As a young actor in the 1960s, Michael Caine was sitting across from Frank Sinatra in a private plane on a flight to Las Vegas when, overwhelmed by the moment, he suddenly became tongue-tied and speechless.
Sinatra said, “Mikey, what’s up? You scared of flying?”
Caine, who was dating Sinatra’s daughter, admitted he was feeling overwhelmed by the conviction that he didn’t belong in the famous singer’s presence. Sinatra told him he knew the feeling and had experienced it himself many years earlier in the company of the Academy-Award winning actor Ronald Colman.
“You see, that’s how it is,” Caine remarked decades later in a documentary about his life, “we all come from nothing and nobody.”
The young Caine was experiencing a feeling called imposter syndrome (also referred to as imposter phenomenon or fraud syndrome). It describes the experience of high-achieving individuals who find it difficult to internalize their accomplishments and connect with their worthiness. Studies have found, as well, that 70 percent of all people, not just high-achievers, feel like imposters at one time or another.
The syndrome can sometimes be accompanied by mood swings back and forth between euphoria and gloom. Actress Tina Fey described her own encounter with the syndrome in these words: “The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.”
Depth psychology offers insight into the source of the imposter syndrome and how to overcome it. While the syndrome isn’t considered a mental disorder, it nonetheless can produce self-defeating behaviors. It’s a disturbance of our emotional life that, when traced to its source, reveals aspects of the psyche that we ought to be aware of.
The syndrome relates to the degree to which a person is inwardly conflicted concerning his or her intrinsic value. When people experience the syndrome, a disconnection occurs between the actuality of their intrinsic value and their ability to know, feel, or believe in that value. Most people experience some degree of disconnection from their inner self, and many feel this way almost all the time. What is this self from which we’re feeling disconnected?
The self refers to the sense of an inner abode where we can hang our hat, stretch out in a Lazy-Boy, turn on a guiding light, and feel right at home. No matter how great the turmoil in our life, the self is where we can retreat for emotional support, inner satisfaction, and peace of mind. The self is distinguished from the ego in this way: The self is a pure source of inner strength and integrity, while the ego is the part of us, a shadow self, that is often in anxious need of recognition and emotional support.
We can understand the imposter syndrome as we bring into focus the concept of disconnection from self. Humanity’s inner life ranges along a spectrum that measures how well or how poorly we feel connected to our self. Schizophrenia, as an extreme example of disconnection, involves episodes of psychosis that include hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia. Schizophrenia is marked by a disconnect from reality and a break with one’s inner guiding light.
Depersonalization is another mental disorder that involves an estrangement from one’s feelings, thoughts, and body. With this condition, people might not be able to accept their reflection in a mirror as being their own, or they have persistent out-of-body experiences. Bipolar disorder is another condition that produces breaks with reality and a sense of losing contact with some essential inner touchstone.
The clinical word dissociation typically describes less severe and more common experiences of being disconnected from self and reality. Dissociation can simply be a coping mechanism—in the form, for instance, of daydreaming or intense mental or physical activity—to help tolerate stress, boredom, conflict, grief, or trauma. Mindfulness, offered as an antidote for dissociation, is capable of pointing us toward connection with self. But people don’t necessarily want to be mindful or in the present moment, the here-and-now, if they’re in too much emotional pain. They prefer to be distracted, disconnected, or drugged in order not to feel overwhelmed or to avoid feeling miserable. Mindfulness works best when done in conjunction with psychological cleansing of negative emotions.
The quality of our relationship with our self is a key element of the imposter syndrome. Mental health itself is dependent on how well we connect and harmonize with our inner self. The mental health spectrum doesn’t just measure our happiness or our ability to function successfully. It’s also about the degree to which we can feel our inherent goodness and respect the value of all life. The prevalence of the imposter syndrome tells us that most everyday “normal” people, as well as highly successful people, are still lacking in the degree to which they know and appreciate themselves at this intrinsic level.
What’s the main stumbling block? I’ve been saying it repeatedly throughout my writing—we have to become more aware of the inner conflict that blocks us from appreciating our authentic self. This inner conflict, in the case of imposter syndrome, can involve the conscious wish to be seen as an exceptional person versus the unconscious expectation, associated with shame, of being seen as a lesser person. This conflict also involves the conscious wish to excel versus the unconscious expectation, again associated with shame, of being a disappointment or failure.
