The first time I encountered the term “imposter syndrome” was when I became a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. As I started in the role, I wondered whether there had been some kind of mistake. Over the decades I’d taught myself to write. This was through a combination of writing a lot, reading a lot, and good old application: those hours spent in the library learning punctuation might just have paid off after all.
My sense of being an imposter was underpinned by the fact that I didn’t go to university myself – yet there I was, about to impart words of wisdom to aid anxious students seeking to improve their writing. When I told my mentor how I felt, she told me she’d harboured exactly the same feelings. That was a few years ago, but I now seem to come across the phrase “imposter syndrome” almost daily. Just about everybody, it seems, is an imposter.
The dictionary on my computer defines the word thus:
impostor | ɪmˈpɒstə | (also imposter)
a person who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others, especially for fraudulent gain…
The suggestion that we’re all pretending to be someone else begs the question, who is anyone really? And if we’re always being someone else, when are we ourselves? Do we even know who we are?
The king’s new clothes
The reality is that we’re not one person – we’re any number of people. Throughout every day we shift from one personality to another, depending on circumstances. We censor ourselves. Change the language we use. Tailor our non-verbal signals to be appropriate for the company, context and message.
In any given circumstance, there are things we can and can’t say; things we don’t want to say; choices we make about the story we’re telling about our life and who we are. We’re so used to being told stories that when we tell them to ourselves they’re easy to believe. After all, we’re not going to tell ourselves an untruth, are we.
The problem is that “stories” – the kind we’re used to in novels, TV programmes and film, etc. – are created. They’re shaped to fit a narrative arc, controlled, tidied up, written to a formula and edited. But our stories have to fit into messy and unpredictable lives. And regardless of accuracy, they become self-perpetuating.
The person who’s been told since childhood that she’s “a bit scatty”, “paints a pretty picture but doesn’t get to the point”, or “isn’t that bright” is likely to believe this story, and retell it to others as she grows older. The person with untidy handwriting who’s been told he’s not very good at expressing himself is likely to believe that, regardless of how true it is, and even though these obstacles are surmountable.
Unlearning stories is difficult. They tend to originate from trusted sources, and are reinforced by repetition. They become familiar tales of identity. They embroider the fabric of our lives, and give us a comfortable pigeonhole to settle into.
As our experience increases, so does the number of identities we’re able to adopt. And here’s where things can get tricky. Perhaps this continuous, imperceptible shifting that seems necessary to get through life is what’s at the heart of imposter syndrome: when it comes to the crunch and we’re confronted by an entirely new situation that’s outside anything we’ve experienced before, our suspension of disbelief collapses.
Lacking a narrative that fits, the illusion suddenly becomes apparent, and we feel like a fake. To change is to step outside the comfort zone, which increases uncertainty and raises the prospect of the thing we fear most: failure.
Keeping things the same gives us a sense of safety and control, when in reality we don’t control much of anything. All we can really do is point the ship in the right direction and hope for the best.
But any story can be altered, edited, rewritten. Changing our stories can turn a negative to a positive, rewrite the narrative arc, set our ship on a new course if that’s what we want. That isn’t something we tend to do, because not changing things is the much easier option. Rewriting is as difficult as unlearning, but both get easier with practise. So, while rewriting to change things isn’t easy or quick, it is possible.
To get going, just start by making a list. Then expand upon the points you feel drawn towards; don’t think, just feel and write. A minor alteration now could set you on course for an entirely new destination.
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