There Is an Impostor Among Us – or Is There?

Edited by Olivia Spahn-Vieira  

As the online game Among Us took the world by storm, it has sparked a newfound fascination with the idea of being an "impostor". While I remain clueless about the workings and stratagems of the game (the one attempt I made did not end well), I have sat across from my brother during his profound, urgent deliberations enough times to have acquired sufficient familiarity with talks of “sus-ness”, “self-sabotage” and “voting them out”.

Unfortunately, for many people, these notions of pretense and estrangement do not simply evoke brightly colored avatars waddling across a computer screen. Rather, they represent a persistent reality and state of mind characterized by relentless self-doubt and anxiety.

The term impostor phenomenon was first introduced in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes. The phenomenon, also commonly referred to as impostor syndrome (IS), describes a psychological pattern of doubts about one’s worth and fears of being exposed as fraudulent and undeserving of their achievements. Individuals affected by IS tend to attribute their success to detached factors such as luck or deceit while minimizing their own capability and diligence.

IS is closely tethered to ideas about growth and identity. Alas, an evaluation of our cultural norms and language use reveals a prominent (though perhaps unconscious) subscription to viewpoints that render us susceptible to impostorism. Examining ubiquitous everyday slogans, then, may be a first step to identifying and remedying hindrances imposed by ourselves on our self-valuation and sense of belonging.

However, I do not wish to suggest that these psychological patterns should – or can – be entirely resolved simply through mental or attitudinal adjustments on the part of the individual. Much of the symptoms and internal afflictions induced by IS are directly correlated with systemic inequality and disproportionately affect marginalized populations. Nonetheless, we may collectively benefit from an assessment of common attitudes that have been normalized and manifested in ordinary thinking.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

This familiar question perhaps tops the list of things well-meaning adults say by way of friendly conversation starter. In fact, it is so ingrained in our society’s conventional blueprint that we ourselves may have, over the past few years, unknowingly shifted from the receiving to delivering ends of the question. Upon dissecting its implications and assumptions, however, we may realize it is less innocent and more undermining than we have initially presumed.

First, the question implies an arbitrary point at which being begins. When we refer to the term “when” (I evade your sharp glare), we position an event – the commencement of our being – at a specific moment in time. This discounts the intrinsic value of the process of growing and reduces it into nothing more than a means to an end.

The question depicts our being as stagnant and presupposes a cessation of change once a certain stage is reached. At what point, really, should we claim to have “grown up” and be demanded to claim a singular definition of our being? Sure, we may agree there are objective, empirical indicators with which we define “growing up” and which contribute to our sense of self: graduating from school, becoming financially independent, moving into our own home. However, these measurements do not suffice to represent the whole of our complex, continuously morphing identity. They also fail to capture our intrinsic value. As such, the question obscures a fundamental truth: our being is neither contingent upon nor defined by external circumstances or milestones. Much of the impostor mindset stems from the association we create between our worth and external qualifications; when we believe there to be a mismatch between the two, we develop feelings of inadequacy and label ourselves as fraudulent.

Combating impostor phenomenon may therefore require re-evaluating our understandings of growing and being, and the relationship between the two. Our identity and growth are not mutually exclusive. It is not that only when growing ceases that being begins, nor is it the case that our identities can be mummified into an inert product shackled to external factors.

“Fake it until you make it.”

This is one of the many adage-sounding catchphrases whose illusory wisdom swiftly crumbles under minimal scrutiny.

Some types of “faking it” are perhaps more unambiguously questionable or dangerous: blatantly lying on a resume, fabricating an online presence which sends harmful messages to an unwitting audience, using denial as an unhealthy, suppressive coping mechanism, et cetera. But surely instantiations of the slogan which do not deprive other individuals of the truth, nor create too irreconcilable of a chasm between fiction and reality, are benign?

Or are they?

Unlike a finishing line we either cross or don’t, the demarcation between "faking" and "making it" is blurry and arbitrary, if at all existent. What items, on what checklist, must we cross off before we may justifiably be deemed to have graduated from faking and licensed as made? The truth should be intuitive and logical: faking and made are not two stages of a natural, metamorphological progression. Why, then, do we treat them as such?

By presupposing that deception is a necessary contributor to achievement, we create a knee-jerk association between the two independent items. The sense of fraudulence, once internalized and entwined with our perceptions of accomplishment and identity, transforms into a relentless parasite from which we are unable to depart. Regardless of the objective circumstances, we become habituated to attribute the things we have made to our faking; this precisely represents the impostor-like sentiments.

Advocates of “fake it until you make it” often appeal to the efficacy and benefit, particularly when confronting new, challenging tasks, of displaying mannerisms indicative of confidence until the feeling becomes natural and authentic. I do not hope to invalidate the anecdotal or scientific evidence supporting this behavioral tactic. However, I propose that we should construe this pattern not as an instance of faking but as one of developing. This removes the myopic fixation on deception and in its place establishes an encouraging (although sometimes uncomfortable) understanding of progression, valuation and belonging.

There Isn’t an Impostor Among Us

As I was writing this and contemplating the meanings of growth and worth, I realized that in Cantonese, my mother tongue, the adjective “sufficient” or "adequate" (夠) is homophonous with the verb “to save” or "to rescue" (救). While I hesitate to claim this is anything more than a semantically insignificant (albeit interesting) linguistic coincidence, I nonetheless think it elucidates an important sentiment about worth and empowerment that I constantly strive to cognize and accept.

There isn't an impostor among us.