Shame, Guilt, and Impostor Syndrome

When self-doubt becomes an ethical burden, how should we respond?

Posted Nov 20, 2020

Source: Silviarita/Pixabay

People who suffer from impostor syndrome have all the external hallmarks of success—good grades, promotions, positive feedback from their peers. Yet deep down they feel inadequate, as if they are not really up to the job. It’s no surprise that impostor syndrome can make us feel stressed and miserable. What’s more surprising is that accepting a diagnosis of impostor syndrome may make matters even worse.

Impostor syndrome hovers uncertainly between psychiatry, psychology, and popular culture. It is absent from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), yet there are plenty of research studies exploring the prevalence of impostor syndrome in different groups of people (psychologists talk of "Impostor Phenomenon," not "Impostor Syndrome"). In its turn, this scientific literature is overshadowed by endless websites, self-help books, coaching guides—and blog posts like this one!—about impostor syndrome. Their usual aim is to help sufferers by informing them that their self-doubts fit a pattern, and are shared by many others, including celebrities, artists, and sporting stars.

Is this information genuinely helpful? One trouble with the "impostor" label is that an impostor is not merely inadequate. An impostor is also a cheat, a fraud, someone who intentionally deceives other people. The personal shame associated with perceived inadequacy now has an overlay of moral guilt: I am wronging others by deliberately covering up my shortcomings. Well-meaning suggestions like "fake it until you make it" reinforce this idea that we have to lie if we don’t think we’re good enough. Many of us can’t get comfortable with lying, and nor should we.

So encouraging people to think of their self-doubts as "impostor syndrome" may increase their distress, by adding the guilt of deception to the shame of inadequacy. But what if someone already thinks of herself as a fraud? Won’t it be helpful for her to discover that this is a "syndrome" that also afflicts other people?

Not always. One first response to learning about impostor syndrome is to think, "How interesting! So many talented people who mistakenly believe they are impostors! And then there’s me, a genuine impostor." Someone with engrained self-doubts will not easily recognise those doubts as misplaced, even once she can spot impostor syndrome in other people. Self-diagnosis requires us to somehow believe that we are inadequate and at the same time reject that belief as mistaken; to think of ourselves as fraudulent, and yet recognise that truly we are not.

Another paradox arises because impostor syndrome often involves a deep fear of being "unmasked." Outspokenly owning one’s impostor syndrome risks drawing attention to the very inadequacies we are supposedly trying to conceal, and highlighting our history of supposed deception. Shame and guilt conspire to make this a huge challenge: ironically, the worse one’s impostor syndrome is, the harder it will be to accept it in public. Meanwhile, once we are surrounded by other people discussing their impostor syndrome, it can seem boastful to say that we are free of the condition: the ethics of modesty encourages us to join the crowd of self-diagnosed impostors.  

But if we can manage it, there can be something rather appealing about categorising our angsts, quirks, and difficulties as a "syndrome." The pseudo-medical language can make it easier to distance ourselves from troubling thoughts—"that’s just my impostor syndrome talking"—and to find solidarity with others who feel the same way. Framing our low confidence and inability to "feel the fear and do it anyway" as symptoms of a disorder may alleviate the guilt of seeing them as character flaws for which we are morally responsible.

There is no straightforward tally of the pros and cons of our culture of impostor syndrome, encouraging people to consider self-diagnosis or prompting them to discuss this with friends, students, or co-workers. But recognising the moral dimensions of impostor syndrome, and how it is shot through with opportunities for guilt and shame, is crucial for deepening our understanding of this intriguing yet stress-inducing condition.