Survival of the Group and Impostors.
Cast your mind back to the first time you watched the 1995 classic Clueless. If you haven’t seen it, well you have just outed yourself as a virgin, who can’t drive. We will wait for you to watch this staple of popular culture and re-join us once you can make at least two comical references to it. At the end of the film (no spoiler alert here, it was 24 years ago, that’s practically historical fact) Cher realises that she is in love with Phoebe’s boyfriend / Ant Man. I always thought this scene was a bit strange; the idea that Cher didn’t know how strongly she felt about someone, that she could be so Clueless – Ah! Makes sense now. How did it take her that long to realise what a hunk he was? Then I kind of realised that this state of clueless (ness?) is something that I experience a lot more than I ever really acknowledge. I have emotions, or feelings literally all the time, but I am not exactly an expert and explaining what they are. Am I tired? Am I hungry? Am I annoyed? Am I lonely? Am I horny? It’s strange that I can ask these questions of the same symptoms, and still not really diagnose what I am feeling correctly.
My most recent intellectual crush has seen me gushing over the works of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. There is just something about the way he talks; annoying as it is, his wit and his intellect, it makes me envious that I don’t have a shred of his insight or capacity. I have to be content with orbiting his ideas and understanding them as best I can, like the scene in the Life of Brian where the lady mishears Jesus in the audience “Blessed all the Greek!”. Anyway, he said “We feel free because we lack the language to express our unfreedom”. Perhaps then I just don’t have the capacity to explain my emotions effectively to myself. Know thyself the inscription at Delphi reminds us; To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom, Socrates said; Alan Watts suggests that the reason you don’t know what you want is because you don’t know yourself! Trouble is, it is quite hard to do. I did however, stumble upon a slither of an insight into my own mental life the other day, a small idea, that as soon as I had read it, I ran with completely and identified almost every aspect of my core with it. I had found the language to express my unfreedom. I know this was something I would do ever since I first asked Jeeves if I was gay circa 1998, his reply was an overwhelming yes – I guess I couldn’t even fool a late 90s algorithm – that I would continuously google things with which I could identify. I don’t suppose it is that bad, like more awareness is a good thing, right? To me at least, it is easier to relate to someone who has diabetes, if you spent a week convinced that you had it too, based on facts from Web Doctor and a hyper vigilance of your urinating patterns. Fine, it’s not the same thing as actually having it, but you’ve done your research and isn’t that the corner stone of empathy? It’s like that scene in Wayne’s World, only made more vibrant by the dawn of the internet, when Wayne says “I once thought I have ME for an entire year. Turns out, I was just really bored.” Anyway, let’s get this back on track, the word that I recently found I could identify with, in true Spiderman Venom style was;
Impostor Syndrome, impostorism, fraud syndrome or impostor experience, literally anyone of these phrases will do. It is the name given to a psychological phenomenon which apparently affects up to 70% of the population at some point in their life time. It is important to point out that impostorism is a phenomenological occurrence and not something that you can catch or develop like other mental health problems. I guess it stands to reason that people who suffer from mental health issues may experience this more intensely than others because the emotions attached to this syndrome are similar to those of anxiety, depression low self esteem and so on. Initially, it was thought to be confined to women in the work place who had achieved a measure of success within their employment. The term was first coined 1978 in a publication titled The Imposter in High Achieving Women; Dynamics & Therapeutic Interventionwritten by Dr Pauline R Clance & Dr Suzanne A Imes. They point out that this reactionary phenomenon that manifests itself in an individual, that even though external evidence exists to the contrary suggesting success is tied to competence and not deceit, it is hard to accept this as reality. The study sparked a plethora of interest into the idea, and it has been explored countless times since then. The belief that it was something limited to women and minorities, specifically not straight white men, has been contested lately, especially when the latter mentioned are asked anonymously. It would seem that straight white men experience these feelings but struggle to talk about them, and even though I am only two of those three things, I struggle to talk about it too.
