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.”