Impostor Syndrome
November 5, 2007 9:42 AM   Subscribe

Do you feel like a fraud? Holden Caulfield used to hunt phonies a few blocks from here, but times have changed. Now the phonies — or people who think they are, anyway — hunt themselves.
posted by davy321 (84 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Fuck. If only I was witty enough to comment on this post.
posted by GuyZero at 9:46 AM on November 5, 2007


My posts are worthless. None of those favorites mean anything.

A MeTa callout, followed by a visit from The Grim Cortex can't be far off...

I just hope it's not too embarassing.

posted by sparkletone at 9:47 AM on November 5, 2007

It's interesting, because I've read a few things about this same sort of thing with people who have ADD. They feel like they're just eeking by, and that it'll all come crashing down any second, etc. I feel like this quite a bit of the time at school.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 9:53 AM on November 5, 2007

Actually, it's worse than that. It's always been apparent wherever I worked that I was a big fat cuckoo egg waiting to hatch. Most places manage to get rid of me before I start kicking the less robust bird-babies out of the nest.
posted by hermitosis at 9:54 AM on November 5, 2007

People should feel this way. The whole sum of human knowledge amounts to jack shit compared to what there is to know. My education has taught me a bit of what humanity knows and a lot about what humanity doesn't know or where no one's figured out how to apply, or bothered to apply, our knowledge.

When I was a child I thought upon becoming an adult I weould just know how to deal with every adult thing. How to deal with the laundry, how to manage finances, pay my taxes, etc. This was a childish attitude, and by the time I was in high school I realized the adults don't know what they're doing either. And now I'm an adult and I still have no idea what I'm doing.

I've dealt with people who don't have a proper sense of self-doubt. It's not good. Those are the people who don't check their work, and then bridges fall down. Or you get bullshit sciences like economics. A personal anecdote is when I worked a part-time IT job - there was someone who, repeatedly, would set up some server or whatever and tell me it was setup, but in fact it wasn't working at all. Kid never bothered trying it out. Your overconfidence is your weakness.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:57 AM on November 5, 2007 [9 favorites]

She suggests getting comfortable with a skill that rhymes with "woolfitting" and means something like "winging it."

This took me awhile to decode. Bullshitting. That's how I do everything. From my photos to my assignments to just about everything, I feel like I "bullshit" it. Is that normal? Because I don't really think of it as a problem.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 9:58 AM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

As frightening as it may sound, there are actually a lot of people in the world who don't feel like this. Politicians, business moguls and serial killers, to name a few.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:59 AM on November 5, 2007

Sometimes I feel like a fraud
Sometimes I don't
MetaFilter's got socks
I'm really dhoyt.

Some of my poems have been published. Okay... now I feel like a fraud
posted by Kattullus at 10:00 AM on November 5, 2007

Okay. To be serious for a second. I'm very, very familiar with this feeling of every success being unearned and that at my core I'm a big, fat phony and that people will eventually see through me. It's been something I've had to fight all my life. As with most things like that, once it's been identified it get easier to deal with.
posted by Kattullus at 10:06 AM on November 5, 2007

"Fake it 'till you make it"

the other side of the coin:

The Social Text Affair. (where you're really faking it!)
posted by exlotuseater at 10:06 AM on November 5, 2007

Of course, the key to avoiding all this is to not succeed at anything, thus remaining true to yourself. It's always worked for me.
posted by jonmc at 10:11 AM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

I went to graduate school at Columbia (which is mentioned in the link, for those of you who are wondering why I said that). Soon after I got there, I made an appointment to see one of the school therapists because I felt certain I was about to be discovered and kicked out.

I'd spoken for about two minutes when she broke in and said "it's called Impostor Syndrome. I see it every day." Hearing the shrink say that I was one of a huge group of people who felt that way instantly cheered me up. Sometimes it's nice to not be a special snowflake.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:11 AM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

More people in the world. More wealth. Computers and machines run most everything. Who we are, what we do - our impact on this world is miniscule compared to ten years ago, twenty years ago, thirty years ago. As the population balloons, individuals' worth, influence, and importance continues to diminish. In the end, all we have is our bullshit. Some of us believe it, some of us don't - ultimately, the ones who actually believe their own bullshit seem to be more successful.
posted by billysumday at 10:13 AM on November 5, 2007

Sweet underachieving Christ. Has modern society grown so soft that people are actually taken seriously when they complain, "I'm talented and successful, but I don't feel as awesome about myself as I should"?
posted by brain_drain at 10:14 AM on November 5, 2007 [3 favorites]

I'd rather live in a reality of self-doubt than with the illusion of entitlement.
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:15 AM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

I thought I was alone in this too, until a little while ago when I was mentioning it in a group of fellow grad students and discovered that we all felt this way. Well, all except the one student who the rest of us can't stand because of her arrogance and sense of entitlement. Hmm, maybe impostor syndrome is a good thing, to a point.
posted by arcticwoman at 10:17 AM on November 5, 2007