Despite the cost of self-defeat, the unconscious side of such conflict constitutes a powerful willingness or determination to fulfill its own perverse agenda. When depth psychology is applied to one’s personal issues and conflicts, this unconscious agenda is exposed, consciousness is enhanced, and resolution is forthcoming.
The primary inner conflict with imposter syndrome is likely between inner passivity and the self-aggression of the inner critic or superego. The inner critic, when unrecognized and untamed, is a crude bully that often expresses its aggression in the form of mockery. While a person is achieving success in the world, the inner critic is privy to the person’s inner emotional life. The inner critic attacks at the point of inner weakness. And every person, whether ambitious and successful or not, has underlying self-doubt and fears to some degree.
The inner critic can mock this individual with words to this effect: “True, you’re having some degree of success. But it probably won’t last. Soon you’ll collapse back into being a nobody. Here you are, posing as this superior person, when we all know what a wimp you are deep down. There’s no denying it—you’re consumed with self-doubt. It’s probably only luck that’s gotten you this far!”
The individual might not be conscious of this inner mockery because it can operate in stealth mode. Yet the person is still absorbing the negative self-aggression because, first, this primitive energy is present in everyone’s psyche. Secondly, the person’s inner passivity (also largely unconscious) allows the self-aggression to penetrate into the person’s emotional life. Because the mockery is absorbed emotionally (a more conscious person would deflect it or not even experience it), the individual is flooded with the self-doubt inherent in the imposter syndrome.
Inner fear is another contributor to the syndrome. Some degree of unresolved and unrecognized inner fear is lodged in the psyche of just about everyone. This inner fear can be experienced at the slightest provocation. Inner fear can produce self-doubt and a lack of confidence. Once activated, self-doubt contributes to the experience of the imposter syndrome.
In varying degrees, people are usually fearful of (or at least somewhat intimidated by) their inner critic. This fear arises in cases of imposter syndrome when, inwardly, an individual “buys into” his inner critic’s claims that he is indeed a fraud. Now, the person displaces the fear into the surrounding environment, and he begins to anticipate that others will perceive him as a fraud. Inner fearfulness is thereby embellished, and the fear impedes one’s performance and self-confidence and leads to anxiety, perfectionism, procrastination, and overwork. The imposter syndrome can thereby be acted out, and incompetence exhibited, if the person collapses into self-defeat.
Being disconnected to some degree from the reality of one’s precious self is practically the human race’s operating modality. Much of the time we take things for granted and sleepwalk through life. Our imagination fails to consider the possibility of our consciousness discovering an inner world of infinitely valuable knowledge. When disconnected from self, we are blithely ignorant of our inner life. We’re now more likely to be disconnected to some degree from others, including our loved ones. We might start seeing more faults in the other person. Behind the fault-finding is the unconscious intention to deepen the feeling of disconnection. People are more willing and determined than they realize to experience various situations through this sense of disconnection.
Doing so, we feel more intensely the inner passivity that separates us from our intrinsic self. We might also feel more doubtful, more worried and distrustful, that we have what it takes to maintain our life and respond wisely and strongly to whatever challenges arise. Again, this is a direct feeling of inner passivity, of which the imposter syndrome is but a symptom.
An effective antidote involves checking in with oneself throughout one’s day, if only for a few moments at a time. In this practice, ask yourself how you’re feeling. Become conscious of how negatively you might be perceiving things. See that negativity as a dead-end street. Try to understand where the negativity comes from. Be honest about what you’re feeling. Accept yourself despite your flaws and weaknesses. Be there for yourself. If you’re feeling good, really enjoy that feeling. Be your best friend. Learn to stay connected.
The imposter syndrome tells us something important about our species: We’re all imposters and frauds if, in an ultimate disconnect from our humanity, we don’t care about environmental degradation and climate change and what it all means for future generations.
Michael Caine said, “We all come from nothing and nobody.” Maybe so. In any event, it’s our glorious destiny to make sure we don’t go out that way.