Why imposter syndrome is fake. And how to overcome it.

Imposter syndrome is a fake theory. And our faith in it is holding us back.

The standard description of imposter syndrome goes something like this: a persistent doubting of our own abilities and the fear of being exposed as a fraud when our inadequacies are discovered.

But it doesn’t stack up, because imposters know they’re pretending to be someone else. That’s the whole point. Acting as an imposter is an active choice – deliberately deciding to present oneself as someone else in order to get something. The imposter is in charge of the lie.

Imposter syndrome is the exact opposite. In this situation we feel like we have zero control. We’re not choosing to act the fraud. We think we are one, and we’re petrified that others will see it too.  There’s no power in this whatsoever. We feel like the lie is in charge of us.

Follow the power

It’s all about power. There is always power. The question is: where does it sit?

An actual imposter exercises power, even if it’s risky and precarious. An imposter syndrome sufferer holds none. So where is the power in the imposter syndrome scenario? It rests beyond the person experiencing imposter syndrome, in the judgements of others.

Let’s name something up quickly: imposter syndrome is experienced by women far more than men. Why? Because we live in a society where men hold vastly more power, including the devastating power to significantly shape how most women feel about themselves and their abilities.

Judgment Syndrome

People (i.e. mostly women) experiencing imposter syndrome are not imposters at all. They are judgement survivors.

So let’s call it Judgment Syndrome. Through Judgment Syndrome society relentlessly judges others (mostly women) by remorselessly implying or explicitly insisting that they are inadequate. (Men, if you don’t agree, ask a female friend if this sounds accurate.)

When a person (almost certainly a woman) feels they’re experiencing imposter syndrome, it may well be that they’re coming off the back of a lifetime of being diminished, belittled, overlooked, abused, harassed, mocked and humiliated by others. With such a stifling burden of accusation and shame, is it any wonder that they (she) are going to feel inadequate and not up to scratch?

Point being: It’s time to stop validating the theory of imposter syndrome because it puts the blame for not feeling good enough at the feet of the person (woman) enduring the experience. Imposter syndrome implies that the person feeling like an imposter has the problem and needs fixing.

What we should be doing is delivering the responsibility for this mess to the big bright door of our  society which makes people (mostly women) feel consistently deficient. It’s the society that needs fixing. It’s the misogyny that is the problem.

Imposter syndrome is a fake theory, disguising the real malady of a judging society which diminishes people (by and large, women).

Another fake syndrome

And it turns out that imposter syndrome is not the only fake syndrome.

In her excellent and profoundly harrowing book, See What You Made Me Do, stellar author and journalist Jess Hill talks about the lie of the equally well-known Stockholm syndrome.

We all think we know that Stockholm syndrome involves hostages or abuse victims becoming enamoured with their captors or abusers. We may further know the theory’s claim that Stockholm syndrome sufferers have an imprudent distrust of the authority figures seeking to help them.

But Stockholm syndrome is another fake syndrome hiding male power.

Stockholm syndrome was concocted by psychiatrist Nils Bejerot following his involvement in a shambolic police response to a 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm during which Kristin Enmark was taken hostage.

According to Hill, the police engaged in a series of extreme missteps during this violent encounter including provoking the bank robber, ignoring requests to speak from Enmark (a hostage), teargassing the bank, surrounding the building with staggering amounts of terrifying firepower and generally carrying on like angry idiots. Even the Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme, managed to join in long enough to disgrace himself when Enmark seized the initiative and got him on the phone. From the safety of his distant and well-guarded office, Palme heroically encouraged Enmark to “content yourself that you will have died at your post” after taking the trouble to emphatically advise her that she wouldn’t be getting out of the bank alive.

Understandably, Enmark had markedly different aspirations for her own future. Which is why she worked with one of the bank robbers who promised to limit the violence of the lead perpetrator and occasionally demonstrated human kindness. Her stubborn enthusiasm for survival also explains why she asked to speak to the police and why she fought to get hold of the PM. Her outspoken anger after the event about the shameful and reckless actions of the police and political leadership, was simply a reasonable response to their bungling inadequacies and cavalier aggressions.

Unfortunately for Enmark, her forthright assertive and public condemnations following the siege proved nothing short of a gigantic irritation to the chaps in authority. So when Mr Bejerot obligingly diagnosed her as suffering from a brand new malady which he had essentially invented on the spot (and which later become known as Stockholm syndrome) everyone in power was jolly pleased indeed and gobbled up Mr Bejerot’s baseless claims like ravenous Labradors.

After all, no one trust a woman who’s been clinically hailed as mad. No one listens to a woman authoritatively diagnosed as irrational and lustful. And in this way, the authorities managed to get themselves off the hook and cover up their own shortcomings. Thank you Stockholm syndrome.

Point being: Stockholm syndrome was invented to scapegoat a woman who had the courage to singlehandedly fashion strategies for survival amid violent chaos, and the subsequent temerity to point out that the blokes in charge were acting like dickheads. And as Canadian therapist Dr Allan Wade points out, Stockholm syndrome has been used ever since to discredit women victims of violence by claiming that their inherent flaws are to blame for their own victimisation (which means there’s no need to look at the men involved or the imbalances in the system, phew! Who wants a cigar?).

Keeping it real

Next time you catch yourself saying you have imposter syndrome, remind yourself that it’s a junk theory which you just don’t need in your life.

You’re not an imposter. You’re not a charlatan. You’re an amazing person. You’re doing your absolute best (except, perhaps, after a few wines LOL). And you’re scoring more goals than Sam Kerr.

In fact, it’s a miracle you’ve done everything you have and got as far as you’ve got while all the while retaining your dignity and hope, given how persistently others has toiled to make you feel faulty.

Imposter syndrome is fake. Judgment Syndrome is real.

The fault is not with you. It’s with the way society judges you, especially if you’re a woman.

So keep it real. You’re doing extraordinarily well. And we’re incredibly fortunate to have you here.


Note: For the copywriters among you: yes, I have used lower case ‘s’ in Stockholm syndrome and imposter syndrome because they’re junk diagnoses. Judgments Syndrome has a capital ‘S’ because it is real.