I sometimes struggle with Impostor Syndrome. Though this is typically the domain of the successful (a group to which I don’t claim to be a part of), I do, occasionally, suffer from its symptoms. For example, over the past few months, approximately 250 people have subscribed to this blog, and a handful of these readers have sent me compliments about the writing.
While this temporarily boosts my ego, it’s not too long before I wonder if their compliments are a mistake, that I managed to produce a piece of writing they liked only by some accident of fate. I worry that I’ll be found out as a fraud who really doesn’t know anything about ancient wisdom, and that the advice and knowledge I share will actively hurt people.
Apparently, Impostor Syndrome is fairly common.
Needless to say, the list of people who sometimes worry about being uncovered as an impostor is as impressive as it is long. Having to live with a nagging fear of being “found out” as not being as smart or talented or deserving or experienced or (fill-in-the-blank) as people think is a common phenomenon. So common, in fact, that the term “Impostor Syndrome” was coined to describe it back in the 1980’s. Indeed, researchers believe that up to 70% of people have suffered from it at some point. Myself included.
Basically, many people feel that their accomplishments are a fluke, and that who they really are is someone less than their accomplishments.
As a result, modern treatment is designed to help people who suffer from Impostor Syndrome narrow the gap between their view of themselves and their accomplishments. The big idea is to ground the success of these “impostors” in objective facts, allowing them to internalize their accomplishments and ultimately increase their self-confidence.
Consider these 8 steps to overcome Impostor Syndrome detailed in a Fast Company article:
- Recognize that it exists.
- When you receive positive feedback, embrace it with objectivity and internalize it. By denying it, you are hurting that person’s judgement.
- Don’t attribute your successes to luck.
- Don’t talk about your abilities or successes with words like “merely,” “only,” “simply,” etc.
- Keep a journal. Writing your successes and failures down gives you a retrospective insight about them, and re-reading them makes you remember equally both of them.
- Recognize that the perfect performer doesn’t exist, and that problems will pop up eventually. Take them as little fires under you that make you move forward.
- Be proud of being humble.
- Remember that it’s okay to seek help from others, and that even the best do it.
But this form of self-help seems a bit shallow. It only addresses the superficial nature of Impostor Syndrome, your perceptions about your accomplishments.
If we dive a little deeper, perhaps we can understand the real root of the problem, which is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Self.
The late Alan Watts, an expert in Eastern Philosophy, wrote a book called “The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are” that draws heavily on Hindu teachings to explain why we experience such anxiety about our place in the world, especially in the West.
Here are three takeaways from the book that I believe can help anyone suffering from Impostor Syndrome.
Accomplishments are not real
We suffer from a particular delusion in our meritocratic society that the world is an orderly place and that our actions will lead to predictable results. If we work hard, we will be successful. If we slack off, we will not be. This illusion of control is a necessary pre-condition to experiencing Impostor Syndrome. You can only feel anxiety about your successes if you feel like you can have influence over them.
For example, the earth’s physical features are not orderly. They are “wiggly” and the layout doesn’t necessarily make sense.
Apart from such human artifacts as buildings and roads (especially Roman and American roads), our universe, including ourselves is thoroughly wiggly. Its features are wiggly in both shape and conduct. Cloud, mountains, plants, rivers, animals, coastlines – all wiggle. They wiggle so much and in so many different ways that no one can really make out where one wiggle begins and another ends, whether is space or time.
However, we have managed to convince ourselves that it is orderly by applying a grid system to the earth. Because we created a system in which we can be precise about a location on the earth, we gain a sense of control over something which we don’t have any control over.
Much later, some other genius thought of catching the world in a net….order has been imposed on chaos… Centuries later, the same image of the net was imposed upon the world as the lines of both celestial and terrestrial latitude and longitude, as graph paper for plotting mathematical wiggles, as pigeonholes for filing, as the ground plan for cities. The net has thus become one of the presiding images of human thought. But it is always an image, and just as no one can use the equator to tie up a package, the real wiggly world slips like water through our imaginary nets.
We never truly impose order on the world, we just perceive it to be organized, even if it’s not.
However much we divide, count, sort, or classify this wiggling into particular things and events, this is no more than a way of thinking about the world: it is never actually divided.
In the same way that we mistake our system of organizing the world with the world itself, we also mistake our particular sensory experiences and our thoughts for our true Self, our ego.
…we are so absorbed in conscious attention, so convinced that this narrowed kind of perception is not only the real way of seeing the world, but also the very basic sensation of oneself as a conscious being, that we are fully hypnotized by its disjointed vision of the universe.
People suffering from Impostor Syndrome view themselves in a certain way, that they are only as worth as much as their accomplishments. But perhaps there is no such thing as an “accomplishment.” Perhaps accomplishments, like the coordinate system, are just a way of cataloguing the results of our work, allowing ourselves to feel some sort of control.
If for example, I wrote a blog post that went viral (perhaps this one), I can then categorize this as a “good” blog post which provides some meaning to my work. It is an “accomplishment.” But calling it an accomplishment doesn’t describe reality. I had a thought I put it in writing, and other people read it. Perhaps people even enjoyed it. To call it an accomplishment makes me feel like I had more control than I really did, and control feels good.
So perhaps people suffering from Impostor Syndrome are not mistaken in that their success is a fluke. Their mistake is believing that success shouldn’t be a fluke, that there is some sort of predictable cause and effect reaction for which they should take credit or blame.
Understanding that your judgment of your work is not the same as the work itself goes a long way to removing the illusion that you are only as good as your work.
You are distinct, not separate
To state a cliché, everyone is unique. There are no two who are exactly alike. Each one of us has a unique temperament, interests, and way of viewing the world.
