Imposter syndrome: a mental disorder or a consolation of mediocrity?

I was going to write a text about the imposter syndrome describing the brain’s structure and deviations in the work of neural connections. With every inch of immersion in research and essays by neurophysiologists, I asked myself more and more: can I cope with such a topic? Will I be able to write something new and valuable on a topic that has already become a meme?

This is how the imposter syndrome creeps upon us. It is essential to distinguish it from healthy doubts, but more on that later.

Imposter Syndrome was initially described in 1978. More than half of all publications in this field have been published in the last six years.

Imposter syndrome is a psychological condition in which people express insecurity about their accomplishments and skills despite factual evidence or other people pointing to the contrary.

Such imposters suffer from a constant fear of being exposed as fraudsters. They often feel that they have deceived others by making them overestimate their abilities and professional competence.

In a vicious circle, syndromic imposters feel more prone to failure, become less productive, and are characterized by insecurity and procrastination. Research has shown that people suffering from imposter syndrome should be divided into two broad categories: true imposters and strategic syndromic imposters, depending on the degree of self-doubt.

There has been a significant amount of research into the prevalence and consequences of imposter syndrome here and here.

Remarkably, up to two out of three people suffer from it under certain conditions (Gravois, 2007). Even in academia, its prevalence can be grossly underestimated in higher education’s prevailing culture of silence.

Highly demanding families and professional environments, perfectionism and social inequality all purportedly contribute to imposter syndrome. Despite its high prevalence and human toll, the syndrome’s potential neurobiological underpinnings and evolutionary origins are largely unexplored. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It is crucial to determine to what extent this is a manifestation of anticipatory anxiety, a relic of a state of primitive arousal in anticipation of potential threats (i.e. part of an active fight-or-flight response), or a retreat from a potential threat, a valuable response to reduce exposure in the face of danger (i.e. e. the manifestation of a defensive flight or a passive freezing reaction), or perhaps a combination of both. In the same vein, could a psychological (non-evolutionary) sense of failure serve as an internal drive to achieve higher levels of perfectionism, as part of the obsessive-compulsive comorbid traits present to a greater or lesser extent in people suffering from this syndrome?

Anxiety and depression are associated with changes in the activity of the stress system, which can lead to chronic brain neurotransmitter imbalances associated with dysphoric distress. From a neurobiological view, research should focus on whether the stress related to imposter syndrome is associated with the increased release of stress mediators in the central nervous system (CNS) and peripheral tissues of the body. Chronic activation of the stress system may be accompanied by dysphoria, anxiety-depressive symptoms, and somatization phenomena.

Imposter syndrome and anxiety disorder can activate the same stress response network, raising the question of whether they are separate phenomena or, conversely, overlap. My educated guess is that there may be significant overlap in imposter syndrome with the often associated anxiety and depression.

The deeper you dive into the topic, the further its bottom is from you. And the more you feel how much more needs to be studied before impersonating a specialist in this field. It seems that this is the secret of the popularity of shallow online learning when after a two-hour lecture, you can download a certificate in .pdf and stop being an imposter for a moment (if a two-hour course is enough for you).

Similarly, the chronic decrease in stress mediator production that is characteristic of some chronic stress conditions can cause inappropriate activation of the reward system, which is also accompanied by dysphoria and pessimism about the future. In this context, the study of imposterism’s serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine systems could be groundbreaking research.

Can Imposter Syndrome be explained and dealt with by deciphering its evolutionary and psycho-neurobiological underpinnings? This scientific journey can be long and may involve linking complex psychobiological, neurochemical, and neuroimaging experiments with scores on imposter syndrome scales (see an overview of these scales here). At present, the phenomenon of imposter syndrome must be named and recognized by those who suffer from it. It must be combated by a realistic assessment of the sufferers’ strengths and weaknesses and not by being influenced by misperceived internal or external judgments.

The syndrome tends to afflict established professionals with plenty of evidence of their competence. And I think it’s important not to look for imposter syndrome in real ignoramuses. It seems that now they justify any indecision.

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