Rethinking the Impostor Syndrome

The Impostor Syndrome leaves people doubting their abilities and anxious about imminent exposure of being a fraud. They may have sound evidence of their achievements, but nonetheless feel these do not reflect their true ability or worth; instead, they believe success is either based on luck or is attributed to them in error.

Over the past two decades, I have written about the Impostor Syndrome in several different contexts. Focusing on college students, I found that many believed they had been admitted “in error,” and risked being “found out” and found wanting. Like Eleanor Shellstrop in Michael Schur’s The Good Place, they work frantically to keep their deficits under wraps. The task of the educator is to ease anxiety, hone their confidence and encourage the effort necessary to further achievement.

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The recent revelations by Michelle Obama that she too suffered from the impostor syndrome, has stirred further interest. The BBC asked me to reflect on this issue and posed a question I am often asked: Is the Impostor Syndrome more common in women than in men? The assumption is that women are less confident, more likely to underestimate their abilities and hence feel either surprise or anxiety at their achievements, while men, it seems, are more likely to exaggerate their abilities. However, the Impostor Syndrome affects women and men equally. The difference is that women tend to be far more uncomfortable in its grip because they believe their inner and outer worlds should make a perfect match, whereas men are more likely to accept that bravado, or a brave front, is one of the things expected of them.

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Michelle Obama’s case is very special: anyone in her position—anyone, that is, who is not a narcissist—might well suffer from it, because no real-life mortal can live up to the highly unrealistic expectations many have of public figures. Part of Michelle Obama’s amazing charisma stems from that genuine, empathic self-reflection; while clearly enjoying being who she is, with clear faith in her judgment and abilities, she seems devoid of the dark side of narcissism. If internalized voices once disturbed her with their stylized taunts (“Who do you think you are?”) she has silenced them with integrity and warmth. Through her story, we can see a model for facing down that insidious internal inquisitor.

Another very different revelation has added a new dimension to the Impostor Syndrome that may explain why some young people succumb to it. The indictment of 33 parents who paid thousands of dollars to ensure, by unfair means, high test scores and/or sports profiles for a son or daughter with a view to gaming college admissions, suggests a parental mindset that badly infects a child’s self-belief.

If we can look into the mind of a parent who would engage in such fraud, we can see a heady mix of anxiety, ambition and brutal distrust in the son or daughter. The clear assumption is, “My kid is not really worthy of admissions. He or she won’t make it on their own.” The need to protect one’s child from their own inadequacy, on the one hand, and the parent’s need for the child to shine in order to satisfy a parental need, on the other, are nearly impossible to disentangle.

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There is the obvious wish to do best by one’s child, but the goal is misconceived as a need not for the son or daughter to be best he or she can be, but to be seen to be best. So the implication is that though a parent sees a child's limitations, the child should still look like the best or have what the best have. Second, there is the notion that the parent is the fixer of the child’s life, and that black market networks and money fix things.

Press coverage notes that the children themselves have not been charged and that in many cases, they knew nothing about the deception. But it’s a safe bet that the son or daughter felt the parental anxiety – anxiety to cover over the parent’s narcissistic wound at having a non-stellar child. The son or daughter would also feel the parent’s disorganized outlook on necessary compromises and choices based on who a child is. These parents are likely to look with incomprehension on a life in which every wish is not satisfied. At the same time, there seems to be a lack of concern for being an imposter, for making a claim to excellence or achievement you have not earned.

Most of us, as parents, learn to adjust any sky-high expectations we have of our brilliant baby and toddler and child. It is not that our sense of a developing child’s “genius” is delusional. The normally developing child is a genius. But normal genius does not always give a child a competitive edge. Nor should this be our focus; what matters is making use of ability and interest and passion. If we think we have to fashion, through deception, a pretend world in which our child is always seen to shine, then we leave our child with a deep sense of inadequacy.

Set Smart Limits

The parents who cheated on behalf of their child also cheated their child. Whether or not the children knew about the specific deception, they would be smart enough to know that failing to create the illusion of success threatened their parent. They would also be smart enough to feel deep shame, both on their behalf and on that of the parent. In such cases, the Impostor Syndrome becomes a terrible solution to an impossible relational dilemma: pretend to be what you are not, or break your parent’s selfish heart.