This is why it is beneficially to come across these ideas, to help you articulate what you feel, to express and deal with emotions differently. While we can never see the world through the eyes of someone else, through the lens of any perspective that is not our own, we can come close to it through discussing and listening to different accounts of experience. Henry David Thoreau said “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eye for an instant?” and until such time that technology allows us to perform some kind of psychological Kafkaesque metamorphosis, a subjective Face Off (Nicolas Cage & John Travolta style), the best we can do is communicate our experience and listen to others yarns. There is something very powerful in the idea of orientating yourself through the paradigm of conversation, something I am only recently discovering. I suppose much of my life was a competition with changing challengers, shifting rules, fluid and unattainable finish lines, and distorted measures of success. Slavoj Zizek uses the analogy of a Slovenian farmer who is visited by some kind of god or genie, who says he can great him any wish on the proviso that it is granted twofold to the farmer’s neighbour. What would you wish for here, bearing in mind that it will happen to your neighbour twofold? The farmer decides to wish to lose an eye, fully aware that his neighbour will lose both. Obviously, any thought experiment with genies and gods will be extreme, but I wonder how much of our lives are taken up with thoughts like this. The futility of wishing ourselves into worse situations knowing that it will hurt someone else. The idea that life is a game, a competition, that in order for you to win, someone else must lose. I think this came up in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, that in our system the rich want more, even if that means that others have less, that to be is to have, and if you don’t have, then you aren’t. In global political economy theory, there is a concept called the Zero-Sum Model. It is bases international interaction as a chess game of geopolitical importance, setting the nations of the world against each other as they compete for resources and wealth. Given that resources are finite, for one to win, another must lose. The idea that life is a game and that we must win, that anyone can win, if only you are cutthroat and cunning, display traits that if life was a Christmas pantomime; you would be booed when you entered the stage. This idea is so embedded within us, the idea of survival of the fittest, the individualistic drive to have more, a Victorian mentality of exploitation and extraction, that it is barely disputed any more. However, just for the sake of the tangent, let’s try.
The idea of survival of the fittest relies upon the presupposition that particular traits will develop and allow for individuals to take advantage of them, surviving against the odds of their competitors, with resources limited, any biological edge you have to make it easier to survive, in turn will lead to procreation with your choice of mate, and the passing on of this amazing genetic mutation to your offspring and so on ad infinitum. All very well and good, however, with this model of human evolution how do we account for altruism? Some humans inhibited remarkable traits that would appear counter intuitive to survival of the fittest. How can e explain away people who make decisions to lose their lives to protect others? The thousands and thousands of childless men who have marched off to war over the centuries, potentially making the ultimate sacrifice, a decision that can not be attributed to genes. Are we not social beings? Doesn’t our survival depend directly upon the survival of the group? Isn’t the harshest punishment our penal system offers solitary confinement? We need the group, and wee need it to be healthy and thriving. There is a scene in The Grinch where he is coming around to the fact that his heart has grown three sizes. “Oh no!” he says “The presents, they’ll be destroyed… and I care!”. The fact that he cares is so universal, we all care about others in some way. We are all moved by stories, or movies, or the plight of friends. We care about people who are so disconnected from us. In terms of evolutionary biology, the survival of the fittest, how can we account for Kim Kardashian? If we were all so individualistic and out for ourselves, how does her popularity hold? If there was a zombie apocalypse, I am not sure what Kim’s chances would be. I am not postulating that I would last to the cure was found, or at least to set up a very unique utopia where all men must wear incredibly short shorts and preside over it for the greater good, but I am assuming I would last a little longer than an international celebrity who has a big retinue of people, and thus more exposure to the virus. I mean, how fast can she run? Does she have any survival skills? Obviously it would depend greatly on the type of zombies, The Walking Deadones, there might be hope for my homoerotic utopia, 28 Days Later zombies, well I don’t expect to make it very far. Yet, end of the world aside, we do care about Kim for some reason. We have elevated her in our cultural importance, because she must mean something, she must say something to or about the group that she represents. She holds a place in our group identity, an identity that fundamentally transcends our own. This idea is very contested amongst evolutionary biologists, but to me at least it seems common sense and hopeful that life is not a vicious Monopoly game, that what is of benefit to the group is of benefit to us all. I appreciate that this sails very closely to utilitarianism which I would be keen to avoid, but the sentiment is there. Accepting our role on this earth, fleeting as it is, as a part of a team, a group, allows for so much more diversity and compassion than a (queue the Abba music) Winner Takes It All mentality.
