“I don’t belong here”

With the latest lockdown extension, I am back to dilly-dallying and fraught musings. While I watch House of Cards for the third time, I wonder how one can be so smart and manipulative and yet, question themselves. How the mind that makes us perform all the good, is also the one that makes us question each action.

In these times where we put ourselves to uses more than we can avail, where multiple to-do lists loom over our heads, it is easy to maintain a fail-safe, procrastinate, and be stressed. But there is another issue on the other side of the spectrum that we do not usually talk about. A fear, if I may call it that, of how we are being able to perform these tasks, and with suave too. The other day, I had just washed my hands of paint and stopped to see what I had painted. I actually liked it. On any other day, I just sit there and count flaws, but I did not. I could not. And, thus, I called it my lucky day, took a picture of it, and off went my Snapchat. Ah, a happy day. A happy day that brought in new questions. After my usual tip-dip-trip to Google, I found that there prevails a phenomenon that affects many - the ‘Impostor Syndrome’. It is a persistent feeling that causes someone to doubt their accomplishments despite evidence and fear they may be exposed as a fraud. It caught my interest and also managed to make me redirect my thought process on multiple occasions.

How many times have we felt like we did not belong with the ones who excel, that we did not deserve the appreciation, that we had somehow managed to fool everyone around us? I sure have. Even on a day that I am sure I had prepared more than I needed to and did well in the task, I give about 70% of the credit to luck. Other times, when I do not score well, the very first thought in my head is, “See? You are not as smart as you’d like to believe you are.” Some have described their experience with impostor syndrome as a feeling of being trapped in a situation where you are well out of your depth and have no way out. People affected by this syndrome show a common behaviour: they are often remarkably successful, overachieving on a regular basis and are considered experts by others, but deep down they feel like frauds, scared of being unmasked anytime. It may seem hard to believe, but there is a huge discrepancy between the false image they own of themselves and what others see, they live an internal conflict. Psychologists Clance and Imes first described the impostor phenomenon in 1978; Kolligian and Sternberg in 2000 suggested that we should categorise this mental fraudulence experience as a category in personality disorder or pervasive mental disorder for it is known not as a symptom but a self-perception or self-referral ideation with cognitive and emotional-affective components. However, until today, the syndrome has not been acknowledged psychiatrically.

The syndrome mind-trap prevents people from believing in themselves to the detriment of us all. Reading the cases (and oh, the famous!), the way it has been portrayed, I wondered if it was just low self-esteem or not having plenty of self-confidence. But self-doubt and low self-confidence levels are seen to be symptoms of impostor syndrome, and at its core, it is said to be a self-assessment problem. I’d say there are three ways to muster the syndrome, “Hello, I’m fake”; “Hello, I’m just lucky”; and my favourite, “Hello, this thing!? Oh, it’s nothing.” Now, you cannot tell me you haven’t uttered any of these, just like I can’t tell you having said any (or all) of this implies that you have the syndrome. Blimey.

Upon looking up literature on the phenomenon, I was surprised to find that most of it revolved around women, while research has shown that there is no certain gender effect, seemingly people don’t believe so, and well, who are we to fault, but society? More on that, someday. The most important factor that influences this syndrome is found to be the connection link between family variables, personality variables, destructive beliefs, and the unpleasant consequences of progress. The family and child-rearing method along with the attribution styles really make the play. As a child, we are often taught not to be over-confident, or well, too self-serving. While, how you are brought up plays a huge role, let me just say, that is not the only factor. Your personality, your own disposition, and its marriage to how well your esteem was nurtured are what make the magic happen.

Amidst all the research about who is feeling what and why they did manage to find out certain types to this syndrome. Valerie Young suggested five types: The Perfectionist who piles up their own expectations and does most of them and still feels like a failure. The Experts feel the need to know every piece of information and, are always wanting to improve their skills, however, they continue to question it. The Soloist is someone who feels the need to do everything on their own and if they want for help, they count it as a failure. The Superwoman/man pushes themselves to work harder than those around them to prove that they are not imposters. And lastly, The Great Mind, or the Natural Genius, their problem is that if they have to struggle or work hard to accomplish something, they think it means they are not good enough. I suppose it says something about me that even putting myself in one of these boxes, is making me mildly anxious. Ha.

What is interesting is that when individuals with this phenomenon face a competitive situation; they show two reactions: they either become negligent and make up excuses for doing the given task or spend excessive energy doing it. What should not come as a surprise is how strongly it is associated with psychological distress- depression and anxiety and is heavily linked to burnout too. Holding yourself to impossible standards, trying to control your environment and comparing yourself to others: these three are the silent triggers. They lead to self-assessment standards that are unreachable, making you feel like you will never measure up and that you don’t deserve what you have. Time and again, these feelings may flutter by, but are they only bad? Is there any good to it? I mean, at the end of the day, it does involve self-talk, and reflection, however negative.

If Hermione (Emma Watson, to the uncultured), herself, has it, I would say there must be something to it. Amidst the 30 or so famous names that InStyle shows me on a slideshow, with even Meryl Streep making a cameo, there is much to how one feels the fear. Just the statements made by someone who inhabits it can let you know. Most times, fear is considered weak, however, this could very well be a strength in its own right. The ones affected see flaws in their work where others do not and self-medicate against it by aiming for perfection, and when has perfection ever been less than (I apologise) perfect. Studies have shown that people perform at higher levels when they are worried about being (or seeming) incompetent. There is a paradoxical similarity between the self-views of people who are really competent and the self-views of those who are not. Would you say that feeling like a fraud when you should not is probably not as bad as not feeling like a fraud when you should?

Most people experience moments of doubt, and that is normal. The important part is said to be not to let that doubt control your actions and, well, to appease you, still, I have Bertrand Russell, telling us all- “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”


Harshita Jain

Second year Psychology student from Delhi University, with a keen interest in reading anything from Archer to Rumi. Speaks in analogies, more often than not. Writes poetry and paints, when not testing people's attributes. Believes in Occam's Razor.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.