The Imposter Syndrome and Your Hidden Self

The Pilgrim by Magritte for Imposter Syndrome blog post

Like many writers, I let my curiosity lead me to my next subject of exploration, and lately, I’ve been mighty curious about what’s commonly called the Impostor Syndrome. Leaving aside those afflicted with malignant narcissism, who doesn’t have moments when they feel like a fake?

First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s, Impostor Syndrome refers to those who are unable to internalize and accept their success. Rather than owning their ability to achieve, they believe their success is due to luck or some other external factor, and fear they will be unmasked as a fraud. Men and women suffer equally from this debilitating condition. Minority groups, those raised in families that expect high achievement, and perfectionists are more at risk.

But let’s look beyond psychological origins and feel inside the experience itself.

Maya Angelou for Imposter Syndrome1. Secrets: “The secrets we choose to betray lose power over us.” —Louise Glück

To be caught up in the Impostor Syndrome is to house a secret self we fear is inadequate. We are terrified we are phonies. We are terrified this fraudulent part, concealed beneath a competent exterior, will be revealed. Our inner dialogue proceeds like this:

“Only I know that within the shell of the person called X, whom everyone thinks is reliably bright and capable, is the woeful, cringing real “me.” Others may call me smart, intelligent, even a genius, but I know the truth; I know what they see is an invention, a made-up self.”

The burden of living with a split sense of self and the fear of being discovered requires constant vigilance and takes an emotional toll. Anyone who has kept a toxic secret knows the high cost it exacts. Hiding what shames us consumes energy and requires continual fueling to succeed. Fed by an internal pressure to prove our worthiness, by anxiety and anticipatory dread, we get caught in a frenzied loop that requires we succeed at ever-higher standards of excellence.

2. Culture

This effort to contain and disguise the hidden self corrodes from within; it’s like living with a criminal hiding inside our skin. We inevitably fail to meet our own perfectionist standards; we suffer depression, anxiety, and other common maladies of our time.

And surely it is the times, our contemporary culture, which has given birth to the Imposter Syndrome. A culture that places a higher value on power, authority, and financial accumulation than on enlightenment, kindness, or civic duty. After all, our psychological afflictions are only in small part due to physiological or inherited conditions, and are in large part culturally-conditioned. As in all things paradoxical, individuals create culture even as they are shaped by the culture they create.

One interesting way to consider what a culture values is to examine what it worships, and then compare that with our own set of values.

3. Gods and Goddesses

Birth of Minerva for Imposter Syndrome blog postIn the classical Greek world, a pantheon of gods and goddesses, each with his or her set of attributes, dominated psychological, spiritual, and civic life. In contrast to monotheism with its allegiance to a single Father God that created and contains the All, the Greeks, Romans, and Hindus worshipped multiple deities. Athena, for example, born from her father Zeus’s head, was thought to be the Olympian goddess of wisdom, good counsel, and war. A Greek warrior going into battle might visit the Temple of Athena to ask for her assistance; if on a sea voyage, he might pray to Poseidon, the Olympian god of seas, earthquakes and drought. To ensure an abundant crop of corn, the petitioner would sing praises to Demeter. Love troubles? Appeal for Aphrodite’s help. Each god and goddess was valued for his or her specific talents. Together they represent archetypes, the deep structures in our psyches that are inherent potentialities in all of us. (See Goddesses in Everywoman: Powerful Archetypes in Women’s Lives and other work by Jean Shinoda Bolen.)

As we reflect on the variety of attributes and skills exhibited by the Greek gods, let’s take a moment to appreciate who else is inside us besides the God of Accomplishment. For if we pray to only one god and value only the driven part that accomplishes, we ignore and dishonor all the other deities that inhabit our being. We suppress their latent talents, vitality, and wisdom, which contribute to our wholeness and well-being. (For more on this, please see my recent PT blog post “Trauma: Who is Telling Your Story?”)

In our deepest selves, we know we are more than our successes or our failures, and yet because we live in a society that supports and encourages competition, striving, and power through wealth, the Impostor Syndrome can easily take root. But we must understand and trust that we have other inner figures, archetypes—the ones that come to us in dreams and imaginings—who balance out the figure of the high achiever and who are not at her mercy. Exploring this not only expands our vision of who we are, it begins a marvelous adventure of befriending our unknown or lost parts.

4. Fairy Tale Wisdom

Willy Planck illustration for the Goose GirlIn fairy tales, the story often begins when the hero or heroine’s true self is ignored, mistreated, or unseen. As the story unfolds, a conflict is presented, and a rite of passage ensues. The journey undertaken by the hero/heroine is a soul journey of psychic development. In the familiar tale of Cinderella, an orphaned girl is taunted and shunned by the evil trio of jealous step-mother and step-sisters; if she is to develop and enter into life, she must venture out into the dangerous world and prove herself. In this tale, and in other stories like “The Goose Girl” or “The Armless Maiden,” one’s “outside” identity—that is, the raggedy ash girl or disabled amputee maiden—do not match the hidden radiance and goodness of the inner self. Here, the opposite paradigm to the Imposter Syndrome prevails.

