The Imposter Syndrome of Imposter Syndrome

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For the longest time, one of my go-to self-conscious, afraid-of-compliments gesture was to proclaim my imposter syndrome. On the face of it, it always seemed like a modest and humble, if insecure move: I’m secretly scared you’re all going to think I am a fraud, so when you compliment me, I will propose that alternative theory. But in the last few days, I’ve been thinking about it and want to propose a thought. Isn’t proclaiming imposter syndrome status a false modesty, a sort of faux-humility? Because what is behind imposter syndrome is that you are actually good at what you are doing, but afraid to acknowledge it, or acknowledge others who are validating your greatness. I’m not saying those who proclaim imposter syndrome, like myself, are doing so out of a self-interested desire for compliments — I think these people, myself included, are genuinely insecure most of the time — but rather, that the starting point, the premise, is inherently flawed.

I’ve seen imposter syndrome explained by Dr. Valerie Young as affecting five different classifications of people:

  • The Perfectionist, which is rather self-explanatory.
  • The Workaholic, who feels like they must work harder to prove their worth, and yet, still somehow feel like they never quite measure up.
  • The Young Genius, who focuses on the process of accomplishment rather than the accomplishment itself, and if they aren’t succeeding (in their eyes) at the process, then they are failing.
  • The Soloist, who sees it as fraudulent and failing behavior to need to ask for help to accomplish a task.
  • The Expert, who, if there are cracks in their knowledge or expertise, feel like a phony.

All of these classifications make intuitive sense. If I relate to any of the five, I relate somewhat to the Soloist, as I like to try, and try as long as I can, on my own until I ask for help, but also, I’m not afraid to ask for help. I do it all of the time in work and in my personal life! So, what kind of imposter am I, if I’m not one of these five? The Depressed Imposter. I’ve lived my teen and adult life for so long with chronic depression, suicidal ideation, and a completely underground view of my self that any approbation that floats my way, I see it as debris rather than a lifebuoy. That can’t possibly be a lifebuoy, and even if it is, it must have floated my way by accident surely.

Does the Depressed Imposter still fit the mold of imposter syndrome as false modesty and humility? Perhaps. Perhaps I am overthinking it, but what has me hung up is the pesky premise: No matter which sort of imposter you relate to, it starts from the premise that you actually are that good, and are just unable to see it. But what if you genuinely aren’t? What if you just aren’t good at something? That isn’t the end of the world, mind you! it is okay to not measure up at something. To fail. To make mistakes. To miss the mark. At work. In life.

How do you determine what is an accurate appraisal of you talents, or lack thereof versus you being blinded by imposter syndrome? Numbers seem to help. If more than one person seems to recognize what you bring to the table, I think that speaks more to the latter than the former. You can’t possibly be fooling more than one person, or an entire organization, can you? It has been done to more nefarious ends, of course, but it seems rare.

As usual with my writing, I’m writing through what I’ve been thinking and writing to find out what I think. I don’t have surefire answers here and I’m not even sue if I’m right, especially as someone who has long thought I suffer from, and still do think I suffer from, imposter syndrome (oh, the irony).

If there is anything humans are good at, it is pathologizing themselves. What is imposter syndrome versus real barriers to career success? What is imposter syndrome versus mental health issues that affect one’s ability to succeed in life and in the workplace? Is that asking a question with a built-in answer? I’m not sure!

I suppose when I think about always falling on the humble sword of imposter syndrome, I can see how others might take it as false modesty. Just take a compliment, sort of thing. And yes, again, I can’t escape the feeling that I’m having imposter syndrome … about having imposter syndrome. This meta thought is courtesy of having started a new job where I’m constantly encountering it, and notice myself mentioning my imposter syndrome instead of accepting a compliment. But I don’t think I’m expressing a false humility! ISN’T THAT WHAT AN IMPOSTER WOULD SAY?

I’m going to stop typing now. What do you think?

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