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.
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.
the amazing American author and poet Maya Angelou. She shared that, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'”