I love phony hunting season.
posted by quin at 10:18 AM on November 5, 2007

brain_drain, they aren't saying "I'm talented and successful, but I don't feel as awesome about myself as I should." They are saying "I am untalented and my success is based on luck and my ability to fool others. One day I'll be found out and my world will come crashing down." It's a lot of stress to live with.
posted by arcticwoman at 10:18 AM on November 5, 2007

Hm. I was wondering, while sitting in a meeting, why I don't get any recognition, and then remembering that I'm a phony. I came back to my desk to waste time while pretending to do my job, and found this. Now I'm just plain confused about who the real phonies are...
posted by jimmietown softgirl at 10:28 AM on November 5, 2007

I don't feel like this now but I did for at least two years after I moved from blue-collar work to being a software engineer. I grew up pretty poor and even when you have a degree or two, a professional career and more than enough money, you never really escape your background. I spent the first couple of years at work half expecting someone to come into my office from HR and say, "Hey you, the kid from Jersey, we know who you are; get the hell out."
posted by octothorpe at 10:29 AM on November 5, 2007

I expect that, now that it has a pseudo-clinical "name", a psychopharmaceutical "solution" is just around the corner. 70% of the population means big, big money. Prozac-style money. If Clance and Matthews haven't yet been approached by Big Pharma, it's only a matter of time.

Drowning self-doubt in cynicism, liquor and regrettable sex has gotten me pretty much through grad school. I just assumed it was that way for everyone.
posted by felix betachat at 10:37 AM on November 5, 2007

That rings a big bell. I wonder if this is a universal thing, and if not - what percentage of the population are affected by it.

Anyway - I'm constantly amazed that people haven't figured out that I'm blagging my way through life. This goes especially for those things I don't really spend much thought on, but which other people seem to attribute a level of hard work to. It's pretty shaming to have to admit that the thing everyone sees as some masterful shiny thing was actually created in 10 minutes or so.

Yeah. sign me up for the Groucho Marx fake moustache and glasses.
posted by seanyboy at 10:38 AM on November 5, 2007

Afraid of being outed as a fraud? Beat the world to the punch and out yourself! It’s like vomiting after a long night of drinking.
posted by tepidmonkey at 10:50 AM on November 5, 2007

now that it has a pseudo-clinical "name"

This has been the case since 1978.

Yeah. sign me up for the Groucho Marx fake moustache and glasses.

This should rightfully have been called the Groucho Syndrome, after his quote "I would never belong to a club that would have me for a member."

It's pretty shaming to have to admit that the thing everyone sees as some masterful shiny thing was actually created in 10 minutes or so.

Not sure how old you are, but in time your reaction to this will evolve from shame to delight.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:52 AM on November 5, 2007

Whenever I feel like an impostor, I just engage in some Modern Jackass as an antidote. This was the subject of a This American Life segment a while back; it occurs when you know a little bit about a subject but speak and act as if you know a whole lot more. The term came from a couple who were walking around a museum commenting on the art despite not being all that well-informed about it. Suddenly, one of them said, "Jeez, listen to us; we sound as if we write for a magazine called Modern Jackass.

One thing I seriously love about MeFi is that it's Modern Jackass Central, and I say that as someone who cheerily MJs her way through much of life.

Anyhow, about success, well, a fair amount of it is unearned, so it's not surprising we'd feel that way. No matter how smart, talented, or hardworking you are, you still need serendipity and dumb luck. Plenty of smart, talented hardworkers fail miserably. Impostor Syndrome is in large part an expression of the atavistic fear that the Hoodoo Voodoo Juju responsible for any small success will [poof!] take it all away.
posted by FelliniBlank at 10:52 AM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Realizing you feel this way is step one. Realizing that almost everyone else, including people you truly admire, feels the same is step two. Understanding the power and freedom this gives you to shape yourself is step three.

(I'm still working on step three)
posted by Bookhouse at 11:10 AM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

People feel like impostors because most of them are, success notwithstanding. Most industries are heavily populated by people who have no clue what they are doing and replace actual competency with buzzwords, jargon, arbitrary rules, and bluster. These people then carefully marginalize anyone who actual does know what they're doing, because they are terrified of being called out.

But here's the thing: If the world relied on people who know what they're doing to get things done, nothing would ever get done. There's just not enough people who really know what they're doing, and they rarely have the sort of power to actually get things done. The best you can hope for is incompetence in a way that is relatively harmless.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:16 AM on November 5, 2007 [3 favorites]

This is a great thing to have out in the open. My wife suffers from this terribly, despite being wonderful at her work and receiving myriad compliments and referrals. It can be draining trying to get her to see the difference between her actual life and her view of it. Thanks for the great post.
posted by rouftop at 11:17 AM on November 5, 2007

Dear successful person:

Your success is a fraud. Despite the fact that everyone else on earth believes you are smart and capable, you and I know that you are really a miserable failure. Come by my office once a week for six months and we will talk about all the ways you are a disappointment. Oh, and bring your checkbook.

Your Psychiatrist
posted by wabashbdw at 11:22 AM on November 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

I first heard about this a couple years ago, and was glad to know that it wasn't just me. It does make it easier to handle it when you know that a lot of people feel that way.

