Imposter syndrome, for the uninitiated, is a psychological condition in which people are unable to accept their own success. It is basically the eternal suspicion that you are not all you’re cracked up to be, that you’re putting on a charade of being a competent, successful human being. It’s a syndrome that’s particularly prevalent in high-acheiving women, though researchers in the early 1980s speculated that some seventy percent of people felt like imposters at some point in their careers.
In The Hairpin today, Jazmine Hughes spoke to a group of contributors and friends about their own experience with imposter syndrome, a round-up that’s both fascinating and an enormous relief if you have ever doubted your own abilities. Almost everyone has.
Growing up in the United States in the past twenty years has meant inheriting an odd mixture of total confidence and total doubt in your own abillities. There has been much ado about the death of adulthood, the idea that there are no real grown-ups around doing grown-up stuff anymore, we’re all just eating cereal and watching cartoons and whining until one day we die. This anxiety about adulthood, what it means to you as opposed to what it means to your parents, is something that we have internalized. Being an adult has come to mean certain lifestyle and consumer habits instead of attaining a level of emotional maturity. And as such, adults have come to be these mythical creatures, not actual people but aspirational figures. It’s easy to feel like you’re just playing pretend. It’s easy to think that the real adults are out there somewhere with well-organized closets and perfect cuticles, reassuring somehow. It’s more difficult to learn that we’re all just winging it.
Hughes’ round-up reminded me of a piece by Miranda July in The New Yorker about her history of petty theft, and that feeling of odd transparency, like everyone can see directly into your brain to suss that you have done Something Bad.
After a while, I also stopped getting into physical fights, working in peepshows, bleaching my hair white, and wearing my tights over my shoes. Still, for a long time I thought my biggest heist was fooling everyone into believing that I was an upstanding citizen, a sweet girl. Then, just a few years ago, I realized that everyone feels secretly fraudulent. It’s the feeling of being an adult.
That is it, exactly. Because there is so much surrounding the idea of adulthood, so many standards that most of us can’t possibly meet, that feeling of fraudulence is one that’s deeply familiar.
But of course, adulthood is defined by the people who are adults. There is no such thing as a fake adult, unless you’re a little kid standing on another little kid’s shoulders, all masked by an enormous trenchcoat. We are all just making it up as we go along, trying our best. We are all just pretending we know the way, and hoping that there’s a clearing later on. This is what it actually means to be a grown-up, to acknowledge your limitations and realize that you don’t match up with your visions of what adults were as a child. We are all imposters. And that’s actually pretty great.