Impostor syndrome, by popular consensus, is a problem. In the annals of women’s media and business self-help — both strongholds of pop-psychology problem-solving — impostor syndrome is a customary obstacle to be overcome on the hero or heroine’s journey toward empowerment. (Plus, admitting to the syndrome is the most appealing way to discuss one’s own success.) The impostors humble themselves before their accomplishments while quietly affirming their own worthiness, and beckon their audience to join them on the other side of self-doubt.
I find I would rather not. Sweet, cruel impostor syndrome: It is the flame that burns beneath my ass, the constant low hum of anxiety forcing me to do stuff before anyone notices all the stuff I have not done and feel pretty certain I can’t do. Impostor syndrome does not feel good but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Impostor syndrome has merely gotten a bad rap.
A term coined by psychologists in the '70s, “impostor syndrome” describes a sensation of fraudulence in the face of apparent achievement — the conviction that you have lucked into your job, tricked others into thinking you’re competent, don’t deserve the success you’ve had, and could be found out at any moment. “People who have reportedly experienced the syndrome include screenwriter Chuck Lorre, best-selling writer Neil Gaiman, best-selling writer John Green, comedian Tommy Cooper, business leader Sheryl Sandberg, U.S. Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, and actress Emma Watson,” offers Wikipedia. “Albert Einstein might have suffered from the syndrome.” You never know.
Impostor syndrome has gained particular currency in recent years as a bugbear of Sheryl Sandberg-y white-collar feminism, another way in which women might undermine their own professional accomplishments. In this capacity it tends to inspire concerned analysis, drawing on believe-it-or-not tales of famous women who have doubted themselves as well as insecure everywomen. Such analysis offers the promise of confidence restored by the realization that you were good enough all along, proposing self-improvement without all the bother of changing your self. You are already great: You need only accept your greatness.
Yet it is my personal experience that terrified, guilty insecurity is an excellent motivational tool. I have never done anything I wound up proud of without first being sure that I couldn’t, and was a fool for having even decided to try. The heart-clenching dread of feeling that certainty — the need to make it GO AWAY — is basically the only thing that gets me through. What would I do if I weren’t afraid? Probably nothing.
It makes sense that impostor syndrome might resonate especially with people like Sandberg’s target readers, a professional-millennial audience of hardworking, overscheduled high-achievers hopped up on 2.5 decades of nurtured self-esteem. (Which is to say: people like me.) These are the people trying hardest to resolve the cognitive dissonance of not living up to expectations they’ve been encouraged to harbor, of seeing through the flimsy validation they receive. Relentlessly supportive parents are a great source of insecurity. The blithe assurance that you’re a winner in all ways is hard to maintain, and once you’ve learned to doubt that, what do you trust? You trust your gut, when it tells you you’re probably not quite good enough.
I would argue, however, that the best response to feeling like a fraud is not to change your bad feelings. Who’s good at changing their feelings, anyway? The best response is to regard your bad feelings (bottomless, ever bubbling) as a renewable source of energy.
Lean into your impostor syndrome. Accept that no magical combination of preparation and credentials can guarantee the achievements you desire, but a lack won’t preclude them, either. Nothing really qualifies you for a job besides doing it, and — yes, it’s all true! — whatever success you have attained is in large part the product of luck and charm and circumstances beyond your control. This goes for you, but it also goes for everyone else.
“Everyone else,” of course, includes men. And when we speak of impostor syndrome as a problem for women to overcome, we implicitly normalize its inverse. Men don’t seem to have any trouble believing in their talent and skills; men don’t mind barging into jobs unprepared and assuming they can still save the day — why can’t women be more like that? But surely overconfidence is a problem of its own (“blowhard syndrome,” as one woman has called it) and not a generally ideal way to be; surely the world would be a better place with fewer blowhards of either gender going around feeling securely and absolutely worthy in all situations. Even if your self-regard doesn’t inflate into cockiness, confidence drifts easily toward complacency.
Impostor syndrome, meanwhile, entails the gnawing belief that there’s a better version of yourself you ought to try to be, one you haven’t been yet and aren’t sure you can be. You could also call that ambition.