On the other hand, I'm also a chronic underachiever, which I bet contributes. It's like I feel "I know I'd deserve this job if I just worked as hard as I could, but since I don't work that hard, I'm sure they'll get rid of me at any time". I've finally had enough of that too, and have picked up a book aimed directly at breaking out of the patterns of underachievment. Assuming I make use of it, I'll be interested in seeing if it has any affect on my impostor syndrome.
posted by evilangela at 11:26 AM on November 5, 2007

A couple years ago, I was Employee Of The Year in my unit, and I was horribly embarrassed about it. I felt like I'd done jack to deserve it. I was very Stuart Smalley about the whole thing. So, yeah, I resemble this.

And that's the thing -- I don't feel like I know anything, but when I do know something, I'm a pompous ass about it. So I struggle with getting the balance right.

IOW, I'm just another MeFite.
posted by dw at 11:28 AM on November 5, 2007

Sweet underachieving Christ. Has modern society grown so soft that people are actually taken seriously when they complain, "I'm talented and successful, but I don't feel as awesome about myself as I should"

I'm a sysadmin for a school and a certain amount of paranoia and self-doubt is necessary for my job.

However, no matter what I do, no matter what I build that works, I'm absolutely certain that people are secretly thinking of me an utter incompetent over the things that don't. One day soon, they are bound to talk together about it, realise I'm useless, and fire my arse. My parter says she loves me, and I know she does. I'm still certain one day soon she's going to leave me for someone better. I bodge it and scarper in my eyes because that's the only way to ever finish anything, there's never time to do it right.

There are days, many days, where I can barely face getting in my car and going to work, because I just know something is going to be broken and someone, somewhere is taking notes over my utter failure to keep things running. again.

So far, I've kept the addictions to deal with the constant stress and certain fear of imminent failure to the legal ones, but who knows what will happen tomorrow? When I was a kid, I thought that as an adult I'd have at least some of The Answers. I've realised that no matter how long I live, I'll never have any of them. I'll just have to keep bullshitting and pretending I do, and working extra hard to try and keep afloat.

Logically knowing you're good at what you do is no good at all if you drive yourself into an early grave from emotional stress because you know in your inner heart that really it's all about to come crashing down on you, that the successes are fake and fleeting, and that you are about to be cast down like the fraud you are.

Anyway, I need to go check the mail server remotely. It might have fallen over since I left the office.
posted by ArkhanJG at 11:35 AM on November 5, 2007 [3 favorites]

From The Secret Diary of Steve JobsWPRegarding My Management Style:
Most important thing is I never subscribed to the conventional wisdom of the East Coast management "experts" like Jack Welch, who used to run General Electric or General Motors, I can never remember which one. For example. Welch says do a lot of reviews and always let people know where they stand. I say, No way. In fact, quite the opposite.

Never let people know where they stand. Keep them guessing. Keep them afraid. Otherwise they get complacent. Creativity springs from fear. Think of a painter, or a writer, or a composer working furiously in his studio, afraid he's going to starve to death if he doesn't get this piece of work just right. That's where greatness comes from. Well, same goes for engineers and designers at Apple and Pixar. They come in every day knowing it could be their last day. They work like hell, trust me.
If they really are out to get you, they know you'll never realize it.
posted by cenoxo at 11:40 AM on November 5, 2007

It starts when they're young. Little League games where no one keeps score and everyone's a "winner". Schools that have dropped honor rolls so as not to damage the "self esteem" of those with lower grades. High schools with no valedictorian because honoring one student means dishonoring all the others. Kids aren't stupid, they know there's something going on even when it's kept quiet. Eventually, they begin to suspect anything good said about them is based on this same misguided intention to not hurt their feelings.
posted by tommasz at 11:55 AM on November 5, 2007

Never let people know where they stand. Keep them guessing. Keep them afraid. Otherwise they get complacent. Creativity springs from fear. Think of a painter, or a writer, or a composer working furiously in his studio, afraid he's going to starve to death if he doesn't get this piece of work just right. That's where greatness comes from. Well, same goes for engineers and designers at Apple and Pixar. They come in every day knowing it could be their last day. They work like hell, trust me.

It also helps to regularly beat them and to occasionally lock them in small rooms with waterboards set up.

Here's an absolute I have noticed that Steve Jobs probably wouldn't like: People do good work despite their bosses, not because of them
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:03 PM on November 5, 2007

Oh man. This syndrome fits me to a tee. It's so comforting to know I'm not alone.
posted by pookzilla at 12:16 PM on November 5, 2007

There's a tickle in my brain telling me this is related to the no-man's-land between the value we place on hard work and the value we place on intelligence. How do you feel about your own accomplishment if it was brilliant, but involved very little extra effort on your part? Furthermore, how does one impart the idea, 'that which impresses you was a breeze for me,' without sounding cavalier?
posted by zennie at 12:18 PM on November 5, 2007

Do poor people experience this? I mean lower class people, not (temporarily) broke grad students. I can't really relate, as I was born and raised in the ghetto and I still live here. The people in this article seem like they're from some other world to me. One I find interesting, but I gotta believe that this sort of thing is more universal. I just can't think how it would manifest around here.

