The impostor syndrome
Mentioned during a speech at an all-girls school in north London in 2009, the former US First Lady, Michelle Obama, admitted being pursued by a feeling she somehow had all her life and which she called the 'impostor syndrome'. The notion of what an impostor is should certainly deserve our attention. Perhaps more than any other attributes, it might just tell us something fundamental about us as subjects and what the job of being a 'man' is, even revealing some facet of our society and the place it reserves for the individual in it.
Readers are being warned; my intention is not to offer some cheap remedies that will make this malaise spontaneously disappear as if by magic. As with everything else in psychoanalysis, the goal is to help create a unique form of desire, surely the healthiest and most effective remedy for treating most of our psychological concerns. I will therefore not approach this topic by looking at it as a syndrome. Symptoms are surface manifestations psychoanalysis ultimately regards as better left to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) to use as lucrative page-fillers. What interests us here is rather what lies behind this so-called impostor syndrome, what we may be able to learn from it, and what pushes it to express itself in this singular form of behaviour.
According to Google, an impostor is 'a person who pretends to be someone else to deceive others, especially for fraudulent gain'. The proposed synonyms include impersonator, masquerader, pretender, deceiver and hoaxer. A look at the number of times the word 'imposter' has been used in books scanned by the search engine shows a steady rise since the year 1867.
What better way to introduce this short study than by first looking at the popular comedy written in 1664 by the famous French playwright, actor and poet Molière – whose real name, ironically enough, was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin – and named The Impostor/The Hypocrite. The play was not received in equal measure by everyone. If the king Louis XIV and the public at large saw in it enough entertainment, things were different for the upper-class of the French society and the Roman Catholic Church in particular. For them, making a comedy of an individual who pretended to be pious and of high morals when in reality lecherous and deceitful, using his profession of piety to prey on people, was not the least amusing. No longer able to contain the insult, the Archbishop of Paris eventually issued an edict threatening excommunication for anyone who watched, performed or read the play, declaring that
"...although it was found to be extremely diverting, the King recognised so much conformity between those that a true devotion leads on the path to heaven and those that a vain ostentation of some good works does not prevent from committing some bad ones, that his extreme delicacy to religious matters cannot suffer this resemblance of vice to virtue, which could be mistaken for each other; although one does not doubt the good intentions of the author, even so, he forbids it in public, and deprived himself of this pleasure, in order not to allow it to be abused by others, less capable of making a just discernment of it".
Let us remember the plot. Tartuffe is the house-guest of a man called Orgon. His meticulously calculated display of religious devotion has no other purpose than to keep Orgon, the house-lord, under his spell. Ever so slightly embedding himself into the household while also seducing his wife, Orgon is so blinded by his admiration for the man and his 'high values' as to never miss an opportunity to shower him with praise, always asking after him, offering him food and shelter, all free of charge. The spell is so complete that Orgon even thinks of proposing his daughter for marriage. No matter how screamingly obvious the situation is to all around, Orgon stubbornly refuses to wake-up to the abuse.
If we care to pay a closer look at this situation, one finds that the play brings the two protagonists together in a rather singular way. A man – i.e. not a woman – is involved in what cannot be described otherwise than playing a game of seduction with another man who, as far as the latter is concerned, appears to be not just willing but demanding of it. In a manner not unlike the law of supply and demand found in market commodities, Molière's play shows us that the impostor comes with his own assigned dupe. It would appear that an individual cannot be an impostor on his own, that is, without someone wishing him to be one.
Before going into the details about the mechanism at play in this relationship, it is worth remembering that the Tartuffe was written in the late 17th century, a period of history marked by the sudden rise of a new philosophical movement. Starting in Europe before spreading to North America, this revolutionary way of thinking emphasised reason, rationality, individualism and scepticism. The Age of Reason, or Enlightenment, as it is known, caused a serious challenge to those traditional views of reality imposed by religion. Encapsulated in the formula 'I Think; Therefore I am' from the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, it was by now understood that the sole guarantee behind the truth of any kind was primarily based on one's own subjective experience of it. For it to be adequately describing the laws of nature, science now demanded that researchers approach their tasks by first suspending – what the late branch of philosophy Phenomenology would name 'Epoché' – any judgements, biases and prejudices that could potentially corrupt the material in question. In its eventually running out of priests to contain the danger from this spread of individual thinking, the Church responded by producing even more preachers.
What does the Tartuffe tell us about the character of the impostor, if not that at the centre of this comedy sits a compelling game of mirrors? At this point, it may be essential to distinguish between two types of impostors. The first kind of impostor is somehow aware, if only unconsciously so, that he is participating in a game; we would describe this situation as obsessionally 'neurotic'. The other type of impostor is separate in that the individual concerned would look as if he was somewhat completely immersed in a character role. This 'as-if' personality trait was first described in 1925 by Helene Deutsch and would point towards a psychotic structure in whose absolute emptiness the subject can appear only as a character role. The sense of perfection emanating from this person is so flagrant as to eventually make people around feel something is not quite right about him.
To be sure, the Tartuffe appears much too cunning in his manipulation of Orgon as to be a madman. He is well aware that what buys him a place within this miniature society that is Orgon's household is the latter's craving to see himself as someone possessing those same moral qualities that Tartuffe recognises and flaunts at him. Just like in an endless game of mirrors, Tartuffe provides Orgon with the reflection he desperately needs, thereby making him an impostor himself. In Lacanian terms one would assume that Orgon's perceived lack of perfection – castration – generates a form of anxiety of such an intensity as to push him to disregard any commonly accepted reality for the benefits of being fed words such as 'moral', 'pious', 'devout', 'righteous', etc.
We can see that those master signifiers, as Lacanians called them, have a crucial function for Orgon. They don't just afford him recognition and protection from a social group or organisation, the Catholic Church in this instance. Each one of those (master) signifiers may be regarded as substitutes for an absent father – an inference it is not difficult to make in this particular situation; they provide him with a means to identify himself with something, in this case, an 'ideal image'. Orgon's idolisation of Tartuffe is, in effect, a form of self-cure.
So far I have been concentrating on the dupe rather than on the impostor, but what does the knowing or 'neurotic' impostor tell us about society? The impostor's behaviour points to a structural gap in the other (Orgon, the society, the Other), whose place the former comes to fill in with his offerings. It is easy to understand the origin of this gap or hole; for it comes as a result of our being alienated in language at its point of entry in one's life. The logic of the signifier forces us to be forever trapped in the gap between what we are as human beings and what we intend to convey through language. However hard we try, our being a living substance will never allow us to fit-in perfectly into the narrative the society, culture or parents have landed onto us. Thus, language and its dictates generate in us another form of anxiety: the guilt of imperfection; its effect on neurotics makes one an 'impostor' by necessity.
We are all inescapably faced with a 'forced choice'; the one of lying to ourselves into believing in our own fictional ego, that is, convincingly enough to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the omnipresent real truth. In other words, how completely one has sacrificed himself in his identification with the Other's ideal – its fetish – in language will determine how far down in the spiral of lies the impostor may feel he is.
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About Stephane Preteux
Stephane Preteux is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist working in private practice in London. He has a degree in Applied Mathematics from Nanterre University (Paris X) and a Master of Science in Psychotherapy from Roehampton University (London). He is an Accredited Member of the British Association of Psychotherapist and Counsellors (MBACP)… Read more
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