May the real impostor please stand up?


A couple of days ago the statistically inevitable happened. Things went wrong (they have to do that sometimes). I cannot go into details at the moment but those who know me, or read the penultimate post, know what that means. By the narrowest margin imaginable, things went ever so slightly (but no less annoyingly) wrong. Not with a bang but a whimper.

I went through the usual motions: denial, sadness, anger, and here things differ from Kübler-Ross’s standard model of loss, impostor syndrome. Apparently that’s a thing. For those of you who don’t know what that is, PhD Confessional, sums it up pretty well:

Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. (Source: PhD Confessional quoted by Beth Singler)

Many people who are succesful in their chosen fields suffer from impostor syndrome, even at the best of times. But when things do go wrong, as they inevitably do, from time to time, impostor syndrome becomes a crippling disease. While success is interpreted as a freak accident, the odd failure proves what you knew all along: you  are an impostor. It doesn’t matter that you are succesful nine out of ten times; the tenth time reveals who you really are; everything else is just coincidence and misunderstanding. It takes a bit of time and a lot of experience – experience of things going wrong, that is – to realize that this is an illusion, something slightly off in your brain. Like someone suffering from anorexia might see an obese person in the mirror, while they really are about to starve, someone suffering from impostor syndrome will see a worthless loser, where everyone else sees a hard-working overachiever.

So how do you deal with impostor syndrome? Well for one thing, ask the “what if” question. What if you really are an impostor? Well apparently, you are quite good at being an impostor. After all, you fool people most of the time. So you have a talent or skill that will serve you well throughout life. Personally, I like a good con-man film. I admire people who can pretend to be something they are not (like Catch me if you can or White Collar, these dudes are seriously cool). I’m not saying that you are an impostor (you probably are no more so than everybody else) but only that even if you were, you’d still be kind of awesome. So relax.

The other way I personally deal with the world crunching, identity-destructing sense of failure is to tell people about it who are not failures. This is incredibly hard and somewhat counterintuitive but hear me out. There is that nagging feeling inside of you that you are an impostor, you just had an experience that confirms your suspicion. The natural reaction is to flee anyone who is not an impostor. If you do accidentally bump in to a “real” succesful person, you mumble, pretend everything is ok. You’re petrified to be caught out. This is normal. But if you do come out of the impostor closet and proclaim your loserishness to the world, the most incredible thing will happen. In 9 out of 10 cases, the amazing, succesful person in front of you will say “oh, something similar happened to me some time ago”. Because you reveal your failure and yourself to be an impostor, they will reveal to you how much of an impostor they really are. And instead of being the only impostor in a world of over-achievers you get to realize that you are exactly like all these amazing, wonderful, smart, normal, flawed, fortunate, unfortunate people. Telling people about your inadequacies is incredibly hard and scary but it is mostly worth it since they are much less likely to judge you for it than you are yourself.


About Oxford DPhile

I'm a doctoral candidate in English at Somerville College, Oxford. My thesis, tentatively titled “Just Literature: Evil, Victorian Narrative, and the Problem of Theodicy”, explores the interplay between literature and theodicy – the justification of a good God in light of the existence of evil – in the works of A.H. Clough, J.A. Froude and George Eliot. I teach English Literature at the University of Würzburg, coach academic writing in English at Oxford, blog about the tricks and pitfalls of thesis writing, and love to collaborate. My novel "Das Unglück anderer Leute" was published by Galiani Berlin in August 2016.
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9 Responses to May the real impostor please stand up?

  1. Very true! I’ve had some major failures (or at least I felt they were). It’s hard to know what to do when you experience failure or even serious disappointment. This seems especially true if you’re a millennial, like me, and have been told your entire like that your amazing.

    I like your tip of sharing with a successful, confidante person. Probably the better option than internalizing and obsessing over it (usually my method). I’ll have to try this when I fail again!


    • oxforddphile says:

      Thanks for your reply, which really is case in point: it took me four days to convince myself to write about my recent “failure” but once I did it you felt the need to reply and tell me about your own “major failures”. It is unlikely that people who try a lot will not also have some failures stored inside of them, waiting to be shared. Do let me know next time you “fail” and I promise to share some of my big ones.


  2. and I apologize for my typos in my first post. I was up too early! (see–a tiny failure already!)


  3. hellis99 says:

    I understand you so much. Good luck, you deserve your DPhil spot. 🙂


  4. Pingback: Dealing with my Impostor Syndrome | Holly's Sport Management Research Journey

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