I’m always irked when people cheapen real medical and psychological conditions. To say that you have chronic fatigue syndrome when you are trying to get by on four hours’ sleep a night, or that you have post-traumatic stress when a friend of a friend dies trivializes conditions that cripple those who actually have to cope with them. However, Impostor’s Syndrome has to be the worst trendy condition of all. Not only does it not exist, but it encourages self-dramatization, and its suggested remedies are more about self-esteem than addressing any problems.
You won’t find Impostor’s Syndrome in the American Psychiatric Association’s Manual of Diagnosis. That’s because it’s not recognized as a unique condition, which leaves everyone free to self-diagnose at will. But, so far as it has any meaning at all, it refers to persistent doubts that you deserve your success or current position. Women are alleged to be especially prone to Impostor’s Syndrome, although the lack of assessment criteria means that this allegation is an assumption at best.
Needless to say, this vagueness does nothing to prevent people from believing that the term actually means something. If anything, the vagueness probably helps people to find validity in it. Like a horoscope, people have no trouble applying the vagueness to their own situation.
However, the real problem with Impostor’s Syndrome is not just that it is redundant, but the way that it converts normal behavior into a pathology. Regardless of whether you are a man or a woman, nothing is unusual about being uneasy in new circumstances or wondering whether you measure up to others. These sorts of misgivings are the natural consequence of finding yourself in new circumstances. Nobody enjoys them, but most learn to control them and carry on regardless.
In fact, those who find themselves constantly in stressful situations, such as actors or athletes, are often convinced that, without such uneasiness, they will perform poorly. Instead of dreading such feelings, they view them as a source of nervous energy that can be channeled or converted to improve their performance. To them, confidence in such situations is the abnormal reaction, and struggling to bring anxiety under control the healthy one.
By contrast, those who self-diagnose themselves with Impostor’s Syndrome take the opposite approach. They treat confidence – or, at least, comfort – as their right, rather than learning practical means to cope with their unpleasant but normal reactions.
Such is the power of naming that, once they apply the term to themselves, their anxiety and stress suddenly swim into focus. They are not facing a routine part of life; they have a condition for which they bear no responsibility. The self-drama of having a condition (never mind how it is diagnosed) becomes central to their reaction.
This self-dramatization is not only tolerated, but encouraged by the industry – both paid and unpaid – that has sprung up around Impostor’s Syndrome in much the same way as one has sprung up around Asperger’s Syndrome. Armed with a pseudo-scientific name, this industry encourages its clients to find ways to feel good about themselves. They should exchange stories with their fellow sufferers. They should seek compliments from family and friends. They should use affirmations until they hypnotize themselves into confidence through repetitions of self-praise.
Needless to say, the possibility that anyone might actually be incompetent – a fact that they would be better off admitting as soon as possible – never seems to be mentioned.
Even rarer is the obvious suggestion that the best way to overcome worries is to develop a plan, either of study or action, to develop competence that no one can question. In fact, the industry is likely to warn that such a plan will only increase the worries – which is true enough, but only in the short run. In the long run, building self-esteem with nothing to support it only results in egos that are even more fragile they originally were.
This approach leaves those who believe in Impostor’s Syndrome like people who start to exercise, then complain that they are unable to continue because it causes their muscles to hurt. They spend a fortune on salves and massage when what they really need is a program that allows them to reach a greater level of fitness with fewer side-effects.
None of this applies, of course to genuine anxiety and stress. Both are recognized conditions, and may be centered upon doubts about competence or a new situation. However, the idea of Impostor’s Syndrome is something else, too often having more to do with being comfortable than with genuine problems. I can’t help thinking that most of those who obsess about the idea would do themselves more good if they worried less about their self-esteem and more about finding practical ways to cope with the inevitable occasional uneasiness.