Impostor Syndrome


‘Take away from my conscience the mask of vain, pitiful excuses which prevents me from seeing myself as You see me and know me, as I really am in Your eyes.’ – Fr Gabriel, ‘The Divine Intimacy’

There is a condition called ‘impostor syndrome’ which appears to be becoming more and more popular in the psychotherapeutic and psychological fields today. It appears in many of the most read and most popular online psychological and medical journals, e.g. Psychology Today, Medical News Today, while it also makes its appearance in popular newspapers and news magazines, such as The Independent and Time magazine.  There are twos video on YouTube on impostor syndrome which have attracted the attention of 2.4 million and 3 million people so far. There are also numerous people making their own videos on this condition. These articles and videos on impostor syndrome advocate for the reality of this condition and provide tips about what to do about it (1).  The following article will examine exactly what this ‘impostor syndrome’ is and what treatments are proposed to solve it. Then, having exposed the problems with these proposed treatments, which mainly promote ‘vain, pitiful excuses’, it will look at the real solution to these problems.

What Is Impostor Syndrome?

According to the research on these experiences, impostor syndrome is mainly characterised by doubting your own abilities, skills, and talents, and a persistent fear that you will be exposed as a ‘fraud’. This anxiety and fear was initially identified amongst ‘high-achieving’ women, i.e. women of above average intelligence that had worldly success in academia.  Subsequent studies suggested it was prevalent amongst ‘high-achieving’ men as well. The people that mainly experience impostor syndrome are those who are driven to be the best that they can be in whatever discipline they take on. They agree with such statements as ‘Oftentimes, I downplay my achievements because they are just very average’, ‘I tend to work hard towards one goal and, once I have reached it, I consider it normal and set a new goal for myself’, ‘Even if people praise me and my skills, I don’t think I am as competent or accomplished as they think I am’, ‘I believe that there’s always room for improvement and that stagnation equals decline’ and  ‘I think you should always prepare presentations/meetings thoroughly.’ (2) By this, one can see that they are driven to keep succeeding in whatever task or role they undertake.  Yet, when they have achieved what to the world looks like success, they very often remain unsatisfied with themselves and see themselves as frauds or impostors.  Modern psychology describes this as negative thinking and encourages the reframing of this critical thinking to more positive thoughts, such as ‘I know I can do this’, ‘learning to accept and believe compliments’ or ‘learning how to be your own person.’  Now, no doubt, there is some merit in this approach, especially for those who are naturally self-deprecating or those of a melancholic temperament. Encouragement is necessary for us at times. However, this approach only touches the surface and fails to address the underlying reasons for this sense of not being all that one can or should be or why this experience is so prevalent today. Modern sociological explanations for these thoughts and feelings often focus on ‘internalised sexism/misogyny/racism’.  These are put forward as the reasons why people do not feel good enough despite success in the world. However even with the huge growth of modern psychological treatments where positive thinking has been repeatedly emphasised over the last 40 years and the growth of all sorts of pride and liberation movements, these feelings and thoughts of being a fraud or an impostor appear to be only on the increase. So what is going on?

Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity.’ (Ecclesiastes 1:2)

Now, there usually comes a time in a person’s life where they realise how futile and vain their efforts are and how even their achievements and the praise they receive for them do not give any lasting interior satisfaction. It comes with a sense of one’s insignificance. You can be told over and over again how good you are, how good your life is, and how brilliant your achievements are but yet not believe it. It is the lament of Solomon in chapter 2 of Ecclesiastes:  “I said in my heart: I will go, and abound with delights, and enjoy good things. And I saw that this also was vanity” and “And when I turned myself to all the works which my hands had wrought, and to the labours wherein I had laboured in vain, I saw in all things vanity, and vexation of mind, and that nothing was lasting under the sun.”  These experiences are most keenly felt in the experience of a mid-life crisis where even the best of one’s achievements appear vain, futile, and of no real value. This can sometimes send people into despair. More praise for external achievements is only seen as flattery and often leads to ‘vexation of mind’. During these periods there is a sense that there is something internal niggling at us that tells us we are not all that we should or can be. Modern psychology diagnoses this as ‘impostor syndrome’ and proposes the solutions. However, copious amounts of positive thinking and sociological explanations about ‘internalised inferiority’ have still not helped to alleviate this sense of being a fraud.  So, what are we missing?