A person possessed by the Impostor Syndrome assesses her worth through external validation, which never seems to satisfy the inner core of uncertainty. The wisdom of fairy tales, however, proposes that recognition and validation of the authentic and worthy self can never come from the “outside.” The tales suggest that we must undertake trials and challenges that affirm and confirm our creative power, must make friends with unknown parts of ourselves (these unknown parts often appear in these tales as helper animals or spirits), and reject the mistaken evaluation of others. Only then, when the Self recognizes its worth and does not demand acceptance and acclamation from others, can we truly embrace our integrity and accept our wholeness, shadow parts and all.

5. Helpful Exercises

a. If what you’ve read gives you the courage to explore, you might sit down right now and make a list of the qualities you value in people. What qualities would you want others to list if they were asked to describe you? How do the lists compare? What qualities are easy for you to own? Which feel out of reach? Insight? Clarity? Playfulness? Authenticity? Imagine you just finished a daunting project and instead of telling yourself, This was a success, you instead say, I did this with integrity. How would you feel?

b. Imagine yourself the hero or heroine of your own fairy tale. What challenges are you facing? List them. What are the obstacles to fulfilling your goals? Include psychological obstacles. What creatures, spirits, ancestors might appear to help you? What is the image you have of yourself once you are transformed? (Think of Cinderella—from ash girl to princess.) What would you like to become?

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Given Away: The Plight of the Wounded Feminine

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia for sacrifice blog post

 

In a recent New Yorker article about White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, I came across the following description of a meeting she had that included her father, Mike Huckabee, and then-candidate Donald Trump.

“There (at the Atlanta airport) they boarded Trump’s private jet. . . .When Trump asked Huckabee for an endorsement, Huckabee instead suggested that he (Trump) enlist his daughter. Trump needed a stronger link to evangelicals and women, and Sanders was happy to provide one.”

The operative word in the above quote is “happy.” Ms. Sanders was consensual, if not enthusiastic, about working for Mr. Trump. A darker, more sinister version of this enactment, a daughter offered up by a father for personal gain, appeasement, or out of ignorance is a recurrent narrative thread in myths and fairy tales and underlines the role of the sacrificial daughter.

"How the girl lost her hands" by H. J. Ford for sacrifice blog postIn the Brothers Grimm’s version of “The Girl without Hands,” a poor miller in need of money inadvertently makes a pact with the devil who “will come in three years to claim that which stands behind the mill.” That turns out to be, not the apple tree the miller thought, but his daughter who was sweeping the yard at the time.

The miller’s daughter was a beautiful and pious girl, and she lived the three years worshipping God and without sin. When the time was up and the day came when the evil one was to get her, she washed herself clean and drew a circle around herself with chalk. The devil appeared very early in the morning, but he could not approach her.

He spoke angrily to the miller, “Keep water away from her, so she cannot wash herself any more. Otherwise I have no power over her.”

The miller was frightened and did what he was told. The next morning the devil returned, but she had wept into her hands, and they were entirely clean. Thus he still could not approach her, and he spoke angrily to the miller, “Chop off her hands. Otherwise I cannot get to her.”

The miller was horrified and answered, “How could I chop off my own child’s hands!”

Then the evil one threatened him, saying, “If you do not do it, then you will be mine, and I will take you yourself.” This frightened the father, and he promised to obey him. Then he went to the girl and said, “My child, if I do not chop off both of your hands, then the devil will take me away, and in my fear I have promised him to do this. Help me in my need, and forgive me of the evil that I am going to do to you.” She answered, “Dear father, do with me what you will. I am your child,” and with that she stretched forth both hands and let her father chop them off.

Eventually, after a journey and travails, and because she is pious and good, the miller’s daughter marries a king and her hands are restored.

Rumpelstiltskin by Anne Anderson for sacrifice blog postAnother tale in which a poor miller father sells his daughter to gain stature and wealth is the story of “Rumpelstiltskin.” Here the father brags to the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold. She is brought to the king, locked into a room and given the command, her life in jeopardy if she fails to succeed at this impossible task. Narcissism, greed, and domination in the figures of father and king are allied against her. With the help of the magical imp Rumpelstiltskin, the daughter succeeds in her task, but in exchange must give him her firstborn child. She is finally able to claim her child and her independence only after she guesses the name of her tormentor, “Rumpelstiltskin.” Psychologically, this rings true: until we name the negative force that has hold of us, we remain within its power.

The unnamed daughter of Jephthah in the Bible is not so lucky to be saved (Judges 11:30-40). Her father makes a vow with God:

11:30 And Jephthah made the following vow to Yhwh: “If You deliver the Ammonites into my hands, 11:31 then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be Yhwh’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.

Jephthah sacrificing his daughter by Bourdon for sacrifice blog postUnfortunately, it is Jephthah’s daughter who dances out of his house to greet him. She accepts her sacrificial fate, but asks her father for two months in the mountains with her women to celebrate her virginity. This is granted.  Nonetheless, she is consecrated as an offering to the Lord. She is able to tell herself she is not a victim without choice. Unlike the miller in “The Girl without Hands,” Jephthah is motivated by ambition, not necessity. He is a warrior and a leader, and his success against the Ammonites will make him the rosh or head of Gilead.

