When I was younger, my parents read me bed-time stories – stories that were not limited to princesses lovingly rescued by princes displaying machismo. Looking back, I find that my bed-time was indeed full of intricate stories of identity and inter-personal nuances.
A story that I particularly recall is of an imposter.
//Let me rebuild it from my memory, for you. Story start –
Once a long long time ago, in a kingdom now lost lived a king and a queen. The queen was a quiet lady, who did as told and lived within the limits defined by the world that ruled her. She regularly went to the river bed to take long baths. It was a routine affair and since the kingdom was thought immune to notoriety, the queen would not think twice about moving in and out of the palace without guard.
On one fateful day, the queen went for her routine bath..
.. and found her eyes locked with a woman who was nothing like her but looked a whole lot the same. The look-alike woman of enormous strength caged the docile queen under the water. In moments that could only be described as life changing, the queen and the look-alike made an agreement. The look-alike would free the queen but in exchange of her breath the queen would have to give up her life. The obedient queen agreed. And the imposter garbed herself in the queen’s garments and headed towards the palace.
Everyone noticed that the queen wasn’t quite the same.
The new queen too observed that this new life wasn’t as she expected. This was an inmate’s life and not a queen’s. The imposter didn’t bargain for this and she wasn’t going to have it.
The new queen, as it seemed she had become, was assertive and bold. She convinced the king that she was as much a ruler as him and that worldly rules were to be set by her and not merely obeyed. The king was a bit surprised at this apparent oddity of his queen but he was sufficiently impressed by it, so he paid no heed to the change. Both of them ruled the kingdom together post that.
The clever queen also set up guards around the kingdom.
For all my growing up years, my idea of imposters was that apart from being criminals, they were these strong people who knew what they want and got it.
And for a long time, I was not an imposter. Neither criminal nor challenging the settings.
Fast forward a few more years, I found another kind of imposter. The one that isn’t lurking out in the river but is put inside us.
This impostor is entirely different from the one in the story. They are full of doubt and magnify your weaknesses preventing you from getting what you um thought you want. I mean, can you even really get it, realistically speaking? There are far better people doing it far better, imo. You suck so just go to sleep okay. Oh you got it? Fluke. Your hard work and your perceived intellect has nothing to do with it. It’s good luck only. You can’t recreate it if you tried. Anyway, this was not anything – the real thing begins now and you suck so just go eat two bricks of ice cream instead okay.
This is my imposter. Really, if you open my fridge at any given point, you will find two bricks of ice cream waiting for me to weaken and gorge on them!
It was when others started speaking to me about how they felt like they are not good enough – while as an audience I could clearly see how they were amazing, that I realized how stupid and widespread it is to think like that. And how stupidly I’ve been thinking like this for a while.
Imposter Phenomenon was first termed so in 1978 when Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes explored how high achieving women experienced a self-perceived feeling of intellectual phoniness, a sense of fraud in the article “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”.
Placing the timing of this publishing is insightful to understand what is happening. While surely this uneasy feeling existed long before and clearly exists long after, and its experience is not restricted to women, the frequency to which it was experienced by women in the late 70s is particularly interesting because women were now more than ever a part of the workspace reserved for men.
This very movement into spaces where you’re not welcome – or you’re told by many – maybe not explicitly – that you’re not to be a part of this club is a germination of the imposter.
Let us attempt to list some of the varied kinds of such movements –
- Women in workplace ( Let us not consider women only as the convenient subset of upper middle class elite women and say this is not true anymore)
- Women in science and tech
- Women in entrepreneurship
- People migrating to other countries – developing to developed
- Cultural migration – which can be an inter-city movement too or just meeting people who are not like you — or you are not like.
- Certain caste and class movement to jobs/spaces (even basic spaces such as restaurants) that are reserved for a certain class
- Younger people growing to heights usually thought of to be achieved after specific years
- Older people in traditionally young spaces or relationships or doing “young” people things
The list is of course endless. And a simple solution post looking at the list is just that we need a better sense of belonging.
Our sense of self is ironically marred by the foundations of our identity. There are infinite ways in which we can convince ourselves that we don’t belong. To find that one strand of belonging is surprisingly hard.
As we have attempted to categorize the world to understand it better, we have categorized ourselves – we are too this or too that.