Trying To Escape From That Which We Cannot:

Let us regard all ideas of what we ought to do simply as an interesting psychological survival: let us step right out of all that and start doing what we like. Let us decide for ourselves what man is to be and make him into that: not on any ground of imagined value, but because we want him to be such. Having mastered our environment, let us now master ourselves and choose our own destiny.’ – C.S. Lewis, ‘The Abolition of Man’, p. 32

The ultimate springs of human action are no longer, for them, something given. They have surrendered – like electricity: it is the function of the Conditioners to control, not to obey them. They know how to produce conscience and decide what kind of conscience they will produce. They themselves are outside, above…The final victory has been won. Human nature has been conquered.’ – C.S. Lewis, ‘The Abolition of Man’, p. 37

C.S. Lewis, over 75 years, gave an insight into the thoughts of those who sought to escape that which we cannot escape, i.e. reality.  Today, modern psychological and sociological theories, and practices deriving from these, are attempting to make man happy and to put him at peace, as they attempted in Lewis’ time. Yet, like those in Lewis’ era, in their attempts to do so, they have floated off away from reality. They are trying to build this happiness and peace on false foundations and escape from something which they cannot escape from, i.e. the natural law and conscience. Lewis, in the quote above, outlines how, during his lifetime, there were ongoing attempts by Conditioners, i.e. psychologists, philosophers, sociologists and those who saw themselves as ‘enlightened and progressive reformers’, to escape from the natural law and the pressure this put on our consciences.  These attempts have only been sped up by the ‘Conditioners’ in our times as modern psychological and sociological theories explain away or ‘produce’ conscience while they imagine themselves to have overcome this last hurdle of human nature. ‘Man is now free to be happy and at peace!’ they pronounce. Yet, misery, despair, and angst are only growing in our societies despite all their efforts. The beast of conscience has not succumbed to their desperate methods.  The laments of Solomon are heard across the world even amongst those who are deemed successful in the world’s eyes.  So, if modern psychological and sociological theories have failed to produce peace in men’s minds and hearts, if they have failed to shake off from many this feeling of being an impostor, where does the real solution lie? 

We do not want to be like the rest of men.  We spend our days in seeking distinction, for we will not admit that the commonplace is the gate of eternal happiness.  We go here and go there, we do this and do that, in order that we may talk about it, and be talked about… We live and hope and love as if there were no God, as if were alone, as if we had no hope save in what we achieve for ourselves… We are too busy arranging for our happiness to listen to Him, whereas He has already made all the arrangements necessary for our happiness.’ – Fr Eugene Boylan, ‘This Tremendous Lover’

Feelings of being a fraud or not being all that you should be are often our conscience speaking to us to let us know how miserable and wretched we really are.  One may have been given huge amounts of praise from the world, one may have gained numerous degrees and distinctions, and one may have impressed colleagues and friends with displays of one’s skills and abilities, (‘We go here and go there, we do this and do that, in order that we may talk about it, and be talked about’) but one still can feel empty or sense one’s life really is a failure or think that one is really a fraud.  How many people of worldly success, such as actors in Hollywood, have been hooked on drugs and died miserable deaths, despite what looked like lives of success to worldly eyes?  How many people are ‘too busy arranging for our happiness to listen to Him’? Modern psychology would not even ask this question. It would likely say that these poor high-achieving souls suffered from ‘impostor syndrome’. If it is a woman or a person of a racial minority that experiences this sense of being a fraud, then modern sociological theories put it down to ‘internalised sexism’ or ‘internalised racism’.  Modern psychology and sociology work hard at explaining away the pangs of conscience that sting us.  They refuse to acknowledge what man really is, i.e. a body and a soul, and as the Book of Proverbs says, ‘Where there is no knowledge of the soul, there is no good.’  What is most dangerous is that these modern theories suffocate and ridicule the true fix to these feelings of being an impostor, i.e. addressing what your conscience is indicating to you.  There are moments of grace in life where people who have achieved a lot of worldly success realise the futility and vanity of all that they have done.  These are moments of interior humiliation. There comes a realisation that our achievements are nothing in the grand scheme of things.  It can be a time to be humbled. It can be a time to really start examining what success in life really means or if we really are as good as the people around us tell us we are.  Instead of flattering ourselves or others flattering us the real solution lies in humbling ourselves to the dust and acknowledging that the worldly success we have had in life is often nothing but vanity and show.  There are moments when God breaks through despite our frantic search for distinction from the world and the busyness of our lives. These gentle moments of grace, if responded to with good will and a contrite and humble heart, can lead us toward peace of soul and they can help us to realise that ‘He has already made all the arrangements necessary for our happiness.’ 

‘Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.’ (Matthew 5:48)

The reality of whether we are a success in this life can only be measured by how we measure up to the truth.  We all desire happiness. As St. Augustine says, ‘All men agree in desiring the last end, which is happiness’.  He defines happiness as ‘joy in truth’.  The more we come to know and love the truth, the more perfectly we follow the path of truth, the happier we are and will become.  Now, there are times in every man’s life where he has a strong indication that the road he is on is not the right one. These feelings become apparent for many despite the trappings of worldly praise and success. He begins to sense that he is far from the road that leads to perfection. The anxiety this causes in us is at the root of the worldwide and prevalent phenomenon of ‘impostor syndrome’.  However, it may not be considered a disease or a syndrome. It may be called a grace in many cases. It is blessing to begin to realise the futility and vanity of worldly success and praise.  These are the moments that we realise that we are not good enough and become aware of our own misery and nothingness.  We can choose either to be humbled by these experiences and really examine our lives in light of the truth or we can explain them away as ‘negative thinking’ or ‘internalised prejudice’.  We can reach for the nearest psychologists, therapists, or sociologists to placate our concerns and tell us we are ‘good enough’. Or, alternatively, we can listen to Truth Himself as He speaks to us in those moments of distress and near despair who reaffirms to us that we are unworthy, misery, nothingness (3), but Who then reminds us that through His infinite Love and our generous co-operation in returning this love He will make us all that we can and should be. 

