What does it mean to be real, to be genuine, to be actual?

These may sound like the questions on a PPE options paper, or a philosophy paper of some sort (perhaps the ones offered at All Souls). But fret not — I have no interest of answering them from a philosophical point of view. Instead, I find these questions real — as real as the annoying alarm clock that I could not snooze in the dim hours in the early morning; as real as the obsession of downloading 50 self-help articles with the false belief that the more I read, the more capable I am of purging my internal insecurities; as real as the fact that I seek solace in hours after hours of self-slavery and work — only to find out that work does nothing to purge myself of the deep, unsettling fears that plague me from night to day.

Yes, I had previously suffered from the Impostor Syndrome for an expected duration. And whilst it no longer affects me or comes visiting (as often as it did), I do hope to achieve some sort of catharsis with the following confessionary piece. It generally operates in mysterious ways — it exists as a compulsive urge, a nagging voice, and a bucket of icy cold water that pours over you whenever you’re experiencing the slightest sensation of success. Different people tackle and experience the Impostor Syndrome in different ways — but, at the risk of over-generalisation, I do believe that there are several common points that most sufferers of it share.

The syndrome casts a skeptical light over all instances of successes. Success is either dismissed as evidence of the “generosity and kindness of others”, the “help from key individuals”, or sheer fortune and unintended luck, or attributed to inherent, structural reasons — e.g. “This year’s paper was easier.” or, in a debater’s language, “The rooms [the pool of competition, hereby referring to the quality of other competing teams].” The commonality is that the cause of success is never oneself, and never intentional or underpinned by one’s hard work. Underpinning these is a fundamental sense of skepticism — towards the fact that it is you who made the difference, as opposed to others; or the fact that your success should be ‘owned’ and ‘acknowledged’ as much as any other person’s. There’s something innate about your own achievements that you find inherently inferior compared to others — and it is the normalisation of this form of self-trivialisation that allows the syndrome to get away with bulldozing over your achievements, no matter how prestigious or valuable they are. And it is also this power of engendering severe self-doubt that allows the inner voice within you to amplify and magnify the voices of the naysayers who denigrate your achievements. The Impostor Syndrome operates as a filter that sifts out positive compliments and leaves you — woken by insomnia at 4am in the morning — with only the darkest of words and thoughts that you’ve been subject to. It operates as a screen that applies a general blur over everything you see and interact with — with a reversed Midas’ touch, it turns gold to stone.

But it gets much worse than that. Soon, propositions about your successes become personal; they become definite and discrete descriptions about you that are inherent and systemic. The Devil comes knocking at the foundations of your self-esteem and self-worth, and — as fickle as sand dunes in the desert — you find yourself stripped of the basis of your confidence and self-worth. It doesn’t help that in competitive debating, one’s self-worth is built almost entirely in relation to one’s competitive successes — how well one ‘performs’ on the ‘tab’ [a ranking of all the speakers and teams in a particular tournament]; or in terms of how one is perceived as a speaker (the nature of competitive debating, unlike any other sport, is inherently predicated upon a subjective element of how persuasive one comes across to others within the imagined community); such that every less-than-ideal performance at a tournament could set you back easily through the voice of the Impostor Syndrome. The nagging voice persists, as you participate in catastrophisation after each setback. And soon, your incidental failures and episodes of humiliation become a part of your self-conceived identity; irregardless of how successful you may have been in the past, you soon become paranoid that you have ‘lost it’, that the Midas’ touch has ‘left you’, and that you are, as any other person out there, ordinary again. In times of momentary success, the Impostor Syndrome is like a friend who trawls though your oldest Facebook posts of your past failures and point to them, laughing out gleefully: “Look! You’re really just an impostor pretending to be successful; you’re no better than this.” In times of failure, the voice resurfaces, reminding you in the sneering, cynical tone it is known for: “I told you so.”

It doesn’t stop there. The old friend doesn’t simply abuse you by tossing words, phrases, and logically composed, coherent arguments at you. It also operates through the more pernicious and invisible mechanisms of emotions. The Impostor Syndrome transforms its victims into paranoid and learned-helpless individuals, who find success discomforting. Success is vexing and tiring, because it increases the level of expectations placed by others upon you; and heightens the bar that you set for yourself. Every time you succeed, you feel the sense of painful fear that the ‘you’ in a week or two weeks’ time would be unable to replicate your success. You fear being displaced, replaced, outcompeted, and beaten — and the most ironic fact out of all this, perhaps, is that you are expected to feel happy that you have achieved something; that past social conditioning has taught you that you should be glad and ‘own your achievement’ — even when you feel you’re literally unable to do so.

And slowly and gradually, you begin to fear undertaking new risks. You hold onto what you have, a King Lear living in the Pompeii castle, in fear that things would begin to fall apart the moment you step outside your comfort zone. You begin to find success as nauseating and painful as failure; you have inadvertently and unintentionally learnt to disassociate your past successes from your present self; you become a fundamental skeptic who lives under the constant fear that the successes of your past self do not and cannot translate to your present self. And this circle of self-doubt, paranoia, and anxiety is self-perpetuating. It takes you further and further down the drain, taking you to one rock bottom after another. And another.

Impostor Syndrome appears to be rooted in a complex mixture of physiological and sociocultural factors. Some have argued that it is more likely to occur in individuals who have clinical tendencies of depression (guilt by association, I suppose…), whilst others have pointed out that it has often a lot to do with high levels of success and achievement — particularly amongst minorities or women. And it is not hard to understand why: with dominant social narratives insisting that they are ‘not good enough’ and dismissing the hard-earned successes of them as ‘tokenistic’ or ‘lucky’, it is apparent that the ways through which society frames individual understandings of their successes and failures have unsurprisingly powerful impacts on the ways through which they imagine their own capabilities and abilities. The present frames the past, and the past in turn affects the ways the individual perceives the future.

You may found solace in the fact that this is a phenomenon suffered by many others — including very successful persons, such as Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and Oprah Winfrey. You may find comfort in the fact that it is unnatural, and largely unfounded. Or you may find the best treatment in continuing to try, in persisting with your journey. But if there’s one thing I could say to you out there: you are not alone. And the fight against the Impostor Syndrome is not over — it’s only just begun.

Originally published at medium.com


  • Brian Wong

    Thrive Global Campus Editor-at-Large from Oxford University

    Also: Rhodes Scholar, DPhil in Politics, University of Oxford. Political theorist, policy advocate, activist, competitive debater, ad-hoc journalist, and a restless old soul in a 22 year old's body.