Most of us, at some point in our lives, have experienced that bitter internal voice telling us we’re not good enough, that we’re a fraud, and that it’s only a matter of time before everyone finds out that we’ve tricked them into thinking we’re competent and worthy. For those of us who experience this persistently, the more this voice tells us we’re worthless, the more it poisons the well which holds our self-esteem, leaving us depressed and anxious, constantly worrying that we’re one step away from being socially rejected and shamed.
The tragedy of this is that it prevents us from seeing clearly our value, skills and achievements, and can undermine our most hard-won successes. It can rob us of the opportunity to feel safe and secure in ourselves, leaving us in a constant state of precarity. One of the unfortunate tricks of imposter syndrome is to also convince us that we are the only ones who feel this way, and that everyone else is confidently navigating through the world with great confidence and skill.
In reality of course, almost all of us experience insecurity and self-doubt from time to time, and underneath the external persona we see presented by others is a complex internal world full of messy contradictions and all-too-human foibles.
Why do we care about status so much?
One way of thinking about imposter syndrome is as an off-shoot of status anxiety. From an evolutionary and psychological perspective, it makes sense that we would be sensitive to our relative status within groups and attuned to the threat of social rejection and exclusion.
We exist at the end of a long evolutionary line of ancestors who survived by forming social groups and successfully participating in them. Those who were excluded from the group would not have survived very long, being denied access to the shared resources and protection of the community. We have thus evolved to become acutely sensitive and attuned to our status within social groups relative to others, and to remain vigilant against the threat of status reduction and the danger this poses.
This is one of the reasons why shame is such a painful and anxiety inducing feeling, and why it is often used as a coercive tool to control people. It also speaks to why cultivating self-compassion can provide such an effective, soothing balm for those of us susceptible to the shame-based feelings of negative status comparison. Compassion is the tonic that heals shame, and which allows us to start to build a sense of security based on a recognition of our innate value that persists regardless of our social status.
Why unconditional love if so important for children
We are not, however, completely determined by our evolutionary biology. Cultural, social, political and economic factors all play a part in contributing to our felt sense of security and belonging, or alienation and vulnerability .
Those of us who grew up in families that weren’t able to provide us with the unconditional love and security we needed will not have been able to establish that core sense of safety which comes from being in a social world that accepts us for who we are.
Children who have grown up having to meet certain conditions to receive love and care from the adults around them will continue to carry a fear that this love and care could be taken away at any minute, leaving them isolated, vulnerable and fundamentally insecure.
As adults in therapy, the work will often include working with their inner child to give them the unconditional love and acceptance they missed out on growing up, thus being able to recover a more stable sense of self-esteem and emotional security.
The influence of culture and politics
Our family systems are also part of larger systems of culture, politics, society and economy that can have an equally big impact on our sense of worth.
The academic and cultural critic Mark Fisher wrote movingly about his own chronic depression and feelings of imposter syndrome that plagued him through most of his life. He speaks of how cultural scripts around class and status in the UK led to him internalising beliefs of not being good enough and not belonging, regardless of his actual success and accomplishments, because of his working class origins, and how this could lead to feelings of ‘vertigo, panic and horror’ as he found himself in a middle-class, professional social environment in which he felt he did not belong.
Status anxiety in the digital age
Unfortunately, the ubiquity of social media has only compounded the problem. Media of all forms has for a long time traded on the value of social status and hierarchy, presenting glamorized and sanitised versions of the lives of high status individuals and groups for the rest of us to gaze upon with a mixture of envy and fascination.
But there was a separation there too, a sense that these people were living in a different world to ours that gave some protection in regard to negative comparisons and status fixation. Our social circles and peer groups made up of family members, co-workers and friends of similar social status to us provided a more realistic and grounded arena for status comparisons.
However, in the age of social media, the way we present ourselves to our immediate peers has come to resemble some of the glamorized and artificially curated forms of representation once limited to the rich and famous.
Moreover, the figures who we may have once admired from a distance have entered into our world in a much more familiar way through forms of media such as podcasts, streams, and other social media interactions that mimic the low-key intimacy of peer interactions.
The potential harm of para-social relationships
This has resulted in the proliferation of so-called ‘para-social’ relationships. These are relationships we have with media figures which mimic the intimacy of close peer relationships (e.g. the close eye contact of an Instagram influencer speaking to us directly into camera, the friendly banter and camaradarie of our favourite podcast, the streamer playing games and ‘hanging out’ in our living room).
The intimacy we feel is an illusion, but nevertheless activates and taps into the same psychological and emotional processes we experience with our friends and peers. As popular figures in media tend to be over-represented with extroverted, charismatic, and relatively wealthy and successful people, this can lead to our internal emotional landscape being populated by people who live very different lives to us and who occupy a much higher social status.
There can be genuine vicarious enjoyment to be had through feeling we’re participating in their lives, but also a high risk of depression and anxiety at the awareness that our own lives are much more ordinary and mundane in comparison.
Cultivating self-compassion and unconditional self-worth
What’s missing for many of us who regularly experience imposter syndrome is a stable sense of unconditional self-worth. This is not the same as narcissistic self-aggrandizement or arrogant over-confidence, but is instead a recognition that regardless of our relative achievements, strengths and weaknesses, we have an innate value based in the fact of our existence that cannot be eroded.
Overcoming the emotional pain of status anxiety often requires the development of self-compassion and the capacity for self-nurture, building a stable base of unconditional self-worth that can weather the storms of changing circumstances and misfortunes.
It also requires a collective effort to change the dominant culture and promote new ways of valuing each other, not as units of economic production in competition with each other for status and prestige, but as members of a shared community who can collaborate together to support each other’s well-being.