It’s not just intellectual fraud, as evident from the list above. We’re impostors in every sense of our identities. Impostors who are shaming ourselves and are ignoring our hard work.
How often have you seen a previously bulky person, transformed through vigorous gymming and diet, shaming their own self from before? Forgetting how it hurt them when others did that. Putting aside that that old self did all the hard work making possible this transformation.
How we feel about our own selves – past, present and future – is extremely crucial in how we function. Belittling and deprecating our own selves is simply unhelpful. It restricts our possibilities. No matter how far we’ve come, we are doubting our ability to go further. Einstein and Maya Angelou did too. Michelle Obama feels similarly.
How do you identify if you are going through Impostor Syndrome? For starters, there are four cycles –
1. You over-work. Convinced that you will FOMO your way into nothingness if you don’t – you just can’t fail. (It’s fine to take a break.)
2. Downplay your abilities. Primarily because you think you’re not good enough to showcase them. (You are. People are getting by in <60% of what you have)
3. Charm others to win validation. This is a double whammy – you are constantly pleasing people because you want them to validate your work and when they do, you’re convinced it’s because you charmed them and your actual work is shit. (Believe the compliments)
4. Avoid conflict. How does it matter if your facts are 100% correct, they are smarter/senior/popular/funner/abler/prettier/straighter/anythingyourenot-er so they are more correct. (Abbe yaar!)
I’ve found myself squeaking “abbe yaar” so many times that even if someone else says it, I think it’s my subconscious talking!
Dr. Pauline has developed a questionnaire that tells you where your imposter syndrome habits fall. Check it! Mine’s up there.
Well, now what?
My generic response to any problem is to drink more water. It truly works!
While you’re pouring the water in your glass, you can simultaneously reflect on how, more often than not, utterly irrational your impostor’s logic is. While you’re sipping away, you can objectively note that everyone else is not an exquisite ideal individual you’ve made them in your heads – there is a lot in common than not. And at the last gulp of the water, you can agree you’ve done some pretty amaze things that you can continue to be proud of – like winning the lemon and spoon race in first grade was a pretty big deal- and you did that.
Introspection is great but if not done right, it lasts only a glass of water. Doing it right requires regularity and dedication. And most importantly, this is done over time.
But we don’t have time, do we? We’ve to apply for our dream schools, start our own ventures, open our dog shelters, write that book, set up our cafe, get a dog, study the differential equations that govern vortices, start a family, publish this goddamn blog! And this doubt driving us down the road of uncertainty is not helping.
Welcome duality theory.
In mathematical optimization methods, the duality principle states that an optimization problem can be viewed in two perspectives – the primal problem or the dual problem. The solution to the dual problem provides a lower bound to the solution of the primal (minimization) problem. However in general the optimal values of the primal and dual problems need not be equal. Their difference is called the duality gap. For convex optimization problems, the duality gap is zero under a constraint qualification condition.
Okay .. what?
Our primal problem is the imposter monster who is ruling us. Solving for it is a tad difficult. What we can do is introduce a dual problem which offers a simpler solution and provides us a way to somewhat solve for the primal problem. It may be there remains a duality gap between the ideal solution and this one but we’d still be better off!
My duality theory solution is what automatically happens in the seconds between when you step out of the wings onto the stage. You become a character and in there you have the power to do whatever. There is no fear, no backlash, no anxiety in the actor when on stage. All the emotions become that of the character. And the actor is in complete control.
The behavior tweak that you introduce is to distance your sense of self from the act in hand. Become the character – who is for instance writing an exam. Of course, the actor needs to know all the lines or answers in this case but the character is doing it so there is no personal sense of shame associated with loss or spilling water or burping loudly in the exam hall.
This detachment duality is great when you want to get into a space you’ve not been in before. Your character is a pro in being here and voila, so are you.
Impostor your impostor. Become the badass woman from the river and let her define the rules.
The thing to keep in mind is that once the actor is off the stage – all the praises and flowers are for the actor – us. We’ve done it and we’ve made it all happen.
Of course, everyone else in the play is important too. And they’ve created the space for us to belong and flourish. We must make safe spaces for others.
We are layers of people and the impostor monster does not get to define us.
Thank you, Sijya, for making these adorable representations. You’re amazing.