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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss


You may be familiar with a disorder known as imposter syndrome that affects many successful people. It takes the form of a nagging or at times acute anxiety driven by the fear of failure and exposure as an imposter. While there are typically a number of underlying causes for this condition, including depression, low self-esteem, perfectionism, and familial expectations, those who experience imposter syndrome reject their success as evidence of their ability attributing it to luck, the education they received or other factors outside their control. Most feel guilty and undeserving of praise.

It has been estimated that as many as 70% of high achieving individuals will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives, an astounding number. Apart from anything else, those who project such feelings have difficulty recognizing an authentic self, expressing a profound disassociation between the roles they play and themselves.

From early childhood and throughout our lives we engage in role playing and modeling. This is normal and by itself a healthy behavior. It is how we learn about others and ourselves and how we shape our personalities in response to the environment around us. But a variety of circumstances can transform healthy role playing into either a corrosive narcissism or intense feelings of inadequacy. The common element is an inability to distinguish the self from the role. What do I mean by role? Father, daughter, friend, these are easily understood roles—ones we are either born into or are natural responses to our social nature. Other roles such as boss or worker, stoic, or empath are roles conferred upon us or a product of environmental and psycho-social interaction. Hero, villain, or good person-bad person are more disturbing roles, ones we may adopt knowingly or otherwise in response to familial and societal conditioning.

When the roles we play are in conflict with our authentic selves—the personality we intuitively or introspectively understand to be our ‘real’ selves, the stress, over time, will cause a fracture that can push us toward either self-absorption or self-denial. Simply put, we can no longer be sure who we are, and in extreme cases that pathology is reinforced when we filter out the only other source of potentially objective input; the views of those around us. It is for this reason that those suffering from both extreme narcissism and imposter syndrome disbelieve external input whether it is praiseworthy or critical. They believe they have fooled everyone or that no one sees them for who they truly are.

We have before us today vivid examples of narcissism in our political leadership, and in many other fields associated with power and approbation. On the surface, we can understand how someone might form an inaccurate self-image when they receive constant external adulation and reinforcement of their role. Only those with a stable sense of self—with a grasp of their authentic reality are likely to remain grounded. But when external feedback is highly divided--as is the case in the current political environment- than we must conclude that the subjects of such division are no longer able to differentiate their projection of self from any objective reality. These are the true imposters. The extreme irony is that those who are so afflicted demonstrate a complete lack of care for those who lionize them and as well as those who expose their flaws. They reject all external input adopting only those inputs which align with the role they play. Simply put, they lack genuine empathy, no ability to identify with anyone else—only the role that has replaced their authentic selves.

We might ask how it is that such individuals prosper despite ample evidence of their disdain for others? Putting aside those who identify with imposters out of a shared ideological view—many followers continue to associate because they yearn for the status conferred by their idol’s role; money, power, authority, and celebrity. They confuse the role with the person, and a subtle but very real transference takes place in which they begin to see themselves connected to the imposter--as a surrogate and favored son, daughter, or ally. If this sounds like cultish behavior, make no mistake, it is. The imposter is worshipped, as if a deity—in some cases his or her worshippers may in fact claim that their idol was sent by God.

In order to sustain the ideation, cult members will forcefully reject any evidence that might reveal their idol as false. Frequently this includes the demonization of those with opposing views and especially anyone who offers up evidence of the idol’s clay feet. Reason, logic, indeed any form of critical thinking become suspect and worshippers feel justified in treating those who are outside the cult as less than human. Such is the state of affairs that exists at present. But we must be clear that this is not something new. We have seen imposters and the cults that worship them form before. Till now we have been fortunate—our imposters were short lived on the political scene, an innate sense of independence and protections built into our system of government kept us from lurching into outright dictatorships. Whether those protections are sufficient today remains to be seen. Many of our safeguards have been systematically eroded—our faith in government itself, the credibility of the press, trust in the law and those whose jobs are to uphold it are just a few that have been cynically abandoned or at the least dangerously undermined.

The election before us will be a test of the degree to which we have abandoned or are committed to our forefathers’ dream.In the words of George Orwell, “A people that elect corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves and traitors are not victims….but accomplices”.

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