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Self-Knowledge • Fear & Insecurity

The Origins of Imposter Syndrome

There is a peculiar affliction that may befall those who have spent many patient years working at their professional goals — and are finally within striking distance of mastery and success.

Just as they are called upon to take the next step in their progression — managing a team, making speeches, putting on their uniform — they are thrown into a state of paralysis and terror that threatens completely to undermine their hard-won opportunities. They may have to run away from the podium or meeting room; they may break out into sweat or develop a speech impediment or a debilitating stomach complaint. They turn into scared children immobilised by the challenges of an adult role.

Photo by Finan Akbar on Unsplash

What the sufferer from the so-called impostor syndrome cannot get over is a sense of how much in their own characters renders them unfit for the dignity and responsibility of higher office. They cannot forget the extent of their ignorance, the scale of their self-doubt, the number of their errors and their ongoing degrees of idiocy, apprehension and foolishness. They scan the faces and biographies of those they seek to emulate and see in them no evidence of anything akin to their own weaknesses. No one else in their new rank seems as scared, doubtful, immature or weak as they know themselves to be. No one else has such silly daydreams or harbours as much laziness and cowardice. Their scrupulous awareness of their deficiencies acts as a definitive argument against their own advancement.

Of course, in reality, sufferers from the impostor syndrome are not any more unsuited to responsibility than anyone else; they simply hate themselves with greater relentlessness. They are unable to get the right perspective on their flaws and cannot set these within a broad and sympathetic understanding of our species’ inherent and necessary imperfections. They aren’t guilty of more mistakes, they have a more tyrannous and narrowly focused conscience. A degree of absurdity that they share with every other human has been allowed to grow into a conclusive argument against the possibility of a successful life. 

At base, sufferers from the syndrome don’t know other people well enough. Whether through subterfuge or happenstance, they have been denied a thorough liberating acquaintance with the recesses of the minds of those around them. They haven’t taken on board that — by necessity — almost every piece of madness, deviousness or miscalculation that exists in their heads will have a corollary in those of others. They have believed in the majestic exteriors of others. 

Somewhere along the line of their early development, these sufferers were likely to have been held to a far higher account than other children. They were denied an experience of loving forgiveness for all the stumbling steps that naturally belong to our development. Ordinary mistakes and anxieties attracted undue censure and shame, as if they were uniquely wicked for being wholly normal — with the result that these sufferers now shout at and attack themselves without reprieve when health would mandate a tone of clemency and absolution.

When offering reassurance to sufferers from the impostor syndrome, we should beware of emphasising how many strengths and qualities they actually possess. We should instead — with greater kindness and effectiveness — accept the record of their doubts and frailties but then allow them to see how normal and unalarming these actually are. They aren’t evidence that the sufferers are fated to be forever ‘children’ who can’t cope; there are no true ‘adults’ anywhere, in the sense of paragons of fearlessness and virtue. There are just lots of grown up people who are more or less holding it together for a while in the face of their own psychological eccentricities, putting on a good show most of the time, doing their best and occasionally running home to sob and despair, panic and scream. No one is ever as competent as they feel they should be; what varies is how tolerant people can be of their own incompetence.

Those anxious about their success are not impostors; they have all the same attributes as anyone else who has ever managed to forge a satisfying career. The whole of sensible professional life is in many ways a glorified act, a beautiful concealed charade, that we should feel no compunction about joining, and thriving in. Our preposterous aspects should never be an argument for shame — or against success.

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