Have you ever felt that you were just faking adulthood? That if your friends, family, work colleagues or classmates could see inside your head they would turn round shouting “fake” at you?
If you have, it may come as a relief to discover you are not alone. In fact, as Neil Gaiman the writer illustrates in this anecdote, it may well be one of the most universal human conditions;
The second best help might be in the form of an anecdote. Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.
On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”
And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”
And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.
The feeling of imposter syndrome is not just about not feeling good enough, or low self esteem. I am pretty sure that Neil Armstrong, like many pilots, was expert at judging his own ability, it’s a job which demands it. Nor is it as simple as putting certificates on walls or trophies on shelves. Impostor syndrome grows from the space between people, from the fear of being discovered to be a fraud, that you are winging it. It is relational, and about how others (might) see us and how we see ourselves.
When working with clients the idea of the masks we wear often comes up. We all do it to some degree or another, because as social animals we need to be able to moderate or control our reactions to others we encounter. Hopefully not all the time, and for our own mental health not in a way which is inauthentic or incongurant, but in a way that can, sometimes, mean we do feel less than authentic or congurant in our interactions with others.
To use two examples to help explain;
Consider Kai, he has a bad back, and due to this had a sleepless night. He is feeling tired, frustrated and quite grumpy. However when buying his coffee on the way to work he replies “fine” when the barrista asks how he is doing, and wishes them a good day. He isn’t revealing how he is truly feeling, he is wearing a mask, but its one which oils the wheels of his day, and shows his respect for the barrista (who doesn’t deserve grumpiness or rudeness in their day)
Now lets look at Hal. They are worried about coming out to their parents. Just having started the most responsible, and well paid job of their career they feel they cant let these worries show. Quite often they have poor sleep, as their worries and fears invade. At work they feel that have to be extra smiley, extra sharp, stay on later than everyone else, so that they can prove they are competent.. Their mask is stuck on with super glue, and rather than oiling the wheels it is becoming an extra burden to put it on each day.
Imposter syndrome grows in the spaces between how we are without the mask, and the image we project to the world. So that the more incongurant our behaviour is, the more the imposter syndrome grows.
If people knew the real me
If they saw how I was at home
If my boss knew the truth
A forest of ifs, which all turn inside our minds, which boil down to, if people really knew me they would see I am a fraud. This is why the idea of the mask, and identifying when and why we wear it, is the first step to tackling impostor syndrome
Who are you?
Now I am assuming all of the readers of this blog are wonderful people who would never lie about qualifications, experience, relationships, skills or abilities. It can be difficult in our culture to honestly appraise our accomplishments however, and even harder if you belong to certain groups who historically have been oppressed (or continue to be oppressed) such as people of colour, gender and sexual minorities, working class people, women and so on. We are not encouraged to celebrate our achievements, to believe we are good enough. Very often we will believe we have to wear the mask in order to achieve acceptance, because who we really are will be judged lacking.
So, in order to challenge this, do something almost taboo, especially if you are British; List your achievements. This can be a diary, a timeline, a Buzzfeed style listicle, how you do it matters less than doing it. It might feel very uncomfortable, but push through that discomfort, that’s the feeling feeding the impostor monster. If you can, ask trusted people to add to the list. Observant readers might be pondering this post, and this, and yes, even therapists can need to tackle impostor syndrome from time to time. Impostor syndrome isnt rational, its why so many very successful people suffer from it, so it won’t be cured by this but, its a start to challenging the thoughts.
Recognise whats happening
Of course we need to be able to judge our own competency. To use a personal example, I wouldn’t work with sex offenders, its vital work, but it would be wrong of me to engage in it, I do not have the necesscary training. However, the imposter monster looms up in situations for which we are perfectly able to step up. It tells us we are not good enought, despite the facts, and that everyone will see through us. When these thoughts start, recognise them for what they are. Often arguing with them is exhausing, and just leaves us feeling worse than when we started, but walking away (metaphorically) saying I know who you are, and I am not going to engage, is a strong tactic. Or, as I say here;
It’s OK to be not OK
Often working with impostor syndrome people can feel like its another thing they are failing at, feeding the impostor syndrome. Whilst some people, narcissists for example, may not struggle from time to time with this worry, most of us will encounter the feeling of impostor syndrome at some point, as the Neil Armstrong story illustrates, and that’s OK.
In fact maybe we could say that it is those who never question their abilities who are the most dangerous. It is not OK if you are holding yourself back from being your best self, or if worry and self doubt are causing you distress, but, it is OK not to be perfect, to wobble from time to time. Learning to look at your achievements objectively, and to recognize when the Impostor Monster is lurking will, hopefully, help make those wobbles smaller and more manageable. This is why I have called this post how to (sort of) beat impostor syndrome. Being human means being imperfect, and being able to accept our imperfections is part of how we become content with who we are.
If you have any questions about how counselling can help with impostor syndrome, please get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org