[Originally published March 2014 in response to Daily Prompt “Imposter Syndrome”]
Well, who doesn’t suffer from a syndrome of one kind or the other these days? I’m going to start by stating that, in my opinion, academia has replaced “commonplace” or “universally” with “syndrome,” probably as a means to add gravitas to the human condition and to justify the time and expense they’ve spent analyzing our collective miserable state. (I use the word, “miserable,” because I’ve not yet seen the word “syndrome” in association with the word, “happy”).
Anyway. On the subject of the prompt: Buddha did not transcend this world for the other until he actually reached pure knowledge, so if we’re still here plodding away on planet earth, who is anybody to say we have accomplished anything?
Of course we don’t feel deserving of accolades. We’re not all-knowing buddhas. We get a compliment for a job well done and we shrug it off, like Don Draper from TV’s Mad Men, and, like him, hope to holy hell no one ever figures out that we’re just making it up as we go along. I don’t agree with the premise of this behavior being a “syndrome,” but, if it makes others feel better that the reason can be placed outside of themselves (or for the basis of really good TV), then OK. Whatever. It’s a syndrome.
All of us strive toward some level of achievement, but rarely feel as though we have succeeded. I find that more in keeping with basic human nature in response to societal mores, rather than a clinical condition. The way I see it, we are discovering and learning as we go, not acting upon expertise. And yet, we are always tapping into our skills and drawing upon what we have, in fact, successfully accomplished, in order to at least survive, if not be at our very best. I think many behavioral scientists would agree that this is integral to our hard-wiring; our natural instinct. Not a syndrome.
What turns it into a cash-in-the-bank topic for the self-help industry is the fact that we live in a society that has a complex relationship with self- assuredness. Most cultures have parables and morality doctrines that warn against the pitfalls of hubris, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that we struggle as to when it is appropriate to let our light shine versus when to hide it under a bushel. On one hand we are told it is healthy to be loud and proud. On the other, we’re told it’s rude not to be solemn and circumspect. So, which is it? Unfortunately, it’s both. So, OK. It’s a syndrome because we’re all going bug-nutty trying to figure it out.
I am very proud of the things I’ve accomplished. Some of things are acknowledged only by me as personal best efforts, and so I reveal my pride to only a select few of trusted friends and family who will not accuse me of being arrogant. Other of my efforts have been called out as feats for the greater good. I accept the compliment because that is the polite thing to do, but hopefully I do so without false modesty or overconfidence. It’s a tightrope to have to walk.
We are brought up to work toward accomplishment, but we don’t always receive credit along the way, so when it is offered it can be confusing. My parents grew up in an age and culture in which compliments were considered shallow platitudes, offered only as a matter of courtesy, or as a manipulative tact rather than a genuine expression of approval. Therefore, we were brought up to see criticism rather than praise as a sincere form of feedback. For me, this unfortunately created a lack of confidence. I don’t think I suffer from a syndrome as a result, but I do struggle with the result of parents who were taught to make kids tough in order to survive the harsh realities of immigration, economic depression, dust-bowl droughts and world wars.
We’re all instructed by cultural norms, societal dictum and personal hardships or failures that we’ll never get there; that life is tough and we aren’t tough enough. We are instructed that we live as sinners and will die the same, and only that rarefied elite of transcended prophets, saviors and other heroes or heroines can act in our defense. So, yes, why should we think we are anything but a bunch of con men? It’s an unfortunate attitude, but at least we can all hope to wear it as well as Mad Men’s Don Draper.