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Imposter phenomenon June 3, 2009

Posted by larry in Psychology.
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A pervasive phenomenon in which people feel that they can not meet expectations and that this will eventually become evident, at which time they will be “found out” has recently become part of a public debate, which is referred to as the imposter phenomenon. What has yet to be completely appreciated are the social and cultural roots of this phenomenon and that it is endemic to our society. The fault lies not in ourselves, but in the social and cultural framework, and could be viewed as a kind of social pathology.

If we look at our interaction with others in terms of Erving Goffman’s metaphor of the theater and our interactions with others as performances, this theory of the genesis and consequences of playing the role of “being an imposter” can I think shed some light on this quite debilitating state of affairs. According to Goffman and his predecessor Charles Horton Cooley, when we interact with others and with ourselves, we can not get away from playing a number of roles These roles fit into a social framework and are culturally defined (although such “definitions” allow for individual creativity). They frame expectations of those participating and they enable the situation to be “manipulated” to a certain extent. as well as enabling us to incorporate the reactions of others to what we say and do as “evidence” for our views of ourselves and others.

This is how Goffman put it in his Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (note the final sentence):

Knowing that his audiences are capable of forming bad impressions of him, the individual may come to feel ashamed of a well-intentioned honest act merely because the context of its performance provides false impressions that are bad.  Feeling this unwarranted shame, he may feel that his feelings can be seen; he may feel that his appearance confirms these false conclusions concerning him. He may then add to the precariousness of his position by engaging in just those defensive maneuvers that he would employ were he really guilty. In this way it is possible for all of us to become fleetingly for ourselves the worst person we can imagine that others might imagine us to be (1959: 236).

In the early part of the 20th century, Charles Horton Cooley pointed out that, without being aware of it, humans “live in the minds of others” – they serve as a kind of “looking-glass”. This means that what we think they think of us is part of our very being. This carries with it the inevitable consequence that what we think they think of us inevitably influences what we think of ourselves. Complementing Goffman’s picture, Cooley says this.

As is the case with other feelings, we do not think much of it [that is, of social self-feeling] so long as it is moderately and regularly gratified. Many people of balanced mind and congenial activity scarcely know that they care what others think of them, and will deny, perhaps with indignation, that such care is an important factor in what they are and do. But this is illusion. If failure or disgrace arrives, if one suddenly finds that the faces of men [sic] show coldness or contempt instead of the kindliness and deference that he is used to, he will perceive from the shock, the fear, the sense of being an outcast and helpless, that he was living in the minds of others without knowing it, just as we daily walk the solid ground without thinking how it bears us up (1922: 208).

Helen Block Lewis, in a landmark study of shame and guilt (Shame and Guilt in Neurosis), found that the root of many people’s “neuroses” was a deep sense of shame or guilt. It seems to me that shame and guilt lie at the root of the imposter phenomenon. Feelings of shame and guilt take place in a context of cultural expectations. It is these expectations and our “drive” to meet them and falling short that leads us to consider that we may not be as good as we hope we really are. This is reinforced by evaluating the performances of others in terms of these expectations, expectations which are guiding their performances. Since we only have the appearance of the performance to go on, we are unable to assess the degree to which others, in reality, fall short of these expectations, Unless we are willing to ascribe to others the view, in the absence of evidence, that the way they appear to be does not match the way they really are, we must come short. In general, we have more evidence about ourselves than we do of others.

Nature Netowrk has a post referring to this phenomenon. The responses to this post are enlightening and saddening. It can be found here – http://network.nature.com/groups/women_in_science/forum/topics/4693 (Imposter syndrome). I would like to incorporate a response to two of the comments into my discussion, one by Stephen Curry and the other by Anonymous.

These two comments suggest fit I think my approach to understanding this phenomenon . Anonymous has painted an incredibly poignant picture of how this syndrome might develop and wonders about its origins. And Stephen has pointed to an institutional feature that might foster it. I believe both ineluctably point to the origins of this phenomenon, the society in which we live and the cultural expectations that accompany it. While I am sure Stephen is right that the syndrome is related to failure, it seems to me to be more closely related to the expectation of failure and the reactions many people develop to such expectations.

The coordination of all this reflexive activity is “engineered” by our society and carried by our culture through which this value-laden expectational network is transmitted from generation to generation. That one of the most pervasive ways of looking at ourselves should be so negative and thereby psychologically, and possibly physically, debilitating seems to me to be a damning indictment of our society.

As Stephen has implied, the fault lies not in ourselves but in the social and cultural framework.  I view it as a kind of social pathology, a pathology that is deeply embedded in our social institutions and ways of thinking.

I would go further than Stephen and suggest that this phenomenon is widespread throughout the professions and the business sector at the very least. An indication that this may be so took place during The Apprentice last year. The winner admitted “exaggerating” his CV, elaborating that he did this because he felt inferior and that without making himself look a little “better than he was” he couldn’t compete with others.

In discussing what the candidate had done and how they should view it, Sugar and his colleagues admitted that they and many others had done something similar when starting out. The only reason they would feel forced to appear to be something that they aren’t yet but hope to be seems to be because the expectations they are encountering, or are being led to believe they are encountering, are pathologically unrealistic.

The psychological state described by the candidate doesn’t exactly fit the imposter phenomenon but it is closely related and, I would argue, is produced by the same social and cultural pressures which lead to feelings of shame and guilt that seem to me to be the engines of the imposter phenomenon. That so many people are made to unjustifiably feel this way about themselves, and in some cases make themselves ill as a consequence, should be unacceptable. It is as if the set of expectations that have developed have evolved to fit “products” of certain environments. That this may be so does not render it less pathological in its consequences.

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