How to describe imposter syndrome? Let’s take two friends of mine. I have one privately-educated, blue stocking slim blonde, well-spoken friend who is a successful writer. She is bubbly, attractive, 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 school at 15, getting not one qualification, but through hard work, a natural aptitude and general and 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 many times per year, runs 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 one of these might suffer from Imposter syndrome, most people, including therapists, would go for the working-class-boy-made-good.
However, the truth of the matter 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.
I couldn’t believe this when she admitted it to me. I always thought she had everything sorted out. However she told me that she always felt 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. Inside, I’m terrified.”
She couldn’t really put it any better.
Imposter syndrome is that sense that, somehow, 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 Donald Winnicott might put it, it is when our True Self butts up against our False Self . 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.”
But maybe there is a room for manoeuvre here. For the True Self may not be a quivering wreck and the imposter – the confident false self – may well be masking that but the True Self will certainly have more value than my friend thinks.
In my 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 of that my client, quite rightly, have. 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 essence there is a split – there’s me and then there’s Therapist me and it is in 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, we will be ‘found out’, who we really are, deep down inside, is unacceptable. Our fear is that, if people find out who we really 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 the existential fear; ‘what if we are seen for who we are and not who we are pretending to be’ and the ‘who we are bit’ has negative connotations.
Even people with huge amounts of social media followers 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. It’s a dream of how they wish they were rather than how they are. In many ways, this is the role of fantasy, the pretend world we can all go off to when we wish to escape the harsh realities of life. But everything gets a bit more complicated when that fantasy world is re-created as if it is real. Actors are prone to it because they literally do play imposters – in order to do their job well, they have to inhabit the very personality and sometimes physical shape of the character they are playing. This can leave them feeling as if they are a shell, or a shape shifter who takes on people’s persona with having very little of their real persona as a fixed sense of self.
Some celebrities talk about themselves in the third person as do sports people and other famous people. Lennox Lewis, the boxer, always used to say things like, “Lennox doesn’t do that.” In many ways, the heavy hitting boxer Lennox Lewis was at odds with the gentle giant Lewis really was in his every day life. In order to cope with this, Lewis split the boxer persona off from his real persona.
What therapy can help with is the feeling of not fitting in. We learn many life lessons in childhood and one of the very many we learn is how to fit in. We are mutable beings and we adapt ourselves to the situations we find ourselves in. However, sometimes the personas we take on do not fit us well – or maybe they do but then their use to us runs out. Louise Chunn, a former journalist and now founder of welldoing.org, writes of how she never felt she fitted in as a journalist and editor even though she was highly successful. The tough exterior she portrayed in that role didn’t suit her far softer side.
Yet we can learn a lot from our feelings of being an Imposter. With help, we can learn to look at why we have felt the need to ‘pretend’ to be someone else. We may also find that we are 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 wellbeing on a day-to-day basis.
One of the ways to look at these feelings is to consider the fact that what we tell ourselves is really a story. My blonde female friend’s story is ‘everyone-round-this-table-knows-I-shouldn’t-really-be-here’ but maybe, like my male friend who strides forth in his slightly ill-fitting suit she could tell herself a slightly adapted version which goes like this; I am perfectly capable. I have worked hard. I deserve to be here and then ,maybe, she will begin to accept and amalgamate all those tricky feelings of being found out.
Most of us are pretty good at being us. We are pretty good at doing what we do. Oh – and a little secret here – most people worry that they are Imposters. None of us are alone in this way.