Imposter syndrome is real

October 19, 2023 11:37
Photo: Reuters

I have always felt like an impostor of sorts.

From a young age, when I’d take to the stage at a debating competition, only to find myself waiting with trepidation and hoping for the best in the results of the round. The room is abuzz, and I find myself shuddering and shaking inside – stage nerves, self-doubt, anxiety, all folded into one. Then came the tumultuous university days, when I’d find myself straddling student politics, running a number of publications, championing and spearheading tournaments, and making decisions that no student really ought to be making. Undergrad, postgrad, so on and so forth. Impostor syndrome felt real – and it was real.

It's real, in the sense that it leaves one bereft of confidence. It constantly nags away at you, like a hammer seeking to smash its way through a fragile church replica – watching the cards crumble is always an eerie delight, akin to watching a disaster movie in 5D. Every step you make, every breath you make, you would feel as if you lived in chains and under ubiquitous surveillance (perhaps that is not untrue, given the times and the world we live in today). Impostor Syndrome is that voice tucked away at the faraway but not-too-far-out corner at the back of your mind, constantly reminding you that you are not good enough.

Good enough. A state that remains ever so elusive. In its place are accolades and titles, prizes and awards. In the hollow, gaping hole that it leaves behind in virtue of never having been there, one may try their hardest to stuff the vacuum with ceremonial fanfare and achievements, achievements as dry as the shriveled leaves on a maple tree in Ontario in Fall. Quite a simile, there. In any case, your mind constantly returns to the fact that you may well just be a ‘fake’, someone who doesn’t deserve what they’ve accomplished, someone undeserving of praise…

The initial reaction is to try rationalise against it: to provide arguments, the theoretical and emotional ammunition for oneself to believe that one is, in fact, not an impostor. Yet all the arguments in the world would struggle to overcome the persisting strain, the enduring tension, the ever-lasting suspicion that everything and all you have, is but the products of luck, and that you are but a fraud. Oprah Winfrey once confessed to the cohort of graduating seniors at Tennessee State University that she, too, was not immune. It was akin to an infectious illness, one that is transmitted and that works its dark magic through corrupting our minds, hearts, and souls – transforming us into thinly disguised vessels vacillating between the shores of pride and utter insecurity and sense of inefficacy.

To overcome an illness, we must first study it. To fight the pathology of feeling ceaselessly like an impostor, I learnt to walk away from the earlier solution of walking away from it. In short, I embraced the fact that I had felt, in fact, like an Impostor. And this was how I managed to overcome it – for myself. The feelings, the thoughts, the restless statements that emphasised to oneself, “You are not good enough.”, hold no substantive value. They may feel real, they may come across as authentic, yet it is vital that we call out and recognise what they are: deceptive lies aimed at tricking us into self-frustration.

Some have suggested that Impostor Syndrome uniquely and disproportionately affects women and members of other disadvantaged communities. The mechanism is that individuals from these groups are far likelier to encounter and internalise narratives that delegitimise and discredit their accomplishments, on grounds that they are from backgrounds that are not in conformity with the dominant societal default of cishet, white men.

There is limited evidence to back this hypothesis. And I would posit that this mechanistic explanation – whilst by no means implausible – perhaps underestimates or fails to get right the actual root of Impostor Syndrome: which is the deeply engrained tendencies to be perfectionist in the contemporary era. We are all impostors when measured against the blatantly – when considered – yardstick of perfection and absolute competence. We are all impostors when we hold ourselves to impossibly high standards, and pretend that all that goes on beneath that line is therefore unworthy of care and love. In setting ourselves up to fear failure, we are therefore convinced that failure is constant and inescapable. That is the subconscious priming, I posit, that drives us to become impostors.

So let us grant that it is indeed real. Now what? Does this therefore mean that we should do away with appraising and assessing individuals’ abilities – ranking them, scoring them, and ordering them in accordance with their abilities to approximate the ideal? Does this mean that we should give a free pass to those who, in virtue of their fearing the Impostor Syndrome and wanting to avoid it, therefore opt to set extra-ordinary low expectations for themselves – such that they could never fail?

I do not think the answer rests with such defeatism. The Impostor Syndrome, in moderate dosages, can be a force for good – one that motivates us to work ever so harder, to aspire ever more, and to believe that one day, through our own hard work and diligence, we can conquer and overcome difficulties, even if not succeed entirely in annihilating them. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a healthy sense of inadequacy; it is only a problem when it comes totalising and contrary to all reasoning and logic.

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Assistant Professor, HKU