Luis is one of the most loved and respected people in his circle of friends, but when sixty people showed up at his surprise 30th birthday party and showered him with affection, he hid in the bathroom for ten minutes because all the attention set off a panic attack. In his childhood, he was treated as an outcaste and a scapegoat. His father rejected him as not the kind of boy he was supposed to be, and his older brothers and classmates taunted him as a sissy. Today he knows he’s loved, but he panics because he can’t shake the feeling that all his friends will discover any minute that, in his core, he’s unworthy of their esteem, and will reject him in the same way he was rejected as a child.
Martin is a successful general contractor who employs a crew of thirty men. They trust him, call him “sir” out of genuine respect, and follow his orders. But he grew up in poverty with an emotionally disturbed father who was unable to hold onto a steady job. As an adult, Martin has a recurrent dream in which the police show up at his business and arrest him for some kind of fraud, and he often imagines that someday everyone in the crew will lose patience with his “incompetence” and walk off the job. In his rational mind, he knows that none of this will ever happen, but the dread of it haunts him.
Both these men are struggling with what some psychologists call “the impostor syndrome.” They have a persistent feeling that they’re faking it, that they’re pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes. They see their failures and mistakes as real, but attribute their success to lucky accidents, flukes, and skillful deception; and they and fear that it will all taken away from them once they’re exposed for who they really are.
In Luis’ case, a homophobic upbringing is clearly an important underlying issue. For others, like Martin, class issues are involved: when people have more professional and financial success than their parents, they often have the fear that their success is somehow ill-gotten gain, and that they don’t really deserve their affluence. Sometimes, sexism or racism is involved: the impostor syndrome was first noted during the ‘70’s among women who were entering formerly male-dominated professions, and then among minorities who were leaving poverty behind and entering the middle class. I’ve also observed the syndrome among people who have advanced degrees but come from families with little education. They struggle against the secret suspicion that they aren’t really intelligent or knowledgeable, and don’t have any expertise in the fields in which they were trained.
One issue that seems to be involved in many cases of this syndrome is a strange kind of guilt that arises from loyalty. People who are significantly happier, wealthier, more educated, etc., than their parents, sometimes experience their success as a betrayal or abandonment of their families, and believe that their achievements are somehow at their expense. They disavow their success because, consciously or unconsciously, they’re ashamed of it.
But my impression is that the most basic issue in the impostor syndrome is an inherent conservatism in the human mind. Early in life we all form mental maps, based on very limited childhood experiences, which tell us who we are and what we can expect from life. For many people, when their later experience significantly diverges from their expectations, they’re less inclined to revise their mental maps than to question the validity of their experience. Once core beliefs are formed, they are amazingly resistant to change.
There are three qualities, important in achieving any important psychological changes, which are vital in overcoming the impostor syndrome: skepticism, vigilance, and humility. Regarding skepticism: basic attitudes toward ourselves and our lives don’t begin to change until we recognize that they are just that – attitudes – not fixed, objective realities. A helpful motto for facilitating cognitive change is “Don’t believe everything you think.” Vigilance is important because we tend to be unconscious of our core beliefs in the same way that we’re unconscious of breathing. Deliberate and sustained attention to what our minds are telling us is essential to changing the contents of our minds. Since the impostor syndrome is so bound up with low self-esteem, it may sound strange to say that part of overcoming it involves practicing humility. But for Luis and Martin, accepting the possibility that they fundamentally don’t know who they really are is essential to altering their fixed, faulty perceptions of themselves. Because their core beliefs are based on past experiences they are inevitably out of date. If they can cultivate the habit of mindfulness – paying attention to what is actually happening in the present moment without filtering it through their core beliefs – they will become open to what in Zen Buddhism is known as “beginner’s mind,” a state of mind that is fresh, clear, and free of fixed ideas. This is the state of mind that allows new perceptions and new points of view to emerge.