A new online computer game has infiltrated my home this lockdown, and caught the attention of all three of my children. Readers with children of similar ages and tastes to mine may recognise the character in the image featured. For those that don’t, allow me to introduce “Imposter”.
The game in question is Among Us and I’ve been reliably educated by my kids on the rules. It’s essentially a virtual take on the classic game played around the campfires of my childhood: ‘Wink Murder’.
“Imposter”, a character assigned to a player at random, has an advantage over all others: they get to go about pretending to be “working”, while secretly eliminating their opponents. In short, the aim is for “Imposter” to keep their identity hidden from the others. If they manage to complete a game without being exposed, they win. If, however, their true identity is detected, they die: Game Over.
It hasn’t escaped my attention that my kids’ obsession with this game (and the habitual yell of “I’m Imposter!”) has developed in parallel to the theme of Imposter Syndrome emerging in many of the blogs I’ve been writing alongside them while they play. And I’ve been thinking a lot about the significance of this parallel.
Summarising my main observations of Imposter Syndrome from the interviews I’ve conducted so far, I decided, may help crystallise my thinking. So here they are:
1. Imposter Syndrome is indiscriminate
From the most qualified, to the least educated of people, Imposter Syndrome knows no bounds. Darren, a university-educated Managing Director of a global company expressed (almost verbatim) the same Imposter Syndrome-related anxieties as Susan, a self-employed freelancer who left school at the age of sixteen: a fear of being “found out”.
It does not seem to matter what one’s gender, educational attainment, income, class, or marital status is – Imposter Syndrome strikes people from all walks of life indiscriminately.
It also doesn’t seem to matter how accomplished a person is. People I’ve interviewed that have risen the ranks of their organisation, or set up their own successful businesses, are plagued with it just as much as those who have changed career paths and started again from scratch.
And as Sarah’s Story, depicted, confident and extroverted people are suscpetible to Imposter Syndrome, just as quiet introverts are (see more on that below).
Indeed, there is no neat set of criteria to determine what “type” of person will develop Imposter Sydrome. Similarly, there are no hard and fast, unviersal rules that one could follow to avoid it, such as ‘go to university’ or ‘get married’.
Which brings me on to my second observation.
2. Imposter syndrome is self-driven and illogical
Without exception, the people I’ve interviewed who are afflicted with Imposter Syndrome, have not explicitly been told by anyone else that they are unworthy of the positions they hold. The critical voices are always their own.
In most cases, in fact, they described feeling valued at work, had been promoted even. Those that are self-employed continue to win and retain clients. Many described having supportive friends, family and mentors that are continually encouraging of their professional pursuits.
These inner critical voices are also illogical. Sarah, a former actress who set up her own drama school, for example, described the Imposter Syndrome she feels each time the spotlight is turned on her. There is no logic to this: she graduated from one of the most prestigious drama schools in England and spent years working in theatre before changing paths. Yet none of these facts dampens her internally-driven sense of Imposter Syndrome, manifested as self-doubt, anxiety and paranoia.
In contrast, the people I interviewed that did not mention experiencing Imposter Syndrome – such as Sam and Tahmid – possess an inner confidence and elevated sense of self-worth that convinces them of being absolutely entitled to hold their positions, regardless of what others might say.
But that’s not all.
They also expressed a recognition of the limitations and flaws of others, which assures them that they are just as capable to do their jobs as the next person. And, crucially, that there is nothing to fear from failure.
It is this attitude that emboldened Sam to challenge his organisation’s HR policies (“it’s not like the firm would fire me for asking”, he argued). Similarly, when Tahmid was told as an intern that he was “not very good at anything”, his self-belief did not waiver.
I can conclude from this that Imposter Syndrome only functions when an individual allows it to; and conversely, that it can only stop when a person wills it to.
Easier said than done, no doubt.
But from the small amount I’ve read on the subject, experts broadly agree that it is a mind-set that can be overcome, with the application of practical techniques and professional support. But that it essentially needs to come from within.
3. Imposter Syndrome is unproductive
When I analysed how the theme of guilt was emerging in my blog, I observed that my subjects all reported that guilty feelings are a “negative and unproductive drain on their energy and emotional wellbeing”.
Imposter Syndrome seems to have a similar effect – no one I interviewed suggested that it promotes productive behaviour at work or at home. In fact, it seems to do the opposite.
The only negative emotional state that I’ve observed arising in my blogs that is at all constructive (abeit not exclusively) is anger. For a few of my subjects, like Sheara, who was incensed at a colleague’s suggestion that having children was career-limiting, anger was an emotion that perpetuated a sense of purpose. In contrast, Imposter Syndrome seems to do nothing but create anxiety and encourage inhibition and paranoia.
When I asked my daughter what she enjoys about being an Among Us “Imposter”, she told me quite simply that “it’s more fun” than being any of the other players. It struck me how this differs to adults’ reactions to feeling like “Imposters”. They don’t enjoy the sensation of “avoiding exposure” – it frightens them; it causes them to feel stressed and withdrawn.
The risk of exposure resulting in “Game Over” does not deter my children for vying for the role of “Imposter”. Is the subliminal message they are absorbing that it is a good thing to hide your true self and deceive the people around you? Or that being fake is a bad thing because it will ultimately end in your demise? Though only if you’re found out.
Perhaps I’m spiralling out of control with this analogy.
But what if we adults approached Imposter Syndrome like a game of Among Us? What if, rather than being deflated by self-doubt, those people who feel like “Imposters” revelled in their power, and delighted in making the most of operating undercover without divulging their self-perceived “true identity”?
Imagine, one by one, those people exposing themselves for who they consider themselves to be, standing up (either on screen or in person once we return to our offices) and yelling with glee, “I’m Imposter!”.
Would that be such a bad thing? What would the ripple effect be? I bet you’d find a hell of a lot of people up on their feet.