Finding One’s True Self:

The world flatters us, the truth does not.  Truth tells us to be careful not to be deceived by flattery and those false prophets dressed in the clothing of sheep.  He tells us that we must be better than we currently are and that we need to curb our evil inclinations through discipline and vigilance. As Fr Edward Leen (‘Why the Cross?’) says, ‘The religion of Christ does impose restraints, but what it restrains is not human nature as such, but human nature that is tempted to be faithless to its true self.  It curbs only those instincts which menace ruin to human personality; as a consequence, it remains essentially a law not of self-repression, but of self-expression.’

With a bit of effort, we can then shake off any feelings of false shame and the notions of being a fraud or an impostor as we begin to live the life we were created to live, i.e. a life that is centred on knowing, loving, and honouring God.  We can then be and express our true selves. This is the ultimate solution to the problem of the impostor syndrome.

To put myself consciously in acquiescence and harmony with all that I apprehend as the good and the true, carries me (in that inner region of my being which is my true self) beyond the limitations of goodness and truth as I apprehend them conditioned by sense and by mind, to the very essence of God Himself in Whom all goodness under all its manifold aspects is one and absolute and infinite.’ – Fr R.H.J. Steuart, ‘World Intangible’

Dear reader, what has been written above is an attempt to guide you and others away from the false and dangerous snares that the world wishes to entangle people in when the inevitable interior difficulties we experience in life appear. This article gives an indication as to where the real solution to feelings or thoughts of being false to our true self lies.  It points towards Goodness, Mercy, and Love Himself. Now, the devout Catholic life is the way to this true life (4). It is the way of harmonising ourselves with all that is good and true. It is where your true self is to be found. This is the way that leads to peace and happiness. This is the message that this article, wishes to impart. Perhaps, this will then incite you to explore further articles on this website which hope to encourage you on this path.  At least, it is hoped that the blogs written here in 2020 will spur you on to investigate the claims of the Catholic Faith further. 

Ultimately, faith is a gift from God so, as this is my last article of 2020, I hope and pray that you will be blessed with this gift and that you will enjoy a truly happy Christmas and a peaceful new year.  

God bless

Footnotes:

  1. There are doubts over whether this condition meets objective criteria to truly classify it as a psychological condition, with it even failing to make the list of the Diagnostic Statistic Manual, which has at least over 200 various diagnoses and includes such questionable disorders as ‘binge eating disorder’, i.e. gluttony, and ‘disruptive mood dysregulation disorder’, i.e. throwing temper tantrums. However, it is definitely true that people are experiencing anxiety about being seen as a fraud and impostor and this is why it is worth investigating.  
  2. Taken from: http://impostorsyndrometest.com. Note: the thoughts and attitudes towards oneself displayed as symptomatic of impostor syndrome cross over with many of the traits of conscientious people, i.e. those who are sensitive to the dictates of their conscience. This gives more evidence to the points made in this article that this ‘impostor syndrome’ is used as a way of explaining away the niggling of one’s conscience.
  3. The following are some of the words Our Lord uses towards Sister Josefa Mendenez in the private revelations she experienced, as outlined in the book, ‘The Way of Divine Love’. They are written here to give an understanding of how Our Lord speaks to those He loves: My one desire is to reveal to souls the love, the mercy and the pardon of My Heart, and I have chosen you to do it for Me, wretched as you undoubtedly are. But do not be anxious, I love you, and your misery is the very reason of My love. I want you for Myself, and because you are so miserable I have worked miracles to guard you carefully…Yes, I love all souls, but with very special affection those who are the most weak and little.’ – p. 424. ‘Gaze well and long on this Heart. It is the Sanctuary of the miserable, hence yours, for who is more miserable than you? Look deep down into My Heart. It is the Crucible in which the most defiled are purified, and afterwards inflamed with love. Come, draw near this Furnace, cast your miseries and sins into it; have confidence and believe in Me who am your Saviour.  Once more fix your eyes attentively on My Heart. It is a Fountain of Living Water. Throw yourself into its depths and appease your thirst.’ – p. 432. It is the love of God and us returning this love with our whole being that will make us our true selves, i.e. the saints God wills us to be.
  4. Note: this is not the false expression of the Catholic Faith offered by the Novus Ordo and its adherent today but rather the Faith expressed so supremely by the Traditional Latin Mass/the true Mass (see: Getting Closer to the Truth – Protestant Services or the Novus Ordo? – Truth and Freedom Therapy (TFT)) and lived by countless canonised saints previous to the Vatican II revolution in the Church (see: Sanctity & Sanity (1/2) – Truth and Freedom Therapy (TFT))