The great pretender: imposter syndrome, and the fear of being found out

Woman pulls off mask
I used to have a friend who held a prestigious, high-powered job in magazines. She was great at it, too – but she didn’t think so. She once confided to me that she lived in terror that someday someone would tap her on the shoulder and ask her to leave, telling her they’d figured out she wasn’t up to the job after all.
This is what imposter syndrome looks like. At heart, it’s the belief that you’re not good enough, and it typically involves a deep fear that your inadequacy will be uncovered, probably in dramatic fashion. It’s typically experienced by more women than men, because we are, according to experts, more likely to recognise our faults (I’ll just park that statement without further comment).

Imposter syndrome has got naught to do with your actual performance or skills, it’s solely about an internal conflict, a deep suspicion that you’ve somehow hoodwinked everyone into letting you have this job or partnership, and they’re going to find out the truth about you very soon and your entire life will implode.
Whenever we’re dealing with a fear – particularly one like this, which has no logical foundation – the first most helpful thing we can do is remind ourselves we’re not alone. Fear is a projection of the ego, not the soul, and the ego is all about separating us from others. And you’re not alone, truly. More than 70 per cent of people have experienced feelings of fraudulence. That’s *feelings* of fraudulence, not actual fraudulence.
Blindfolded businesswoman stumbling along an empty roomImposter syndrome thrives on blissful ignorance of the facts. It ignores that your employer put you in this position because they think you’re good enough. It ignores that you’ve already turned in work of a high, or at least passable, standard. Reality check: even if you don’t feel like you know what you’re doing (which is probably not true), you know enough to be in the position you’re in, and there’s no reason you can’t learn more from that platform. You are already good, but it’s your willingness to keep going in the face of fear and all its stupid stories that makes you great.
The truth is, no one knows what the hell they’re doing, most of the time. Fake it ‘till you make it is an entirely reasonable work philosophy. In this life, we’re all making it up as we go along – anyone who is a parent can vouch for this. Expecting ourselves to be ace at everything is just another way we covertly bully ourselves. So, so unhelpful.
If a fear that your staff don’t rate you as a manager is a source of anxiety for you, try to remember that what other people think of you is none of your business. I know, I know… you *want* them to feel confident in your abilities so they do their best work, but ultimately that’s up to them, not you. The only thing within your control is, not the way others feel about you, but the way you feel about yourself. And if imposter syndrome is an issue for you, perhaps you need to do some work on bolstering that (don’t we all!).
Although I haven’t experienced imposter syndrome myself, I’m very familiar with the feeling of inadequacy. My feelings of unworthiness in any given situation generally stem from my tendency to compare myself to others, and as a result, finding myself lacking. Like this: ‘She’s so outgoing and funny and popular, and I’m so dull and awkward.’ In all honesty I don’t know whether there will ever be a point at which I will ever totally recognise my own worth – I doubt we as humans can ever fully understand our own power in this lifetime – so instead of focusing on what it is I perceive that I’m lacking, I try to look at what I do have. Not in a ‘well she may be pretty but I’m this and that…’ type of way, more just a general counting of my blessings without using anyone else as a reference point. This strategy has been working really well for me. In spiritual truth, none of us really lacks anything – we are all complete. Different, but wholly everything that we need to be.

What I’ve found helpful when it comes to getting on top of my comparison tendency has been turning it on its head by comparing myself with… myself. Looking back at the person I was six months, a year or two years ago, and taking a moment to appreciate how my emotional responses and behaviours have changed and matured gives me a sense of value. I don’t need to be the best, I just need to be better than I was. And I am, every day. And I know that you are too. (Better than yourself, I mean. Not better than me, obvs. Although you could be. Hey, let’s not compete, OK?)

Does social media make us narcissists? No, but it can reveal a lot about how we view ourselves

social media obsession self-esteem
When it comes to narcissism, there is perhaps no more endearing example in the world than Kanye West. Pop culture’s king of self-aggrandisement once declared that he wished to describe his profession as ‘creative genius’ on immigration arrival forms – but he didn’t know how to spell the word ‘genius’ (lol). 
Narcissism is something I’ve been thinking about lately because I’ve seen a few columns fretting that our obsession with selfies and documenting the minutiae of our lives online is creating a generation of narcissists. I don’t agree. 

Firstly, a definition – because narcissism is not, despite popular belief, the same as arrogance or just plain bad behaviour. During a discussion at the recent Sydney Writer’s Festival, social commentator Anne Manne (author of Life of I: The New Culture of Narcissism) offered these defining characteristics (among others): having a sense of superiority; a sense of entitlement; a feeling that you’re entitled to exploit others; and a desperate desire to gain attention to prove you are really significant – which is where social media use really comes under the microscope.
Brene Brown, leading researcher in the field of vulnerability, describes narcissism as “a shame-based fear of being ordinary”. At its core, she writes, narcissism is driven by a fear of not being enough.
I’m not sure what this says about the industry I’m in, but I’ve worked with more than a few people who fit into the narcissism category. And I’ve certainly seen people – from differing age groups – use social media as a platform for relentless self-promotion, which can be uncomfortable for me to observe. But even though many commentators have identified a correlation between social media and narcissism, I don’t think that means social media *breeds* narcissism, as such.
My opinion is that although there’s a good argument for all of us pulling back on our social media use and engaging more in face-to-face interactions, wanting to showcase your life online isn’t necessarily unhealthy. That said, if you feel like you are reliant on multiple ‘likes’ to feel valued – and feel like you don’t matter if you don’t achieve that – you could probably do with asking yourself some reflective questions. The way you use social media might be a symptom, rather than a cause, of a disconnect between what you think you have to offer the world and the unquantifiable, exquisite value you bring to the world every day simply by virtue of being yourself.
Social media self-esteem approval
I did a social media detox a while ago and although it was short-lived (obviously) this did change the way I approach Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in a lasting way. Thankfully, I’ve never had the problem of aligning my sense of worth with my social media ‘reach’ or approval ratings – but my sense of self-worth has certainly struggled as a direct result of how I was using social media. The result was me feeling deeply inadequate for not having a life as glamorous or as exciting or as love-filled as other people ‘appear’ – and the key word here is ‘appear’ – to have. The good thing is, I was able to recognise that although Instagram et al were making me feel crap about myself, that was really a result of my low self-esteem – social media was merely exacerbating an existing problem. Which I’m taking steps to address, BTW. Understanding and honouring my value as a human being, and not using other people’s lives nor societal expectations as a yardstick for that, is an ongoing process for me.*
By the way, going back to the narcissism thing (in case you needed some reassurance)... if you’re worried you’re a narcissist, you’re not. Because if you were a narcissist you wouldn’t have enough self-awareness to even consider yourself one. (Good to know.)
I’m not really sure where this leaves Kanye, but I love his music, regardless.

* Read my blog post on comparison syndrome in relation to social media here.