During an informational interview I had the other day, the interviewer (and actual friend of mine) brought up the topic of the Imposter Syndrome. For those unaware, Imposter Syndrome (or Impsy, for short) is a highly common thought dilemma in which one dismisses or refuses to acknowledge their own accomplishments, instead, choosing to put their own success down to luck, timing, convincing others that they’re more intelligent or competent than they actually are, or, more often than not, a combination of all these. Now, I had thought about Impsy before this conversation. But on those particular occasions I happened to be younger, perhaps misguided and a little naive, and didn’t really know how to describe what I felt at the time. Not until I got out of college and into the “real world”, did these sentiments began to really make any sense.
According to a recent study ("The Imposter Phenomenon"), roughly 70 percent of people will report experiencing at least some symptom of Impsy (symptoms can range from perfectionism, fear of failure, undermining successes and overanalyzing failures) in their lifetime. Impsy is far more common than we think; even so-called “high achievers” have reported signs of Impsy, such as celebrities, intellectuals, and executives.
Just imagine this for a moment: in the face of obvious success, an executive could feasibly feel like a fraud in the company they started. Or that due to one’s brain chemicals, a company founder (Cannon-Brookes), a Supreme Court Justice (Sotomayor), or an Academy-Award winning actor (Hanks), might find themselves in a position of depressive deception—like they’ve fooled an entire population to get to where they are. Which is obviously an invalid thought. There’s no way Tom Hanks managed to deceive the Motion Picture Academy into giving him an Oscar for his performances in both Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, nor did he trick Barack Obama into giving him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Hanks worked hard, put in the dedication, heart, and talent, for decades. That’s how he got to where he is today. And yet, the brain works in mysterious ways.
I suppose there’s some solace in knowing these thoughts—of feeling like an imposter—aren’t limited to my own experiences. Countless others have felt this way too. But at this point in my life, my career, I’m looking everywhere for indications that I’m doing the “right” thing; the desire to find my “place” is at an all time high. And in every direction I turn, the same doubts and questions come flooding in.
There’s an interesting philosophical notion at play here: if a super majority of people report feeling like an imposter, then perhaps the feeling isn’t all that out-of-place. Maybe I should just embrace the imposter, instead of turn away from it. You’re welcome to feel this way, I can say, but you’re 100% wrong. This is a good coping mechanism, of sparring with this inner imposter and not turning away from him (could be a her; I really don’t know). In that way I can both acknowledge this character and undermine it’s potential power.
If you’re familiar with the show Family Guy, you’ll know what kind of voice an “imposter” character might carry. I’m of course referring to the Phony Guy (his real name escapes me) found here on your friendly neighborhood YouTube. This character makes random appearances throughout an episode or two—shouting remarks at other characters’ perceived success. He only gets a few lines, but he is immediately the loudest voice in the scene.
While watching Family Guy, I always thought this guy was obnoxious. And in a lot of ways he is. If he were a real person on the street, he’d be shouted at pretty quickly. But as I’m confronted with my own voice yelling “phony” a lot of the time, I’ve found some respite knowing this guy is both very real, and remarkably insecure. The gumption it takes to call someone out for being a “phony” is enormous; one really has to have a heightened sense of self-righteousness in order to do such a thing. After all, we’re still improvising.
So there’s absolutely no merit in what this character, this imposter, has to say. This voice is simply there to make us all feel uncomfortable in our own skin; it’s an insecurity within each of us, an insecurity that strikes when we’re feeling at our most confident. Over the next few weeks, as I search for and hopefully get a full-time job, I’ll try to keep this thought in mind—that we’re each the captain of our own vessels, and every ship has a drunken idiot shouting insults and deceptions for no real reason other than to affirm his/her own existence. Keep that in mind, and you can just about tell this asshole just about anything so you can shut it up and move on with your next improvisation.