
It engenders a crippling sense of insecurity and plays on our lack of self-esteem and can, at times, feel crippling.
As the English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott might put it, imposter syndrome is when our True Self butts up against our False Self. Or, as my friend said: “It’s like the quivering wreck I believe I really am is in contact with the more flamboyant, outwardly-sociable self I hide behind.”
Maybe there is room for manoeuvre here. The True Self may not be a quivering wreck and the imposter – the confident False Self – may be masking that fact; yet the True Self will certainly have more value than my friend thinks.
In my counselling practice, I often feel a tinge of being an imposter. I would think most therapists do. I sit in my chair and I know there are certain expectations that my client, quite rightly, assumes. Many thoughts race through my mind before I meet a client for the first time. Am I able and capable of doing this job?
At the essence, there’s a split – there’s me and then there’s “therapist me” and it is the joining of those two personas that helps and supports the therapeutic relationship.
I need to be me, Lucy-Therapist.
The imposter voice is a punishing voice. It tells us we are not good enough, that we will be “found out” for who we really are, and that deep down inside, our actions are unacceptable. Our fear is that, if people find out who we are, we will be judged and that judgement will expose us as lacking.
Many celebrities – the last people you’d think would suffer from imposter syndrome – suffer from it. Actress Emma Stone has revealed she has been in therapy since a young age and she still suffers from anxiety.
Imposter syndrome comes essentially from existential fear – “What if we are seen for who we are and not who we are pretending to be?” Notice the “who we are” bit has negative connotations.
Even social media stars, with huge followings, feel as if they are imposters. They create an online world that may seem a million miles away from what is actually going on in their lives.
Actors, too, are prone because they literally play imposters. In order to do their job well, they have to inhabit the personality, and sometimes the physical shape, of the character they are playing.
This can leave them feeling as if they are a shell, or a shape-shifter with very little sense of their real persona.
Have you ever noticed public figures talking about themselves in the third person? Boxer Lennox Lewis always used to say things like: “Lennox doesn’t do that”. In many ways, the boxing champ was at odds with his gentle giant side – who he really was in everyday life. In order to cope, Lewis split the boxer persona from his real persona.
Therapy can help us with this feeling of not fitting in. We learn many life lessons in childhood, especially how to fit in. We are mutable beings. We adapt ourselves to the situations. However, sometimes the personas we take on do not fit us well – or maybe they do but their usage is limited.
We can learn a lot from our feelings of being an imposter. We can learn to look at why we have felt the need to “pretend” to be someone else. We may also find that we’re not an imposter at all – insecurity about ourselves and what we do (and how others perceive us) is the human condition. It only becomes a problem when it affects our daily wellbeing.
One way to look at these feelings is to consider the fact that what we tell ourselves is really a story. My female friend’s story is: “Everyone at this table knows I shouldn’t really be here.” She could, however, tell herself an adapted version: “I am perfectly capable. I have worked hard. I deserve to be here.” She may then begin to accept and amalgamate all those tricky feelings of being found out. Most of us are pretty good at being us. But here’s a secret – most of us also worry that we are being imposters. None of us are alone in this way.