If they do experience "impostor syndrome", any idea how it would manifest? I'm really curious about it.
posted by Danila at 12:18 PM on November 5, 2007

Since we're all sharing:
Yeah, I can identify with this. The ADD emotions specifically.

I first really noticed this in High School when I stumbled on some IQ tests I took when I was 10. My reaction was, "Wow, I used to be really smart!" When my parents assured me that I still was, all I could feel was a sense of loss, and a, "Boy are they going to be disappointed."

And to all of you "Big Pharma wants to commoditize your insecurity" naysayers: don't I fucking wish. I'd pay top dollar to live up to the potential everyone seems to think I have.
posted by Richard Daly at 12:19 PM on November 5, 2007

I've never made a mitsake.
posted by Kwine at 12:26 PM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if anyone's overcome this successfully, I'd love to know what worked. The book listed in the article looks kind of "fluffy." Can anyone vouch for it?
posted by Richard Daly at 12:31 PM on November 5, 2007

evilangela, care to share the name of that book?

It's comforting to know you're not alone, but how do you get rid of it?
posted by canine epigram at 12:31 PM on November 5, 2007

tommasz, I went to school before the self-esteem movement, and I often feel this way. I just had a birthday and I feel guilty when someobody gives me a gift or wants to celebrate, because I didn't DO anything. Every time my boss asks to speak with me I assume I'm to be fired. I always assumed it was a raised Catholic thing. I don't feel any better about myself, but I guess I can stop blaming the Catholics now.
posted by rainbaby at 12:34 PM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Metafilter: We couldn't have all gotten here for crap reasons.
(oh, c’mon, that’s just made f’rit)

I s’pose it doesn’t help referencing the perennial pseudointellectual favorite (earned or not) Catcher in the Rye if you’re attempting to stave off feeling like a phony.

I’ve never really felt this way. Mostly I think because I’ve got that whole ‘Cat’ mindset thing going on “Yeah, I meant to do that. I’m all about underestimating the tackiness of the sole on the tip of my shoe, tripping making a “Skreeet!” sound, grabbing the towels on the towel rack, ripping the rack off the wall, catapulting it into the mirror over the sink, shattering it, overcompensating and falling backwards through and smashing the shower doors into the tub. Yeah, that’s pretty much my M.O. Place needed some new zest. Maybe a postmodern thing. Oh, here’s your towels. Well, *hoist*, gotta go. Things to do. *naps on couch*”
posted by Smedleyman at 12:46 PM on November 5, 2007

All Impostor Syndrome is is a slight short circuit in one of humanity's most basic evolutionary strengths: Chronic Dissatisfaction.

In the right context and in the right amount, chronic dissatisfaction has caused brilliant minds to invent all technology, science, the arts, and basically all that is worthwhile in humanity.

So I say, ride that Impostor wave, because believing you might be caught out to be a fraud will usually make you work a bit harder, and a bit smarter, and you may also make big contributions to the future of humanity.
posted by chimaera at 12:55 PM on November 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'm really interested in what different people regard as bullshitting. It sounds like folks intend it to mean succeeding at any given thing without much preparation or evaluation of your own work. A lot of times if I complete a large task without freaking out about it, I think to myself that I bullshitted it, but the quality of my work is a lot higher when it's not tainted by anxiety.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 12:59 PM on November 5, 2007

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” Nelson Mandella.
posted by lalochezia at 1:05 PM on November 5, 2007

I like what Hugh MacLeod drew in his blog: "Only talented people fret about mediocrity"
posted by jgbustos at 1:08 PM on November 5, 2007

Wondermark cuts to heart of the matter.
posted by John of Michigan at 1:09 PM on November 5, 2007

Then she surveyed the audience of overachievers and said, "We couldn't have all gotten here for crap reasons."

posted by Sticherbeast at 1:09 PM on November 5, 2007

If this really is the way 70% of us feel, doesn't that make it normal? Shouldn't we be treating people who don't feel this way?
posted by rusty at 1:32 PM on November 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

One thing Valerine Young does not mention in the article is what actually causes the impostor syndrome. Here is one answer to that:

The fact is, I'm not as talented as I'd like to be. Possibly, I could become more talented with practice, but it's not clear how much better I could become. In order to keep myself motivated to get better, to keep striving forward, I continue to measure myself against the ideal person (role model) I'd like to one day become. Presumably I could accept myself as I am, as all the smiling self-help morons suggest, but unfortunately I still don't know what I'm fully capable of, and must keep pushing forward in order to find out.

Young was right about one thing: the cyclical nature of the problem: When I actually am making progress, everything's fine. It's okay not to be as good as you'd like to be so long as you are moving forward. But when periods of stasis occur -- as always happens, particularly in my line of work -- then the full weight of the negative comparison can crush you like a fucking bug.

