July 5, 2022

The Mysterious Return of Imposter Syndrome

Evan Malater and Celeste Pietrusza

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (If you‘re so successful, why do you feel like a fake?), 1987, photographic silkscreen on mirrored glass.

This essay is part of an e-flux Notes series called “The Contemporary Clinic,” where psychoanalysts from around the world are asked to comment on the kinds of symptoms and therapeutic challenges that present themselves in their practices. What are the pathologies of today’s clinic? How are these intertwined with politics, economy, and culture? And how is psychoanalysis reacting to the new circumstances?


As analysts, the phrase “imposter syndrome” comes to us as a self-diagnosis of patients discussing a state of anxiety regarding their performance within a work or school setting. At some point we became aware of how pervasive this self-diagnosis had become. We learned that not only is this a constantly repeated refrain by patients today but that the syndrome has been identified and named as a uniquely dangerous vulnerability for students in universities, sometimes resulting in mandatory training on the matter for teachers and students, the psychic equivalent of flu shots in winter.

What does psychoanalysis tell us about this claim at the level of truth? What is the truth in naming yourself or fearing yourself to be an imposter? In asking this, we need to avoid the mainstream psycho-educational approach that seeks to mollify the inevitable fears of failing to live up to a standard or ideal of performance in highly competitive settings like schools and tech start-up companies. This approach would hope to relieve pressure through inclusion, showing those at risk that their fears of not measuring up are not in fact evidence of their unique flaws but rather are universal symptoms—in other words, relax, we all have imposter syndrome, we all fear being fakes. Such a move hopes to remove the subject from inner private torment and anxiety by returning them to the social link by demonstrating that far from being the sign of their deficiency, the fear of being an imposter is a sign of belonging. The syndrome is no longer harbored as a shameful secret fear of not measuring up; the subject is free to name the anxiety and perhaps bring it as a self-diagnosis to a therapist.

What do patients bring us when they bring us this phrase? Already the offer of a self-diagnosis enacts a form of imposture even as it seems to offer a means to its overcoming via a return to its opposite, presumably a state of self-sufficiency, confidence, and authenticity. The suspected imposter in essence plays the role of the imposter and invites the therapist to play their assigned part by reaffirming the irrationality of the fear of being an imposter, by noting its amusing prevalence in the ranks of the most accomplished and admired (see the article in Newsweek in which Michelle Obama duly trots out her confession that she too had imposter syndrome).

Above all, it seems that the self-diagnosis of imposter involves the passing on of a bit of quasi-scientific knowledge as a statement of being. But insofar as it is the passing on of second-hand knowledge about being, it is itself a form of imposture that reproduces and impersonates without meaning or sense and therefore enacts imposture in the act of naming itself as well as in the manner that it imitates an act of passing on knowledge of an existing disease or syndrome. Furthermore this act of naming which seems to be a naming of a contingent and individual fragility or suffering is actually quite systematically passed on and reproduced precisely by those social institutions and agencies that work by producing subjects of knowledge that reproduce knowledge (the university) and pass it on as reproducible viral technology (tech start-ups).

Let’s turn to the history of imposter syndrome. Various early psychoanalysts like Karl Abraham and Helene Deutsch studied the imposter—hoaxers who profited from their deceptions—while noting a neurotic variant of those who believed they did not deserve their success. More recently the sense of being an imposter in the professional world was applied by psychologists to women in the workforce in the late seventies. The concept remained in the background in a state of latency only to reemerge in recent times in its modern form, as a syndrome affecting ambitious and talented students and workers in fields characterized by stressful competition at the highest levels of achievement.

Imposter syndrome is unintentionally spread via the attempts to contain it, similar to the case of trigger warnings, where anticipating the potentially traumatic effect of some material by issuing a trigger warning can itself be a trigger, triggered by the simple phrase “trigger.” We are paralyzed by an endless series of words and phrases that seek to depotentiate the trauma only to further the trauma, a progression that bears resemblance to the flashbacks and traumatic dreams that caused Freud to question the sovereignty of the pleasure principle. One is interpellated as an imposter—a diagnosis whose history is lost or repressed—that comes to be the opposite of what it was, that comes from nowhere and can never be resolved. The diagnosis is therefore a name, a description, and a curse. To speak it is to try to rid oneself of its effects, to pass it on to another who might neutralize it, stop it in its tracks.