James O’Keefe did an amazing TedTalk on the role his gay son played in the family. Obviously this is something very dear to my heart, and so I usually relish these kind of talks, and I can honestly say as a gay man, I had never seen the interpretation he offers up as a means of explaining homosexuality from an evolutionary stand point. Using ants and a hive mentality, which I am sure under scrutiny wouldn’t hold up, he explains that mother nature has plans to make everything turn for us. I have showed this to other gay men before and some of them found it offensive but to me it was so hopeful, and normal that it really spoke to me. The example can be extended beyond James O’Keefe and his gay son, and into the roles people traditionally defined as Introverts & Extroverts can play in a society. In the nature article, they offered a brilliant analogy of these two types of people being the brains and the muscle almost, the idea of a group of people sitting around the fire, the introverts more observant hear and animal approaching, and tell the extroverts who go and kill it, bring it back for the introverts to cook up. Whilst the sexist undertones could be exemplified here, I do think that its is kind of true, think about a friendship group you have, what roles do you all play? I normally take up the role of either the loud extrovert or the sad crying one, especially after a beer, but I suppose that position in the group needs to be filled, right?
So, tangent complete, back to Impostor Syndrome. It is very common and I am pretty certain that everyone has felt it at some point or another. It’s that feeling of being in a situation but knowing that you ought not be there. You’ve lied, or cheated, deceived your way to this position. There has been a misunderstanding, you will be apprehended at any moment, you fraud. It is literally a matter of time until you are discovered, you fiend. You didn’t work hard enough to be here, look at all the people around you, they are talented, capable and confident, not to mention beautiful. You don’t belong here, your accomplishments are all luck and circumstance. All your achievements can be explained away; after all they don’t really mean anything at all.
That is imposture syndrome, and I accepted that may have been what Johan Hari refers to as Pain Porn, a phrase I love (it’s not like S&M but the idea that when talking about anxiety and depression people will go into great deal describing the sensations that we all already know. The gratuitous presentation of suffering Hari refers to as Pain Porn) but at least you have an insight to what the it means, even if you only feel a fraction of those examples. There is the possibility that it is not as common as I think (or hope) and I did find it quite difficult to find an example of this in a movie or a book, but struggled. The only example I could come up with was Harry Potter, the cultural go too for much of my psychological maladies (What Would Harry Potter Do? – A question I often ask myself in the face of Horcruxes and social anxiety.)
In the first Harry Potter book (and film, don’t worry film only people, there will be no discriminating about whatever floats your boat to Hogwarts) one of his first interactions with the wizarding world was exactly the emotions I have described above, the denial of himself and his abilities. “I… can’t be a… wizard. I mean, I’m… just… Harry. Just Harry.” Already he is deceiving himself into thinking that there has been a misunderstanding. Sorry Hagrid, you have been misinformed, no wizards here. (Just another side track, I was more than ready at 11 to accept that I am a wizard. I am still waiting for this reality to come to fruition) He slowly begins to accept his new reality, his new story of who he is, but then spends the train journey worrying that he will make a fool out of himself, that he will be the worst (witch… lol!) wizard that ever existed. Much of the first book (and movie) is peppered with this stuff, it even runs throughout the whole series. We as the reader are thinking, Harry, calm the fuck down, you’re amazing (for a drama queen). There is one more specific example I wanted to explore, and that is the sorting. Obviously, only a true muggle could forget “Not Slytherin…eh? Very well, better be GRYFFINDOR!”, but in the second book (and movie, don’t worry) this seed of doubt has fully germinated in Harry’s personality. He should have been in Slytherin, he can talk to snakes for crying out loud, all the signs are there, he is a fraud. The fact that he managed to save the philosophers stone from he-who-must-not-be-named less than a year before the events of Chamber of Secrets, those events mean nothing to Harry now as they don’t fit the story of his impostorism. All the achievements of the first year slowly disapparate. We as the readers know that he is a true Gryffindor, but that is the crucible of Impostor Syndrome, it is very hard to accepted external evidence that indicates otherwise, even if someone you know, trust and love offers it up, you end up feeling guilty for deceiving them into believing your lies too.