If there is a way out of this, I haven't figured out what it is.
posted by It ain't over yet at 1:35 PM on November 5, 2007

Isn't it possible that people who feel like imposters generally feel that way because at root, they are actually imposters? I've felt a lot of inferiority to other people in my life, but it seems to me all entirely rational. In academia this is the problem, only the best succeed. There are many who drop out along the way. Having your therapist tell you it's alright, it's just another case of "imposter syndrome", won't actually make you good enough to become a full professor in the end, unfortunately. Just accept it and go do something you can actually do, and actually like.
posted by snoktruix at 1:36 PM on November 5, 2007

You can look at this all a different way.

1. No one knows what they're doing. Everything is basically made up - Churchill didn't know what he was talking about when he was going on about having "nothing to fear but fear itself", he was just making up what sounded good in the circumstances; no one really had any idea how to win the Iraq war; Magellan didn't know how to circumnavigate the world; Hammurabi didn't know how to make up a legal system; etc.

2. So, if you're bullshitting, you're doing at least as well as everyone else. Be sure of what you're sure of, and figure out the rest as best you can, and it'll probably work out.

But it's difficult to know sometimes when you're doing things wrong, what with the utter lack of negative feedback in modern society. You can hardly get fired anymore. So: you need to figure out ways to ensure that you are doing it right, yourself, and then you can reassure yourself no matter what. With math, it's pretty easy to check your work, and we all did it in grade school -- with other things, you have to figure out some other way, but it ought to be just as important.

I think.

Of course, I am not an imposter syndrome professional. I'm just making all of this up.

(I also love that the writer, and a bunch of other people, call it the imposter syndrome. I hope I don't get the ADD.)
posted by blacklite at 1:38 PM on November 5, 2007

As I sat here in my office staring at my cherry bookcase, earning my well into the six figures salary, only 50 minutes away from procrasinating the entire day away, all the while completing zero work related items, I realized that I've never posted on metafilter because I suffer from a scorching case of imposter syndrome.

This is all to much, I think I'll leave early today.
posted by Bluehenspecial at 1:46 PM on November 5, 2007 [4 favorites]

The book I referred to is Your Own Worst Enemy: Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement. I've read through it once, and have started it again, and this time I'll be doing the exercises and activities that it says to do. I don't know how much it'll help, but I can say that just the initial read has already altered how I've been thinking about things and made me more aware of some of my bad habits.

I do suspect it might help with impostor syndrome, since I feel part of feeling like an impostor is just knowing you're not working as hard as you could/should be. But it's still a wait and see.
posted by evilangela at 1:50 PM on November 5, 2007

“Realizing you feel this way is step one. Realizing that almost everyone else, including people you truly admire, feels the same is step two. Understanding the power and freedom this gives you to shape yourself is step three.”

Well, maybe most people feel this way, but it's not healthy. I'm surprised that people in this thread are making this out to be a good thing.

Self-criticism and doubt, within reason, are good things. Knowing that you're usually wrong, to some degree, about pretty much everything is also a good thing. But that's not the same thing as “feeling like a fraud” and “fearing that people will discover you're a fraud”. That's unhealthy.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:04 PM on November 5, 2007

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.... Nelson Mandella

Actually, no, it's Marianne Williamson.
posted by dw at 2:38 PM on November 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

humble = selfaware
posted by MNDZ at 3:34 PM on November 5, 2007

I let my boss make me feel like a fraud, but I'm not, I? Oh, shit, maybe I am...
posted by wafaa at 3:49 PM on November 5, 2007

I feel something similar to this all the time, but I guess what I feel is a more egotistical variant. People here talk about "being found out." I used to worry about that when I was younger, but I don't much any more. People have been praising me for so long that I'm sure they'll continue. So I don't think I'm going to be found out.

Except by myself. My intelligence, talent and craftsmanship are SO far from where I want them to be that it doesn't matter how many people praise me. They don't have the goals for me that I have for myself.

I do like praise (and hate the opposite), because it makes me feel liked and accepted and socially important. But none of that stops me from feeling inadequate.

I sometimes wonder how many people's goals are completely interwined from their social realities. "Do you want to BE a great pianist or BE THOUGHT OF as a great pianist -- or do you even see a difference? If everyone in the world thinks of you as great, does that make you great?"

If I could wave a magic wand and promise these "frauds" that no one would ever "find them out" -- if I could really make them feel, deep down, that their "confidence game" had worked and would always work -- would they be content?
posted by grumblebee at 4:25 PM on November 5, 2007

I just ran across the imposter syndrome via an answer in AskMe a few days ago, and it struck a chord. So much of my life makes sense in te light of IS. I even did those tests to figure out if what I felt was real or was just a part of being a normal human. And it doesn't help that that the most common references to IS online is through Ms Young. But it's good to be able to blame a name than feel shitty at the end of the day :)
posted by dhruva at 4:30 PM on November 5, 2007

(’I’m not dead’ ‘You’re not fooling anyone you know’)

