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Knowing Your Place

Faking It

(c) Alan Levine

The earning of respect and status comes with a price attached. Originally coined in the 1970s, the concept of ‘imposter syndrome’ has become a convenient way to encapsulate the dread that can oftentimes accompany success (at whatever level) – the sense of being undeserving and unworthy of glory and honour. This is normally shadowed by a sense that others, those who matter, will eventually find out that you’re not quite good enough, not quite up-to-scratch – i.e., you don’t belong.

As syndromes go, it’s a fairly nasty one: who wants to feel like/be accused of being, a fake, a fraud, a liar? Not deserving of other people’s approval and goodwill? Imposter syndrome speaks to so many other relational concerns such as belonging, acceptance, shame and humiliation, that it occupies an elevated position as the nagging doubt that keeps on nagging, the voice in the head making up fear-stoking stories about what’s in other people’s heads. Imposter syndrome is the relational equivalent of a hiding to nothing, the short straw of ambition and drive, a psychic dark hole in which the emotional returns diminish in inverse proportion to the realisation of personal goals. Such a correlation was always asking for trouble.

For all its deeply private aspects, however, imposter syndrome is extremely common, one study suggesting that 70 per cent of Americans for example experience the syndrome at some stage in their lives. And it’s especially common, according to Olivia Fox Cabane, with high performers:

When I speak about it at Harvard, Stanford, or MIT, the room goes so silent you could hear a pin drop. And I see the students breathe a sigh of relief as they realize this feeling has a name and they are not alone in experiencing it. Every year, the incoming class at Stanford Business School is asked: “How many of you in here feel that you are the one mistake that the admissions committee made?” Every year, two-thirds of the class immediately raises their hands.

No one is alone in thinking that others will eventually catch them out – as the evidence suggests, to never experience imposter syndrome would effectively deviate you from the norm. And this is why the syndrome is of such fascination to a site such as Dirty Looks. It occupies a unique position as a testing ground for the relational world and its set of senses, specifically in its capacity to identify the stress points associated with social mobility (of various types). It’s a syndrome that itself ‘belongs’ in the relational world, its capacity to summon up fears of loneliness, isolation and rejection a natural fit.

Imposter syndrome is such a hyper-fast form of social calibration that it only really gets to you in the most quiet of moments. But it’s in these moments, when we’re supposed to be at our most alone, that the relational world truly comes alive, sending its senses in to keep us company, whether we like it or not.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.