Nevertheless imposter syndrome does not come from nowhere. It has a history, posited by proper psychological authority as a syndrome effecting women new to the male bastions of work who were anxious about being fake and therefore incompetent within those worlds. Imposter syndrome was similarly found in many non-white students entering the citadels of the university who came from different economic classes and quickly felt the gap in economic and cultural know-how and privilege, an aspect of imposter syndrome that is still acknowledged in its current form. On the other hand, we hear today that imposter syndrome is most often identified as a risk for or self-diagnosed by the most privileged, those who had taken themselves to be the most adept, brilliant, and capable, only to realize that they now belong to a world where everyone is the most brilliant, the most capable. They lose their bearings in comparisons with others, which breeds self-loathing and self-doubt. Can we find any common ground in all the iterations of imposter syndrome, from women to minorities to privileged white men? How is it that those who were originally the model of what one failed to impersonate (educated, white, elite) now fall prey to the fear that they can no longer impersonate themselves? They fail to assume the place that had always been reserved for them and them alone.

Today imposter syndrome is seen as a phenomenon that comes as the natural effect of talent and ambition. If the imposter is an imposter it is only to the extent that we all are subject to doubts that we will ever meet our ego ideals. Contrast this with the early discussions of the imposter in psychoanalysis that tended to agree that the imposter was in fact an imposter. By virtue of every imaginable variety of insufficient parenting and relentless contingencies of Oedipal failure, the victim suffered insufficient separation and individuation and was rendered susceptible to feelings of being a fake. The imposter was said to have an undeveloped ego that fluctuated wildly between grandiosity and insufficiency, and to be susceptible to what Freud called “the family romance,” a secret belief that one’s all-too-abject parents could not really be one’s parents. Surely, the imposter thinks, the real parents will arrive to reveal the truth of a more noble bearing.

Today’s imposter is not subject to the Oedipal treadmill. Experts assigned by universities and companies to mitigate imposter syndrome emphasize a rigorous self-sufficiency that tends to render the old fashioned attempts at a family-based etiology irrelevant. In another inversion, the neurotic imposter of old was the exception to the normal vicissitudes that would render one rooted in a convincing-enough sense of self. Today’s victim of imposter syndrome is the exception insofar as they belong to an elite and privileged class, but in other respects the imposter is the norm, the expected result of a naturalized economy where parents aspire to produce admirably competitive subjects whose imposter diagnosis testifies to the success of their efforts in raising admirable offspring.

While it would appear that there is an effort to mitigate or eliminate imposter syndrome, the truth is more simple and on the surface. Both the university and workplace assist in the naming and propagation of imposter syndrome as a desired and necessary result consistent with a larger program, one that follows what Lacan referred to as “capitalist discourse.”

Capitalist discourse serves to create subjects that reproduce themselves as named products aiming for marketplace efficiency. Subjects in tech are most often found in the precarious culture of the so-called “start-up,” a name that conveys a sense that they are themselves imbued with the task of making the start-up start such that its product reproduces itself in a manner that will start and not stop starting, or at least not until they can take their buyout and leave, perhaps to again reproduce the act of starting in another start-up.

The subject of the start-up typically works in an “open office,” a place of no walls or boundaries, a surveillance mechanism that operates under the ideology of shared unity and purpose and collaboration. They are often given permission to set their own hours and are granted a mythical “unlimited” amount of vacation, which somehow results in the subject of the start-up taking much less rather than more vacation time due to the pressure of having to be seen as one who wills their own absence from the site of the start-up, thus being seen as a weak link who might result in the start-up becoming a nonstarter. Similarly, hours are long and beyond measure. Smartphones assure that one is tethered to work in an unboundaried way. The notion that a vacation signals separation from work is seen as antiquated and unproductive.

In fact, the subject of the start-up who comes to analysis with a self-naming or diagnosis of imposter will often obsess about their “efficiency.” Analysis is approached as the site of a genuine rather than imitative knowledge, a series of tools that can be passed to the subject willing to pay the proper price for such expert knowledge. It is easy for psychoanalysts to misread these calls for knowledge and dismiss them as evidence of what Adorno called the “New Type of Human Being,” a person incapable of thinking or processing, one who in the clichéd complaint of the baffled modern psychoanalyst is said to “only want a quick fix.” In fact, the call for tools is itself a form of transference in the sense that the modern form of ego ideal aspires to a truth that is not expressed as the wish for a form of being but rather as the possession of privileged tools and data that allow one to approach the efficiency of the well-programmed algorithm. The analyst is seen to embody the one who possesses access to the algorithm, and who is himself self-sufficient through this possession. Therefore the relationship with the analyst is one of passing on knowledge, where knowledge equals truth and lack of knowledge is seen not as a result of the necessary structure of the unconscious but rather as a temporary failure to obtain the whole truth which could be obtained if only one knew where to find it and could pay the cost.

Psychology & Psychoanalysis, Capitalism
Contemporary Clinic

Evan Malater is a clinical social worker and therapist in New York City.

Celeste Pietrusza is a licensed clinical psychologist with an integrative, psychodynamic approach to therapy. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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