We’re obsessed with imposter syndrome, aren’t we? There’s always someone going on about it. President Biden even got in on the act recently, saying he feels ‘self-conscious’ and that it’s surreal to realise he is President.
We’re living in an age when it’s no longer taboo to show such vulnerabilities. In fact, we very rarely hear from anyone nowadays who says “Yup, I deserve my success and I’m secure in the knowledge that I’m good at what I do” (now that would be weird)
And the old idea that people in ‘high status’ professions like law or politics are self-assured has increasingly been shown to be a load of codswallop.
In fact, it often seems that, the higher you climb, the stronger the feelings of inadequacy.
Many clients in therapy talk about low confidence, low self-esteem and imposter syndrome.
And I relate to it, having experienced a sizeable dollop myself when I was younger.
But is it helpful to call it a ‘syndrome’?
I think what it’s actually all about is an innate desire or pull towards being an outsider.
And that’s something that we all share.
I want to be alone
Sounds weird, right?
Doesn’t everyone want to belong to a group, a community or a family?
Well, that’s true – we do like to belong.
But I think we also have a desire to set ourselves apart, to be different from others.
Don’t we see this manifesting in our world all the time?
Groups form. Then smaller groups form within those groups. Then factions form within those groups. Then pairs split off within these factions. And so on and so forth, like a never-ending Russian Doll.
This happens even in places where we wouldn’t expect it.
Like in therapists’ organisations (trust me, this happens all the time).
Or mediation bodies.
People whose very job is all about encouraging conciliation between others end up splitting into cliques.
Why do we do it?
Why this desire to separate?
Because differentiating ourselves from others fulfils a need we all have to feel special and different.
Don’t many of us feel as kids that there’s something ‘different’ about us? And have the feeling that we’re not quite in the right place?
As a kid I developed an obsession with the Romanovs and had a phase where I believed I was actually Anastasia, the missing Russian princess (yes, I had a rich imagination). It was quite the shock when it eventually dawned on me that it was unlikely that a Russian princess would be found in Stockport, North-West England.
These feelings of ‘outsiderness’ are everywhere don’t go away as we get older. They just evolve.
And while feeling like an outsider can cause us pain, we may also get a kick out of feeling that we’re different from others.
The myth of the ‘mistake’
Take Oxbridge for example. Far from being full to the brim of self-assured ‘Hooray Henrys’, these places are actually populated by people who believe that some sort of administrative mistake resulted in them getting in accidentally. And that, any minute, someone will tap them on the shoulder and ask them to leave.
I studied there and wandered around with a massive inferiority complex most of the time (which I attached to having been to state school). But I realise now that the ‘working class hero’ badge of honour I carried also gave me a buzz. And at the same time as believing I was thicker than everyone else, there was also a part of me that was secretly slightly sneering at my public school classmates. And possibly even feeling a bit superior.
David and Goliath
Because feeling that we’re not part of the ‘system’ gives us something to fight against.
It is the fuel that drives us to achieve.
We feel comfortable in the underdog role.
It’s easier than admitting that you’re established. Better to be David, the little guy, striving for success, than Goliath, with the heavy weight of expectation associated with being a champion.
Compare and despair
Don’t we all compare ourselves to others much of the time?
How often do you find yourself trawling through your social media accounts checking out the profiles of people you don’t actually like that much? Secretly criticising their profiles, whilst simultaneously feeling inadequate?
Why don’t we just unfriend these people or block them on the spot? Why do we engage in these masochistic pursuits?
Because it’s in-built in our brains to categorise. We have to, in order to process the vast number of stimuli we take in every day. When faced with a new experience or a new person, our brains sift back through our memory bank to find a similar past situation to slot this new one into. We’re constantly categorising and compartmentalising.
So it’s inevitable that we’ll often feel ‘different’, given that our unconscious brains are predisposed to creating these ‘league tables’ in life.
That’s not a syndrome. It’s part of the human condition.
But, when you are measuring yourself up to others and finding yourself lacking, remember this.
Everyone has their blind spots.
Some people get every answer right on University Challenge. But they may find personal and social interactions challenging.
Some are fast processers and like being asked to contribute off the cuff in meetings. But they may secretly feel they lack the deeper processing skills to come up with more considered and detailed responses.
No matter how well others seem to be doing, everyone has things that don’t come naturally to them.
Everyone has their ‘thing’.
When we buy into the belief that no one else has such foibles, we feed our ‘outsiderness’.
Resist feeding the wolf!
Feed connection with others where you can.
But at the same time, do make friends with the ‘special and different’ parts of you.
They got you this far.
And they’ve probably served you better than you think.