Let me introduce you to two women. One is nearly 49 years old, the first in her family to get a university degree. She began teaching college courses before completing her M.A., has published five books and several articles, and is a professional public speaker. She has stitched together a purposeful, self-tailored, unique career of teaching, writing, and other freelancing so as to keep her future options open and to reduce boredom, and has worked in the same fields for over 20 years.
Her friend is the same age, also a writer, but she has yet to publish a novel. She was valedictorian of her high school class, but the school was not highly competitive and she did not take the hardest courses. She is just a part-time college teacher despite two decades of work, still only an adjunct as she did not get a Ph.D. She bounces from interest to interest and task to task without a clear, overarching, specialized career path, and has started far more projects than she's ever completed.
You may have already figured out that these women are the same person: different versions of myself, what I might think of as my “social media profile” persona and my “imposter syndrome” self.
While not an officially diagnosable disorder, the imposter syndrome is a term used to describe feelings of not deserving what we achieve. We discount our success as the result of luck or being nice or even our own manipulation, and we live in constant fear of being unmasked as a fraud or an imposter.
Our first instinct when confronted with such painful feelings might be to try to bury them as deeply as possible or shout them down with affirmations and status updates, but author and leadership expert Michael Jarrett reminds us that our Jungian “dark side” of doubt is an important part of who we are, and it can usurp our better intentions if unacknowledged:
“This ‘false self’ is what people present to the outside world. But the other side rumbles quietly inside, acting out in less extreme ways but still potentially dysfunctional. It may manifest itself as an inability to face work, a constant feeling of anxiety or a loss of reality when making decisions.”
Since the term "imposter syndrome" was coined in the 1970s, technology has added another layer of complication. One can't help wondering to what extent social media, even the less “chatty” sites such as LinkedIn, fuel our ambivalence, as we push our public personas to the fore with more urgency than ever before, and what effect this may have on future generations.
Psychology Today blogger Jim Taylor explores how technology shapes children’s sense of self: “The goal for children in their use of technology, whether Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, or text messaging, becomes how they can curry acceptance, popularity, status, and, by extension, self-esteem.” He cites studies that suggest “Facebook users who had low self-esteem posted more ‘self-promotional’ materials on their pages than those with high self-esteem,” and “those who were more dependent on outside influences for their self-esteem were more likely to spend more time and post more photos of themselves on Facebook.”
As much as we may try to smother our imposter selves with public personas or sheer will, the dark side does not disappear. In “An Academic With Imposter Syndrome” (The Chronicle of Higher Education), Joseph Kasper writes about how “the constant effort to flee from or conquer the negative thoughts and feelings that attend impostor syndrome does nothing so much as intensify it.” He has been better served by “nonavoidance strategies”:
"I have come to believe and accept the idea that anxiety, panic, and impostor syndrome are by this point so deeply integrated into my identity and sense of self that they are unlikely ever to disappear, no matter what I do. That probably sounds like despair, but actually it is quite the opposite.
It is liberating. Because it frees me from the ceaseless effort to be something that I have never been: not-anxious, not-panicked Joseph."
Interestingly, the final line of the piece notes that “Joseph” is a pseudonym.
Tara-Nicholle Nelson, in “The Upside of Imposter Syndrome: Lessons from Women in Tech” (Forbes), also suggests we lean in rather than back away when the imposter rears:
"Know that it’s coming, anticipate it, feel it—even lean into it and sit with it for awhile, instead of fighting it—it will go away faster that way. But approach your new frontier with a clear plan of action, and then absolutely refuse to be moved, deterred, slowed down or stopped by any Imposter Syndrome symptoms that come."
So, which version of myself is the correct one? As Yoda might put it, both, they are. And neither is. What I have realized is that when I feel I am an imposter, I have something in my life for which I feel lucky enough to question whether I deserve it. When I can turn those lucky thoughts around to focus on gratitude for what I have, regardless of whether it was 100 percent earned, I can proceed with more ease and confidence, with more acceptance of any doubts I may have. In this sense, "feeling lucky" regarding our success does not have to be part of the problem and can, in fact, be helpful.
Tom Hanks expressed the following thoughts on being lucky and doubting oneself regarding his role as journalist Mike McAlary in Nora Ephron’s last work, Lucky Guy (from "Tom Hanks, Broadway's New Kid," by Patrick Healy):
“’Look, the title is “Lucky Guy.” It’s about somebody who is almost good enough to deserve what he achieves. And I understand that,’ Mr. Hanks said during an interview on the stage of the Broadhurst Theater, where the play, his Broadway debut, is set to begin its 15-week run on Friday.
‘I still feel sometimes that I’d like to be as good as so-and-so actor,’ he continued. ‘I see some other actors’ work, and I think I’ll never get there. I wish I could.’”
One thing is certain: More success and more awards do not always bring the self-assuredness we seek. In fact, the imposter in us may feed on them. The question may not be whether we always deserve what we achieve, of even if we achieve what we deserve, but rather if we can learn to live with the discomfort inherent in the questions rather than run too quickly to one side or the other.