I know that unlike Harry, we can’t all have our feelings of being an impostor eliminated by pulling out a sign of our rightful place in Gryffindor from an old hat, thus confirming our identities and abilities. So without such sorely needed symbolic gestures, what can we do to tackle it in our lives, and even in the lives of those we care about? Although I have to admit I do experience these feelings, they are usually limited to certain situations, so being mindful of what circumstances led to impostorism can help us identify when it is an appropriate response. I feel it most strongly, in new situations, when I receive praise, sometimes in response to criticism, sometimes in relationships if I begin to doubt my own worth, or when I am nervous or apprehensive about a particular event on the horizon. Sometimes I can feel the complete opposite, entrenched in a sense of pride, an oblivious entitlement and a feeling of invincibility. While certainly a better sensation to feel, I often wonder whether along with feelings of imposture syndrome comes a desire to work harder. For example, when you start a new job, and you are feeling a bit like a fraud, so you work that little bit harder versus when you have worked there for a while; your coffee breaks take up most of your day; you’ve mastered the ability to be as unproductively productive as possible and end most conversations about your behaviour with “What are you going to do, fire me?” Perhaps, then, a little bit of impostorism is a good thing. Like with Harry, his performance wasn’t necessarily inhibited but his psychological experience was impaired, subjectively he suffered more than he needed too. For me, I know that when I am plagued with feelings of being a fraud I am less, well, me. More worried, more cautious, more reserved and more self-critical, I develop a hyper-vigliance over everything I saw and do which makes it very difficult to be in the moment. I asked the wonderful Dean, an Adlerian by nature, even if he doesn’t agree, if he had ever experienced this sensation and he said while he knew what I meant, he refuses to let it happen (Adlerian, right?). He just asserts the inverse of the feeling, fake it until you make it I suppose. I wonder how effective that mentality is, the mantra of I am a strong independent woman man in as a garlic garland to ward off the vampiresque feelings of impostorism. I guess it would be the equivalent of bumping into someone at a party who is wearing the same T-Shirt as you, to save yourself the feelings of being uncomfortable, the only way to deal with it is to go on over, say something along the lines of “double-trouble” and then go on to introduce yourself as the British contingent, Parent Trap style – “We are more than sisters, we are like twins!”
Amy Cuddy, a psychologist from Harvard university, suggests that the best way to deal with these feelings is to be more aware and communicative about them. It is only in realising that others probably feel the same or have felt the same in the past or at some point in the future, that you can almost exorcise that demon, spinning head and vomiting. Cuddy points out that the delusion that if you just achieve the next hurdle these feelings will leave you has been proven false over and over again. She interviewed Nail Gaiman, the author who wrote American Gods, Stardust and Good Omens with Terry Pratchett, who admitted that even though he was successful he put most of that down to success and worried that when he published the next book, the gig would be up. Emma Watson who Played Hermione Granger in Harry Potter said she has felt the same in the past, undeserving of the attention and praise. In recognising the feelings of impostorism, we have been given the vocabulary to be able to articulate change, awareness is the first step to change. Cuddy suggests that by framing our internal experience within the context of the environment we should be able to change thoughts from “I don’t deserve this” to “This is a new environment or experience that is making me feel like I don’t deserve this” ergo, it is the environment you find yourself in and not your capacity that is leading to these feelings. The realisation that your feelings and reality are not always N*Sync (Bye Bye Bye) but can be doubted or distorted in true AliceThrough the Looking Glass style. One of the rules in Jordan B Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is treat yourself like someone you want to help and I think when dealing with emotions such as these that is an important one to remember. What would you say to yourself if you were a friend asking you fro advice? You would say, just the same as what we said to Harry above – calm the fuck down, you’re amazing (for a drama queen)!
If this is the first time you have heard of impostor syndrome then I am both sorry and happy that I have introduced you to another thing we can all say we got, in a kind Pokémon card collection – “gotta catch them all!” style. I suppose the take away message is that it should help to know that these feelings you experience are not unique to you, even though it may feel like that. You at least share them in common with me and while I would hesitantly add myself to a spectrum which includes normality, I don’t think I’m too far away from at least the standard deviation. If you are a dab hand at impostorism, how do you deal with it? If you have never experienced it, you probably should have by now….
Henry David Thoreau – Walden
Slavoj Zizek – In Defence of Lost Causes
Paulo Freire – Pedagogy of the Oppressd
J. K . Rowling – Harry Potter Series
Johan Hari – Lost Connections
Jordan B Peterson – 12 Rules for Life