Funny thing tho, for every Nelson Mandella (ok, Williamson quote, but still...) or Ghandi or person like that, you have your Stalins, your Pinochets, your dictators in general who are also absolutely sure of themselves.
Most people who are self-questioning are better off being so (gotta go with Socrates on that). Some folks don’t have any self-doubt and perhaps those are the ones on the extreme ends of the bell cuve for better or worse.
I don’t know how important it is to be convinced of your self-worth or your aptitude to do something as it is to know why you’re doing what you are doing.
I might be just another schnook compared to Ghandi, but if I know the root of what I’m doing is just and honest and is the right thing to do, no force on Earth can stop me.
Of course, moral ambiguity is often a major gadfly in the modern age as well. It’s somewhat creepy that people think merit or excellence in and of itself is enough (or in this case, isn’t) and that some academic symbol is more acceptable than honest erudition at home. Of course, honest erudition at an Ivy league school is great too.
But feeling bright and capable, or even being bright and capable is secondary to conviction in execution.
You don’t have to be the right person for the job, if the job itself is right for you. If you’re doing it simply for status or the appearance and trappings of intellectual exellence rather than genuinely enjoying something as your element, yeah, you might want to re-think your thing.
Are you bullshitting? Easiest way to tell is by what it is you value from what you’re doing. If you excel, so much the better, but it should be about the thing, the writing, the surgery, the study, the ‘do’ of what it is rather than about ‘you.’

Which, really, is what Socrates was accused of doing, building this youth cult of personality, and he took poison at least in part to prove it wasn’t about him (given his last words), but about the honest teaching.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:36 PM on November 5, 2007

And indeed, the desire to refine your craft or skill or what have you, is a sure sign that you’re for real. Anyone of worth will value the thing itself and constantly refine their aptitude in execution rather than self-promotion. There are some few things I do very well. I have the luxury of working in one of them so I can hobby in another. As a consequence I can just practice without worrying about contests, seeking sponsorship, all that garbage, and just do it. I suppose it can seem phony to derive satisfaction from doing what you do well, but there is that shared appreciation of the thing itself (music, art, whatever) where you can stand back and appreciate your own execution of the thing. That’s happened to me. Watched some video footage and thought “wow, this dude is good” turns out it’s me. Nice surprise, but if you value what it is you do you can take that step back as a fan of - whatever - and appreciate your own contribution to it. Sometimes that takes practice.
Being unsatisfied with your own execution is merely the desire to be a better instrument. Doesn’t mean you’re in love with your own words or images or whatever.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:48 PM on November 5, 2007

This sounds like another name for a really old problem.

I think most of these people just don't feel like they are doing anything worthwhile. If I were a professional academic, I am sure I would feel the same way. I don't think that people are really wired to accept the rewards that come with that kind of work. Most people get real satisfaction out of helping other people, or making things. The fleeting recognition of ones peers for some sort of jargon laden academic insight just doesn't push any evolutionary buttons.
posted by jefeweiss at 5:33 PM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

It's misunderstanding to equate it with self-doubt. Impostor syndrome is not self-doubt but certainty of one's lack of worth.
posted by Kattullus at 8:49 PM on November 5, 2007

If you get old enough, eventually you outgrow this. Well, I did.

And I have my own crank theory about it.
posted by amba12 at 9:50 PM on November 5, 2007

I'm glad I don't write 2-minutes blog posts and spam links to them as my first comment on public forums to get advertising views. I'd REALLY feel like a fraud then.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:05 PM on November 5, 2007

Someone here (or in the article? can't find it now) said that artists are driven to work harder because they're afraid their work won't be good enough to sell, and they'll starve.

That's not my experience. I don't consider myself an artist, but unfortunately I work like one. I can put as much anguish into a journalistic assignment as Giacometti put into one of his sculptures. And I can tell you that it's not about selling or starving. It's about being driven to try to get down what you see and feeling inadequate to it. You have no idea how you're going to fucking do it. You've done this kind of thing successfully before, but that's no comfort because each one is a whole new ballgame. You've never done this one before. And maybe you can't. Maybe this time the impersonal powers beyond the ego won't come to your aid. (Could it be that the ego feels inadequate because it's not the one that ever actually does anything?)

It's a hypomanic-depressive, death-and-resurrection thing, if not fully bipolar. You dismantle yourself and then you have to put the thing you're working on together in order to save your own life. It feels like a matter of life and death every time. Maybe it has its origins in some kind of early insecurity or deprivation. I don't know. But it made me realize that "the people who build mountains are, in their own minds, only filling in holes."
posted by amba12 at 10:25 PM on November 5, 2007

I'm not looking for advertising views. I'm too small for that. I'm just inviting readers. Instead of posting all my thoughts here, I posted them on my blog to invite my readers back here. Linking back was an afterthought, just a way to continue the conversation. If posting a link to your own blog is a no-no here, please tell me. I'm new. But no one forces you to click a link.
posted by amba12 at 10:28 PM on November 5, 2007

“I'm glad I don't write 2-minutes blog posts and spam links to them as my first comment on public forums to get advertising views. I'd REALLY feel like a fraud then.”

She may be right, though, that it's something that many people outgrow, eventually.

