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  • Jamie McCarthy

The Feelings of Being an Imposter Tell Us Something About the World We're In - Not About Ourselves.


27th December 2017.


I couldn’t sleep after 5.20 am. I woke up thinking about something I’d said to Radu yesterday – basic stuff about ‘failing’ at the start is how it works – that’s how you learn … babies learning to walk by falling down etc. I started ruminating about how I do that a lot – have perhaps always done it. Been afraid of ‘getting it wrong’ – still do – won’t launch into new things because I’m afraid I don’t have the ability. I do think there’s something I could revisit there … the idea that it’s OK to ‘get things wrong’.

I also started thinking about feeling like an imposter. I guess I want to look at how this I a political thing. Another example of locating the problem in an individual rather than an environment. I’m not addressing ‘imposter syndrome’ proper, but rather its popular understanding, which implies that there is something (however kindly understood) that is a ‘fault’ in the perception or thinking of an individual. What though, if the fault is in the system? I have to confess a personal bias: I have almost constantly felt like an imposter, but I wonder, is it possible to understand this simply as a correction perception of the situations I’ve found myself in? Although I may have intelligence and analysis etc. I have never had a social understanding of how to operate in the worlds I’ve found myself in. Correctly, I believe, I have always been an imposter in middle-class worlds that I had no training or socialisation to understand. I never had the skills (the extra-curricular, embedded skills) to function efficiently in those environments. For example (that old, enduring example for me) of being dumped into Grammar School. I was left amongst a group of people who largely had a shared cultural understanding of how ‘one’ operates and where ‘one’ might be heading. The weird ‘isolative’ way of operating that says that IQ is enough to navigate all this. I had a high IQ and therefore it would be fine to pluck me out of my cultural environment and let me manage without any extra assistance in an alien environment. The class bias here is so embedded that the school / the educational system simply couldn’t perceive of the fact that there might be more that was having to navigate there. And so … I bore the weight of the class bias of the institution / system. I was ‘wayward’, ‘unable to accept society’s morals and values’ … the institution could not even begin to suspect that there was something askew in itself and so the individual had to be wrong. No questioning of why such a ‘bright’ student could be having such a hard time adjusting.


I have continued to move in circles that I was totally unprepared for in ways other than the purely intellectual. I guess my strength and my problem has been that I have always railed against the institutions even when I didn’t fully understand why I was doing so … others in a similar situation to me simply accepted that they needed to change themselves in order to fit in or to succeed. Somehow (and this is a whole other discussion) I have never been able to do that. Perhaps this is my strength (except I can’t always live up to it) – there is somehow a ‘bullshit detector’ in me that refuses completely to betray myself or to give up who I feel myself to be.

Back to the imposter system. The fact that so many people feel like an imposter suggests to me that there is a system here, or a demand here that is not suited to human beings, rather than an overwhelming majority of human beings who aren’t able to function in a perfectly good system. Imposter syndrome suggests to me that we need to radically change the expectations of and cut the bullshit from work and social spheres it seems profoundly ‘male’, white, able-bodied and exploitative – a system that demands all of us to pretend we are other than we are in order to flourish at work and play. There is some outside yardstick by which to judge – an imposed yardstick, not the yardstick of real experience. I smell a ‘lord’, a ‘king’, a capitalist exploiter of some kind.

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