However, this view of individuality often leads to the sense that we are somehow separated from others and the rest of the world. I am my own person, and everyone and everything is else is “the other.” I am responsible only to myself, and my success is determined by how well I conduct myself in the world of “the other.”
Unfortunately, this view creates perpetual anxiety. If you are indeed separate from everything else, the burden of your existence falls solely on you. Thus, your accomplishments, or lack thereof, become a reflection of you and only you. With this worldview comes pre-occupation with how successful you are.
In his exaggerated valuation of separate identity, the personal ego is sawing off the branch on which he is sitting, and then getting more and more anxious about the coming crash!.
But people don’t exist in a vacuum. Indeed, simply try to describe yourself without referencing anything external to you. To say you are from Boston implies that part of who you are derives from the place you came. To say you are a manager implies a relationship to people in a professional setting. To say you are a mother implies that you are responsible to your children.
So it is a complete myth that we are individuals completely separate from others.
However, there is still the sense that you are unique, which can be explained by Watts as being “distinct, but not separate.”
The individual may be understood neither as an isolated person nor as an expendable, humanoid working-machine. He may be seen, instead, as on particular focal point at which the whole universe expresses itself – as an incarnation of the Self, of the Godhead, or whatever one may choose to call IT.
If that statement is too difficult to understand, consider this analogy.
For every individual is a unique manifestation of the Whole, as every branch is a particular outreaching of the tree. To manifest individuality, every branch much have a sensitive connection with the tree, just as our independently moving and differentiated fingers must has a sensitive connection with the whole body. The point, which can hardly be repeated too often, is that differentiation is not separation.
Your success or accomplishments then, don’t make sense in the context of a completely separate self. It would be like crediting a baseball pitcher’s arm with throwing a strikeout.
If you can grasp that you, while unique in function, are only a part of collection of processes in the universe, you can begin to let go of the feeling that your work and accomplishments (which are not real anyway) are a direct reflection of the true you, the true Self.
Life is a cosmic game, so appreciate the present
A key symptom of Impostor Syndrome is pre-occupation with the future. Particularly, that you will be “found out” in the future and your life will come crashing down. Thus, one must always be on guard to never be found out; you must always be looking over your metaphorical shoulder for the person who will finally reveal that you are, indeed, not who you appear to be.
Of course, this is no way to live a life.
Because [the individual] is now so largely defined as a separate person caught up in a mindless and alien universe, his principal task is to get one-up on the universe and to conquer nature. This is palpably absurd, and since the task is never achieved, the individual is taught to live and work for some future in which the impossible will at last happen, if not for him, then at least for his children. We are thus breeding a type of human being incapable of living in the present – that is, of really living.
Unless you can live in the present, there is no point in planning for a future.
For unless one is able to live fully in the present, the future is a hoax. There is no point whatever in making plans for a future which you will never be able to enjoy. When your plans mature, you will still be living for some other future beyond. You will never, never be able to sit back with full contentment and say, “Now, I’ve arrived!” Your entire education has deprived you of this capacity because it was preparing you for the future, instead of showing you how to be alive now.
We learned earlier that accomplishments are not real, they are merely judgments we apply to our work, and that our work and our entire being is not separate from others. Once we embrace this attitude, we can go on with the business of living and being in the world in such a way that we can enjoy it. Indeed, we can view life as a sort of game that will continue to go on long after we die.
It comes, then, to this: that to be ‘viable,” livable, or merely practical, life must be lived as a game – and the ‘must’ here expresses a condition, not a commandment. It must be lived in the spirit of play rather than work, and the conflicts which it involves must be carried on in the realization that no species, or party to a game, can survive without its natural antagonists, its beloved enemies, its indispensable opponents.
To truly live, one must accept that it’s a game, and that when you accept that it’s a game, you will feel it.
Thus when the line between myself and what happens to me is dissolved and there is no stronghold left for an ego even as a passive witness, I find myself not in a world but as a world which is neither compulsive nor capricious. What happens is neither automatic nor arbitrary; it just happens, and all happenings are mutually interdependent in a way that seems unbelievably harmonious. Every this goes with every that. Without others there is no self, and without somewhere else there is no here, so that – in this sense – self is other and here is there.
And once you experience this, you can return to your work, to return to your unique function in the world with a new attitude, one that will dissolve you of your Impostor Syndrome, as there are no such thing as impostors. Things are as they are.
Once you have seen this you can return to the world of practical affairs with a new spirit. You have seen that the universe is at root a magical illusion and a fabulous game, and that there is no separate ‘you’ to get something out of it, as if life were a bank to be robbed. The only real ‘you’ is the one that comes and goes, manifests and withdraws itself eternally in and as every conscious being. For ‘you’ is the universe looking at itself from billions of points of view, points that come and go so that the vision is forever new. What we see as death, empty space, or nothingness is only the trough between the crests of this endlessly waving ocean. It is all part of the illusion that there should seem to be something to be gained in the future, and that there is an urgent necessity to go on and on until we get it.
The current prescription for Imposter Syndrome is to simply convince the suffering impostor that he is indeed, deserving of his success.
But the underlying assumptions are still grounded in the values of achieving worldly success, the values of ambition and achievement.
What Watts (and Hindu philosophy) says is that the underlying problem of Impostor Syndrome is not merely an issue of self-esteem, it is a fundamental misunderstanding of who we are and our relationship to the universe.
To truly overcome our sense of alienation and anxiety about what we’re doing with our lives, we must be willing to undergo an intense self-examination, one that goes deeper than merely journaling our successes and failures or “seeking help from others.” We must learn to see past the ego, the social conditioning, the cultural values we inherited.
Only then can we truly see the world as it is, and learn to live in with a sense of wonder and joy.