A connection to this that people have been discussing is being very bright when you're young and getting a great deal of praise. If you're only mildly unusually good at something—and this is certainly true of intellectual abilities—then as a child you'll get praised for stuff that comes very easily. Speaking for myself, I think that played a big role in my youthful imposter syndrome. It's hard not to think that people are overestimating you when you know that you totally slacked-off on something and they are still praising you.

And so you spend a lot of time being praised and it feels pretty shaky.

The way I got out of the narcissism/insecurity trap that is set up for bright children was when I finally reconciled myself to the fact that no matter how exceptional I might be at any intellectual endeavor, I'm still going to be, at best, laughably mediocre in that exceptional peer group. Someone is always going to be much, much, much better and smarter than me at everything.

So now I'm just not thinking in these various comparative ways anymore. I accept it when I think I'm pretty good at something, or smart about something, though I figure it's only relative. If I'm not so good at something, or smart, well, I'm good and smart at other things. I mean, the bottom line is that I'm me, I'm not someone else, I'm not ever going to be someone else. I think I decided that the value I place in myself as a human being lies in how I treat and affect other people, not my more formal accomplishments or intelligence or anything else. I just try to be a good person and I feel better, or worse, depending upon how successful I feel I've been at that.

And I think that's all those of you here should be judging yourselves about. So few practical human achievements are actually that noteworthy in the grand scheme of things. If you win a Nobel, then, great, that's definitely something to be proud of. History will probably remember you. But making a certain amount of money, getting a high enough degree, living in a nice house, having enough papers published, winning a local award, starting a successful business, publishing a book, being promoted to Vice President, having an attractive spouse, or successful children...whatever, all those things are really very trivial in the grand scheme of things. They don't really represent much of a person's life, excepting perhaps the children, and so much of child-raising is a crapshoot, anyway.

There's so little in those things in which one can genuinely take pride—someone can accomplish all those things and still all his or her peers could agree that the world would have been better had he or she never lived. Those things aren't our measure.

Certainly, whether one really, truly is as smart as a person with an IQ of 150 just isn't something that anyone could really give a rat's ass about.

At our passing, when people look back upon our lives and think about who we were and what we did, none of those things are going to be what they're thinking about. What they'll be thinking will be: did he enrich the lives of the people around him? Is she remembered with great love by his family and friends? Did he make the world a better place by how he lived in it?

I have the strong impression that people worry much less that they might be imposters as good people than they are worried they might be imposters as successful or smart people. But maybe we should be a lot more worried about whether we are truly good people, or not. At the very least, it has a helluva a lot more relevance than worrying about whether or not you're an imposter at being smart or competent.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:35 PM on November 5, 2007 [4 favorites]

Sorry, this is my last rejoinder but that was a really hurtful way to be "welcomed." I went to the posting and commenting guidelines to see if I'd committed some terrible MF-culture faux pas and found this:

"(note: it's ok to link to your own things as comments in threads, if it adds to the discussion and/or saves space because you're written a reply elsewhere)"
posted by amba12 at 10:38 PM on November 5, 2007

It's not bullshitting when done right. It's fucking improvisation. And the trick is to realize that if you are good at improvising, you're good period.
posted by spitbull at 11:33 PM on November 5, 2007

I might add that (despite struggling with these same feelings myself from time to time, though not usually in my main line of work) I counsel grad students on this very subject all the time.

The flip side of the "everyone is incompetent" truism is that we have very little sense of how much we know when we do know something well. So much of it is unconscious, subconscious, intuitive, embodied . . . Almost every time I teach I feel completely underprepared. Then I go into the classroom, speak off the cuff (but knowing quite a bit more than my students about the subject) and . . . by golly the students learn shit and go on to great futures and write me ten years later and tell me how inspiring my classes were. Sometimes, anyway.

Of course, as most musicians know, this is exactly why God invented marijuana.
posted by spitbull at 11:37 PM on November 5, 2007

“Sorry, this is my last rejoinder but that was a really hurtful way to be ‘welcomed.’ I went to the posting and commenting guidelines to see if I'd committed some terrible MF-culture faux pas and found this...”

No, you didn't do anything wrong. But you did do something a bit suspicious. That your very first comment to MeFi was a link to one of your blog posts does look like something someone would do who just wanted to raise the online profile of their blog. We don't like people who aren't here to be here, but are here with ulterior motives and such. And self-linking in posts (the things that start these threads) is an absolute no-no.

TheOnlyCoolTime was being a jerk, and these things aren't really supposed to be hashed-out in-thread, but only through something like a MetaTalk post, which is the “self-policing” area of the site (as well as site-specific postings and other such MeFi-centric things). So he really was out-of-line no matter how you look at it. But you can also see how he'd be a bit suspicious.

So, welcome to MeFi and while sometimes we can be a prickly bunch (which is a nice way of putting what might better be expressed with fewer letters), we are generally better behaved than a lot of places on the web. I apologize for your hurt feelings and look forward to your comments and posts in the future.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:36 AM on November 6, 2007

posted by Sparx at 2:37 AM on November 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

The book I referred to is Your Own Worst Enemy: Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement.