Sacrifice of Iphigenia fresco for sacrifice blog postYet another story concerning the sacrifice of a daughter for the ambitions of a warrior-hero-father is the Greek myth of Iphigenia. King Agamemnon, Iphigenia’s father, is about to wage war on Troy. However, Agamemnon has insulted the goddess Artemis, who in retaliation has becalmed the seas so that his fleet cannot set sail. To appease Artemis, Agamemnon must sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. For the glory of Greece, Iphigenia goes willingly to her death.

Fairy tales and myths, as Carl Jung suggested, reveal archetypal motifs that offer insight into our human wishes, fantasies, fears and desires. Whether we identify with Cinderella’s lonely plight, or the frog prince’s yearning to be his fully human self, at the deepest level of fairy tale content, we experience an “Aha!” phenomena. Jack Zipes, in the preface to the 1979 edition of Breaking the Magic Spell, Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales, writes:

“From birth to death we hear and imbibe the lore of folk and fairy tales and sense that they can help us reach our destiny. They know and tell us that we want to become kings and queens, ontologically speaking to become masters of our own realms….They ferret out deep-rooted wishes, needs, and wants and demonstrate how they all can be realized.”

Jung saw fairy tales as depicting patterns of development and behavior that reflect the function of the psyche, and even today we can find new wisdom about our human predicaments in the old tales.

With this in mind, how do we think about the tales of sacrificial daughters? What does it mean that in most fairy tales, a jealous or evil king may send his son on a dangerous journey or give him an impossible task to fulfill, but rarely is the son held captive, enslaved, mutilated, or murdered? Might sacrificial daughters represent a collective cultural phenomena of the devalued feminine?

One pattern that emerges in several of these stories is that of the absent, passive, or duped mother. This is the mother who won’t or can’t protect her victimized daughter. Her loyalty often remains with the father, and she will not disobey the ruling masculine hierarchy. (In keeping with Greek themes of inherited or familial revenge, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, does in some version of the story kill her husband for his murder of their daughter.)

The absent, compliant, or complicit mother unwillingly abets the father in treating females as objects by colluding with and succumbing to the spell of his power. Without a positive mother figure in her life, the daughter has nothing of substance from the personal mother or from the world of the feminine. For this daughter, the adored or charismatic father can take on the qualities of a god. Both Jephthah’s daughter and Iphigenia do not resist their fate, but in some sense become martyrs to their father’s cause as in the gruesome example of the miller’s daughter who deferentially accepts the dismemberment of her hands. To be without hands means to be helpless in the world, to be unable to perform ordinary human tasks. Here, the daughter forgoes a part of her humanness to accommodate the father. “Do with me what you will, father,” she says. “For I am your child.”

Dr. Jean Baker Miller for sacrifice blog postTo identify with the dominant ruling culture is often a way women cope with subjugation and abuse. In her ground-breaking book Toward a New Psychology of Women (1976), decades old but ever more relevant in today’s #MeToo world, Dr. Jean Baker Miller examines women’s difficulties in claiming their “full personhood” and in valuing themselves and their strengths, which are viewed as inferior by the dominant culture.

“A dominant group,” Miller writes, “inevitably, has the greatest influence in determining a culture’s overall outlook—its philosophy, morality, social theory, and even its science. The dominant group, thus, legitimizes the unequal relationship and incorporates it into society’s guiding concepts.” Not just women, but all marginalized groups share this experience since the dominant group is the model for what is considered normal.

Conversely, writes Miller, “a subordinate group has to concentrate on basic survival. Accordingly, direct, honest reaction to destructive treatment is avoided. Open, self-initiated action in its own self-interest must also be avoided…. In our own society, a woman’s direct action can result in a combination of economic hardship, social ostracism, and psychological isolation.”

If we take a quick glance around the globe, we can see that subordinate populations on every continent, and women in general, are subjected to less than equal treatment.

In the stories mentioned above, each daughter acquiesces to the demands of the father, the dominant power figure, and by identifying with him and his goals, deludes herself into believing that his perpetration is a noble act. Her self-worth depends on his status. Historically, women have been “unable to see much value or importance in themselves or each other, when women were focused on men as the important people.”

Miller goes on to say, “There are still few women who can believe deeply that they are truly worthy.” What has been continues to be: women struggle against being cast in the inferior role in society. In reexamining fairy tales we consider how they continue to reflect conscious and unconscious attitudes in a culture. If popular culture, particularly children’s movies and books, has shifted its focus from the sacrificial daughter, what images have replaced it? While vibrant images of sharp-shooting, dragon-slaying heroines occasionally fill our screens, the emergence of the #MeToo and other movements for equal rights and justice suggest post-modern Disney heroines are not enough; unconscious prejudices require our personal and deepest attention and consideration to be confronted, made visible and redeemed. Unfortunately, for now, the prejudices, injustices, and issues of worth that revolve around power, domination, and subordination persist.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”