How imposter syndrome became the new normal

‘Imposter syndrome’ has become an umbrella term for absolutely any kind of self-doubt, whether real or imaginary (iStock)
‘Imposter syndrome’ has become an umbrella term for absolutely any kind of self-doubt, whether real or imaginary (iStock)

According to the late chat-show legend’s son, Michael Parkinson never got over his imposter syndrome. Not when he interviewed David Bowie, nor Lauren Bacall, nor even Posh and Becks. Parky was so famous that he eventually became part of the household furniture in this country, a man who seemed – if based on some of his more contentious interviews – more overconfident than racked with insecurity. Would someone who casually chatted with Muhammad Ali really have a nagging feeling that he didn’t quite belong? Apparently, yes.

“He was always acutely aware that he was with people that he felt were brighter than him, were more educated than him,” his son Mike told BBC Radio 4, following his death at the age of 88 earlier this month. “He was a man who was constantly questioning himself and didn’t have as much self-confidence as he appeared to have on television.”

Parkinson was a council estate kid from West Yorkshire, a recipient of a post-war upward mobility drive that provided access, opportunity and a grammar school education to children clever or lucky enough – to pass the 11-plus. It was an imperfect system, one that – for all its positives – still failed many working-class children. For every Melvyn Bragg, Andrew Neil or Dennis Potter, who vaulted to prominence from working-class backgrounds via the grammar school system, there were thousands of children whose chances of fulfilling their potential were lessened by being sent to Secondary Modern schools, where those who failed the 11-plus were already stigmatised as “not good enough”. Parky was one of the system’s success stories, at least, basking in the fruits it offered. Barnsley Grammar led to local newspapers, which led to the Manchester Guardian and Granada Television. The rest was history. His self-sabotaging inner monologue, though, was never put to bed.

Imposter syndrome, for the uninitiated, is the catch-all term for a kind of mass insecurity, or the feeling that your successes are either unearned or fraudulent in nature. Or that you shouldn’t try to do something, just in case it goes awry – which you’re convinced it will. A 2022 YouGov poll suggested that nearly half of the UK (47 per cent) identifies on some level with its tropes, from having difficulty in accepting compliments and downplaying your own achievements, to being far more comfortable criticising yourself than criticising others.

The term stems from the Seventies, when Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, two assistant professors at Oberlin College, in Ohio, decided to investigate what seemed to be a widespread phenomenon: women gripped by a sense of innate inferiority, their experiences of the workplace and society at large (everything from small talk to personal relationships) defined by a kind of self-sabotage that needed to be constantly negotiated.

Over the decades, Clance and Imes’s “imposter phenomenon” grew in scope – men were found to experience it, if often not as severely, then seemingly everyone on the internet began insisting they did, too. Today, imposter syndrome is everywhere, much in the way all slightly opaque, self-diagnosed bits of pop psychology have been blown up by viral TikToks and faux-relatable celebrity interviews. Kim Kardashian, Emma Watson, Tom Hanks and Andrew Garfield are among the many famous people who’ve described experiencing bouts of it. Some have said that their enormous professional successes get drowned out by feelings that they’ve only got to where they are through lucky accidents or subterfuge. Or that everyone else secretly thinks they’re not very good at their jobs. Or that they just don’t feel comfortable being the centre of attention. Or some variation on all of the above.

That ambiguity goes some way to explaining imposter syndrome’s popularity. It’s an umbrella term for absolutely any kind of self-doubt, whether real or imaginary – under the banner of “imposter syndrome”, sufferer Michelle Obama’s existence as a Black woman taking the first steps into a historically white space is aligned with sufferer Bella Hadid worrying that people think her modelling career is a result of nepotism. It’s a term that sometimes flattens nuance, and runs the risk of making some of its symptoms seem like a bit of a sham.

But imposter syndrome isn’t a sham. It’s just been slightly garbled over time. There are numerous intersections to feeling like an imposter, be it the colour of your skin, your gender or your sexuality. Class, too, is a biggie. Despite decades of evidence to the contrary, many of us still tend to believe being posh and/or speaking like the King are symbols of responsibility and seriousness and that those who embody all of that are inherently worthy of trust. That many people born into wealth and influence are trained in the incredibly valuable art of the schmooze – meaning having the ability to work a room as second nature – is just the icing on the cake.

It’s no wonder, then, that someone like Parkinson was never able to overcome this kind of thing. It’s ingrained in the fabric of society. Compared to individuals who’ve only ever known other successful people, those who beat the odds will always grapple with the sheer novelty of it. Why you? Why now? How long before you’re found out?

The snag here, though, is what to make of those with imposter syndrome who are already brimming with wealth or beauty or any of the social privileges that are a net positive when it comes to life. Ripped, handsome, privately educated Andrew Garfield claims his inner voice tells him to “give up” as he has “nothing to offer” ahead of every acting audition – how are we meant to grapple with that information?

It makes me wonder if perhaps we’ve been looking at all of this wrong. If you’re not au fait with a bit of self-loathing, or a sense that you’ve pulled the wool over the eyes of anyone who’s ever given you a chance or said you’ve done a good job, wouldn’t you be slightly sociopathic? And wouldn’t you rather be anxious a lot than interchangeable with some overconfident loon on The Apprentice? Wouldn’t you rather be Bella Hadid than professional blowhard Andrew Tate?

Self-critical Spiderman: Andrew Garfield is just one of the many celebrities who’ve spoken about their imposter syndrome (Getty)
Self-critical Spiderman: Andrew Garfield is just one of the many celebrities who’ve spoken about their imposter syndrome (Getty)

There are of course people who experience incredibly severe cases of imposter syndrome, where it’s not so much a bugbear to overcome as something deeply crippling. (Think of it as being comparable to obsessive compulsive disorder, where there’s an enormous gulf between symptoms such as “I like to line up my beer bottles in a neat row” and “if I don’t lock, unlock and then lock my front door again, my family will die”.) But for most of us, it’s the former – an annoyance that comes and goes in waves, something that means you can feel like the coolest, sexiest and most talented person in the room one day, and then a garden-variety troll the next.

This type of imposter syndrome is like modern life, a repetitive cycle of joy, satisfaction and abject misery. But as frustrating as imposter syndrome can often be – and as exhausting it is to be around – I still think I’d prefer to hang out with Parky on a bad day than someone brimming with an eerie, unblinking sense of self-belief. They’re rarer to find and to be avoided at all costs once you do.