An illustration of a rubber duck surrounded by real ducks
An illustration of a rubber duck surrounded by real ducks

In a 1978 academic paper, the clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes identified a condition they called “the impostor phenomenon”. High-achieving women, they found, felt it most keenly. Often outnumbered by men in meetings, they were more likely to feel unentitled to be in the room. Their impostorism was self-fulfilling. The more successful they became, the more others expected of them, and the more anxious they were that they would fail to meet those expectations. The harder they worked, the more they felt that their success was only due to working harder, and the harder they had to keep working to maintain the charade.

“Impostor phenomenon” is a better term, I think, than the now more common “impostor syndrome”. A syndrome sounds like a recognised condition that can be treated but not cured – a sad, persistent fact that concerns mainly its victim and which, once it has been diagnosed, need no longer be discussed. A phenomenon sounds like something significant that demands an explanation.

So how do we explain it? Why do so many of us, myself included, feel like impostors?

Part of it derives, I think, from a mindset borrowed from the capitalist free market. In most of the western world, the values and imperatives of the free market have slowly pervaded our thinking. Over the last few decades, they have become the enveloping aroma and undertaste of our lives. As the free market endlessly demands more – there is always more growth to be had, a new rival to outsell, another goal to set – so do the reward centres of our brains.

Self-declared impostors behave exactly as the free market wants them to behave. We cannot see our success as something permanent, something we may safely deposit in a low-risk savings account where it will slowly accrue interest for ever. Rather, we see it as another casino chip that we must bet away in search of a better hand, and might just as easily lose.

Via smartphones and a general cult of busy-ness, the free market eats into our uncontracted hours. It delivers an infinite series of self-replicating demands, and the only reward it offers is permission to continue the race. For self-identifying impostors, no success will ever be enough, because to our minds no success with our name on it can have been that hard to achieve. It will never give us the reassurance we crave.

Michelle Obama captured the phenomenon perfectly in her memoir, Becoming, when she wrote that in her younger life as a high-achieving child from a mainly black, working-class part of Chicago’s South Side, she turned the thrumming phrase “not enough, not enough” over in her head “like a malignant cell that threatened to divide and divide again.”

There does seem to be a very specific group of people, however, who are immune from feeling like impostors: they are the people who run our lives. For a long time, I had a sneaking regard for the well-educated, articulate people who ran the government, the major banks and the country. Like most sufferers from the impostor phenomenon, I could not help but secretly admire and covet the charismatic confidence of those privileged few – mostly white men – who seemed immune from it. They spoke, after all, with unwavering poise and bone-shuddering certainty that theirs was the only way. Surely people so undaunted, it felt natural to assume, must have some clue what they are doing?

These past two decades – an age where the many failures of those in power have included the 2008 financial crash, an unwillingness to adequately confront climate crisis and the mismanagement of a global pandemic – the answer feels clearer: No, they do not.

Now I see that the officer class has no more idea of how the world works than I do; they are simply better at concealing their ignorance and confusion (and I suspect they conceal it from themselves as well as from others). Not even the most unvarnished encounter with their own failings seems to dent their confidence or shame them into silence. They simply carry on explaining to the rest of us how the world works.

Their lunatic assurance reminds me of Monty Python’s black knight, still asserting his invincibility after King Arthur has hacked off both his arms and one of his legs. These are the people with whatever the opposite of the impostor phenomenon is – and they are the ones we really need to worry about. They also remind the rest of us that it is not so bad to doubt oneself occasionally, that those who are worried about being “found out” are often the ones who get useful work done. So if you do feel like an impostor – and even if you really shouldn’t – you may be in the best company.

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Image: Mica Murphy / Penguin

  • If You Should Fail

  • 'There is an honesty and a clarity in Joe Moran's book If You Should Fail that normalises and softens the usual blows of life that enables us to accept and live with them rather than be diminished/wounded by them' Julia Samuel, author of Grief Works and This Too Shall Pass

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    Failure is the small print in life's terms and conditions.

    Covering everything from examination dreams to fourth-placed Olympians, If You Should Fail is about how modern life, in a world of self-advertised success, makes us feel like failures, frauds and imposters. Widely acclaimed observer of daily life Joe Moran is here not to tell you that everything will be all right in the end, but to reassure you that failure is an occupational hazard of being human.

    As Moran shows, even the supremely gifted Leonardo da Vinci could be seen as a failure. Most artists, writers, sports stars and business people face failure. We all will, and can learn how to live with it. To echo Virginia Woolf, beauty "is only got by the failure to get it . . . by facing what must be humiliation - the things one can't do."

    Combining philosophy, psychology, history and literature, Moran's ultimately upbeat reflections on being human, and his critique of how we live now, offers comfort, hope - and solace. For we need to see that not every failure can be made into a success - and that's OK.

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