I really hated that book. I don't doubt it's effectiveness for some, maybe most. I just found the author to be very judgemental and the worst thing was that I really didn't believe he'd ever really experienced "the habit of adult underachievement" himself. He came across as someone who had observed these "pathetic underachieving people" for a long time and felt a mixture of pity and contempt. Completing that book was yet another thing I did not achieve.

It seems to me that a lot of the people who experience "impostor syndrome" aren't actually underachievers, they just think they are. So perhaps a book like this is tailor-made for them. The kick in the pants they need. I don't know. I'm definitely an "adult underachiever" by most standards but I don't feel like an impostor. I don't feel the drive to achieve, thus, I don't feel like an impostor as I claim few achievements anyway. The only time I ever feel overestimated is when people reference my intelligence. But I'm getting over that.

Well, maybe most people feel this way, but it's not healthy. I'm surprised that people in this thread are making this out to be a good thing.

I completely agree. I think it's wonderful that so many a realizing that they are not alone, but this is really something that ought to be fought, not embraced as the way things should be.

humble = selfaware

The truly self-aware don't go around thinking they are worthless, or that they are frauds. That's only being aware of an inflated negative.

Impostor syndrome is not self-doubt but certainty of one's lack of worth.

Well that's awful.
posted by Danila at 2:58 AM on November 6, 2007

Yeah, I'm just an asshole. But someone had to say it while you still weren't out of line enough for me to go on Metatalk and ask for a banning - because if every comment post of yours was "hey, I wrote a few sentences about this on my blog which also sells books and has google ads etc." that's what would happen.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 5:08 AM on November 6, 2007

“I don't know. I'm definitely an ‘adult underachiever’ by most standards but I don't feel like an impostor. I don't feel the drive to achieve, thus, I don't feel like an impostor as I claim few achievements anyway. The only time I ever feel overestimated is when people reference my intelligence. But I'm getting over that.”

Yeah, I'm generally an underachiever, too, and perhaps that is why we're different from most of the rest of the people in this thread. But a lot of underachievers have other kinds of self-esteem and insecurity problems, and I no longer have those, either.

This whole notion of measuring yourself constantly against everyone else is perhaps quite natural, but it's not necessarily the best way to live one's life. Also, I found that giving up this habit of thought actually made it easier for me to “achieve”, in general. Partly it's because these sorts o insecurity are also about fear, and fear can paralyze (or at least distort one's responses). And it's also simply that it takes emotional energy to worry about these things all the time. Not wasting that energy means it's available to actually be productive.

All this isn't to say that I've achieved some sort of ego-less state in this regard. Far from it. But I've loosened those shackles tremendously compared to when I was younger, and I've done it enough to have a sense of how “right” it's been that I've done so. I would be very happy to have absolutely zero amount of emotional investment in things like being “right”, or being smart, or being successful, or being respected by other people. I do think I still care about being respected, in general as a person, quite a bit and I'm not sure how I can learn to let that go. But I think it would be good to do so.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:56 AM on November 6, 2007

One thing that happens as you get older (I'm sounding extremely ancient, I realize, and for MeFi maybe I am -- 61) is that on the one hand your unrealistic (fantasy) expectations of yourself get beaten out of you by life's normal disappointments, and on the other hand, you log enough real skill, experience, and accomplishment to be confident of what you are good at.

Perfectionism and feeling, not so much like a simple fraud as like I was barely disguising profound defectiveness and inadequacy, was one of the agonies of being young that I definitely don't miss along with the ecstasies. It seems a very widespread experience of being young that you look around and everyone else appears to have it so much more together than you do. Of course, that appearance is a fraud -- an illusion.
posted by amba12 at 7:52 AM on November 6, 2007

"We couldn't have all gotten here for crap reasons."

Oh yes we could, just let us ask ourselves.
posted by caddis at 12:14 PM on November 6, 2007

jefeweiss hit it for me...If you feel like an imposter at work, you probably are...and you probably kind of, somewhat
hate your job, or yourself. So ya, feel like a douche. I totally lucked out and have been in the same profession for 16 years. I've not had a single day where I didn't want to get into work as fast as I could. I've worked my nuts off to learn how to do it better than other guys, and it's totally where I want to be. Pay is meh, respect is king...totally good enough for illusions of greatness or huge achievement, just hard work everyday and the comfort that it will be there tomorrow. It's the process of the daily toil, and sense of accomplishment of sometimes seemingly small bullshit that makes it click for me.
Mefi is were I feel like an imposter...a total dumbass. I Marvel at the lack of confidence coming out of the minds here...snap out of it douchebags.
posted by greenskpr at 2:42 PM on November 6, 2007

I'd come out and say that I probably have this, but I have little faith in my skills in self-psychoanalysis.
posted by tehloki at 3:47 PM on November 6, 2007

Impostor Syndrome: Isn't that just a fancy name for Inferiority Complex, which is something that I've been plagued with since childhood.
posted by hadjiboy at 5:16 AM on November 7, 2007

« Older Great balls of everything   |   Fortyone Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments