April 25, 2023

What If Imposture Is Not a Fraud? Imposter Syndrome Revisited

Mohamed Tal

Photographs from Guillaume Duchenne, The Mechanisms of Human Facial Expression (1862). The “Duchenne smile” is considered the true smile and the authentic expression of happiness.

This essay is a reply to Evan Malater and Celeste Pietrusza’sThe Mysterious Return of Imposter Syndrome,” the first essay in our series The Contemporary Clinic, which explores the challenges and difficulties facing psychoanalysis today. What are the pathologies of the contemporary clinic? How are these intertwined with politics, economy, and culture? And how is psychoanalysis reacting to the new circumstances?


In their engagement with the question of the return of imposter syndrome, Evan Malater and Celeste Pietrusza argue that imposter syndrome is no longer primarily an issue for “non-white students … who came from different economic classes and quickly felt the gap in economic and cultural know-how and privilege.” Rather, it now afflicts “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.” Departing from this remark, Malater and Pietrusza reformulate their question in the following terms: “How is it that those who were originally the model of what one failed to impersonate … now fall prey to the fear that they can no longer impersonate themselves?” They answer by claiming that “the imposter is [now] the norm”—insofar as it is “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.”

But when has imposture not been the norm? Although the normalization of imposture may appear as something relatively new, it is the most classical fact of capitalist economy. At first sight, what the “imposter” brings to our attention is that his privilege—granted by capital—does not equate with his capabilities and is therefore not properly earned. In fact, no possible set of skills can justify the financial privilege assigned by capital; yet, for the worker to make sense of such privilege, they have to believe that it is justified, lest they end up a fraud. The factor which Malater and Pietrusza underline by “naturalized economy” is the legalization of the bribe as a model of remuneration for seniority—a fact that has become more tangible in the promotion of senior workers as partners in contemporary corporate culture.

Nevertheless, what is it that would make the discourse of science swallow such a subjective complexity as imposture (which it, elsewhere, does not hesitate to dodge)1 by labeling it a syndrome? And why would capital send its highest ranks to analysts, as if the success it offered were so disappointing that it forced them to go to the clinic? Malater and Pietrusza point out that “the university and workplace assist in the naming and propagation of imposter syndrome as a desired and necessary result.” In fact, for the privilege of the senior employee to count as privilege, it must first count as purchasing power, according to the scale that capital itself dictates by its production of demand. That is to say, if there is a ground for the necessity of imposture, it is internal to capital itself, insofar as it is by satisfying the consumer’s demand—which capital has itself produced—that it best perturbs the consumer. In other words, access to commodities does not satisfy a consumer’s desire; it rather renews their search for yet another commodity to satisfy their desire. And the same goes for the ultimate commodity: the fantasized “success” that is supposed to grant access to all commodities, and thereby an exit from the treadmill of desire. This problem of capital can be seen at the heart of marketing’s endeavor to invent the ideal consumer, one who can acquire what he takes to be his desire and keep on desiring it afterwards. The imposter comes into play as the one who believes he has what he wants, and imagines that he will keep on wanting it—provided that what he hasn’t got is what he supposes it takes to have it in the first place. The correlate of this subjective position is everywhere in the contemporary endeavor to rebrand the commodity as experience, through which experience itself is made into a commodity.

If this line of thought manages to explain capital’s requirement for imposture, it still fails to explain why an analysand would diagnose himself with imposter syndrome. For if it were only brand loyalty (to want even more of what one has already got) that capital sustained by dictating imposture as the norm of subjectivity, what need is there for capital to pacify this loyalty in the clinical post hoc by turning it into a syndrome?

By doing so, capital enlists “mental health” alongside its other sellable experiences.2 In giving imposture the status of a syndrome, the aim is to eliminate it as a viable subjective position, that is, to eliminate the possibility of deceiving (or lying) with it whereby the subject would posit himself as truth.3 Insofar as the subject of enunciation (a negativity) is systematically reduced by signification into a subject of the enunciated (an ego), the sole relation to discourse that allows the subject to remain a subject is that of subtraction: the subject becomes a subject by subtracting itself from the content of what it speaks. It is by treating discourse as a deception that the subject makes sure it is not just a spoken subject (ventriloquized by the Other) but a speaking one. Yet, to operate this subtraction, the subject is bound to position itself as the desire of what the Other lacks. In this way, we may say that it is only qua Other that the subject desires; hence, desire as such is imposture. This leads to the following, perhaps surprising conclusion (as least from the perspective of medicalized imposter syndrome): it is failing to be an imposter (i.e., satisfying the Other’s desire in the form of a demand), and not actually being one (i.e., sustaining the Other’s desire, qua lack), that produces anxiety. Whoever is compelled by anxiety to seek treatment for their imposter syndrome is, in fact, looking for help about the failure of their imposture—the pretense to satisfy the Other’s demand.

What is to be clarified here is that the imposter is not the subject who takes himself for an ego and who, thereby, satisfies the Other truthfully, as in the case of the pervert.4 It is rather the reverse: the imposter is the neurotic who offers himself as what the Other desires (an ego) only to guarantee that the Other lacks it.5 So what does it really mean to pose imposture as a syndrome, if imposture is the subject’s only means to subsist in discourse? Does it not say that “even by being an imposter you will be saying the truth”? That the subject (as truth) is no longer subtractable from discourse by any imposture? And is this not a decree that generalizes perversion? The correlate of this contemporary problem of subjectivity is found in the contemporary impasse of enjoyment: no extraction of enjoyment out of prohibition counts any longer as a transgression, since that is precisely what is commanded. The contemporary problem of psychoanalysis is no longer how to treat neurosis, but how to permit it in the first place.

What imposture is left to the subject (to sustain himself against his reduction to an ego) other than the imposture by which he diagnoses himself by imposter syndrome? In this way, the subject would resist being captured by psychiatric science by holding on to the syndrome against it, the same way that Freud’s first patients objected to neurology by the incurability of the very syndromes it had assigned to them. This holding-on to imposter syndrome is not just a form of imposture that enacts its own naming by a transmissible knowledge, as Malater and Pietrusza claim.6 Rather it is an attempt to rescue imposture from its reduction by the syndrome. In other words, the beyond of imposter syndrome is not some ideal of truth and authenticity, as the syndrome itself advertises. On the contrary, the beyond of imposter syndrome is imposture itself, provided that the true opposite of imposture is neither honesty nor truthfulness but imbecility—that is, not knowing in whose service one desires and acts. The self-diagnosed imposter does not simply claim that he is unworthy of whatever he possesses, but rather makes sure that the Other is the one deceived, and, therefore, that he is no imbecile. One piece of evidence for this is that it is those who come so close to what capital defines as “success”—those who come so close to satisfying the Other’s demand—who need to defend themselves against this demand precisely by diagnosing themselves with imposter syndrome.

Another point that must be stressed here is that the analyst is not less of an imposter than the subject he assists. For owning up to the fact that the analyst can only start to operate the moment he is taken for the exact opposite of what he intends to reveal (the object being nothing more than a lack), the analyst is an imposter par excellence. Even the original act of interpretation—which Freud defined as “where id was there shall ego be”—shows the subject as what represents him as signifier, only to reveal to him in that signifier where he (as Real) was not.7 Interpretation can only rescue the subject from discourse by restituting his imposture. Moreover, if by gathering in institutions analysts have opted to settle this problem in a technical-bureaucratic way—provided institutions convene training and transmission—this ultimately cannot protect them against the threat of imposture. However credentialed the analyst may be, it is transference and the transferential (non)relationship which is the basis of his task, and this necessarily involves a play of imposture. To build on the turmoil that Gabriel Tupinambá recounts of his own initiation into the profession of psychoanalysis, one could say that whoever is not an imposter is not an analyst: it is only as imposter that one gets to analyze.8 This is what gives full weight to Lacan’s statement “l’analyste ne s’autorise que de lui-même (“the analyst is only authorized by himself”), which rather than granting a freehand to the fraudster, reminds us that no accreditation can turn such a farce as psychoanalysis into a cure—for it is only as farce that analysis can cure one of the fraudulent idea of being cured. The analyst is all alone when it comes to this imposture.


As in the DSM’s replacement of “hysteric” by “histrionic” to more descriptively characterize an observable behavior.


“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.” Malater and Pietrusza.


“But it is clear that Speech begins only with the passage from the feint to the order of the signifier, and that the signifier requires another locus—the locus of the Other, the Other as witness, the witness who is Other than any of the partners—for the Speech borne by the signifier to be able to lie, that is, to posit itself as Truth.” Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, trans. Bruce Fink (W. W. Norton, 2006), 684.


“For the pervert, things are, if I may say so, in their right place. The ‘a’ is right where the subject can’t see it and the capital ‘S’ is in its place. This is why one can say that the perverse subject, whilst remaining oblivious to the way this functions, offers himself loyally to the Other’s jouissance. Only, we’d never have known anything about it had it not been for the neurotics, for whom the fantasy doesn’t possess at all the same functioning. The neurotic is the one who reveals the fantasy in its structure because of what he makes of it, but also, at the same time, through what he makes of it, he cons you, like he cons everyone.” Lacan, Ecrits, 49.


“Anxiety isn’t about the loss of the object, but its presence. The objects aren’t missing.” Lacan, Ecrits, 54.


“The self-diagnosis of imposter … 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.” Malater and Pietrusza.


“Where it was just now, where it was for a short while, between an extinction that is still glowing and an opening up that stumbles, I can (peut) come into being by disappearing from my statement (dit).” Lacan, Ecrits, 768.


“I did not study psychology, medicine, or psychiatry in college, so the more I distanced myself from the psychoanalytic community, the more insecure I became about what legitimately authorized me to engage in clinical work. Of course, we all repeat the famous Lacanian adagio about ‘analysts authorizing themselves,’ etc., but this slogan itself can help to increase the superegoic pressure: I came from a family of psychologists and psychoanalysts, I had the privilege of getting my own clinical space without having worked for it at all, I didn’t have any formal study dealing with mental health, plus I had barely finished my training at an institution I didn’t identify with anymore—so what the hell was I doing calling myself a psychoanalyst?” Gabriel Tupinambá, Politics in the Clinic, e-flux Notes, July 21, 2022 .

Psychology & Psychoanalysis, Capitalism
Contemporary Clinic

Mohamed Tal is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst. He had a private practice in Beirut from 2009 until 2022, when he moved to Dubai to practice. He is an affiliate of the Rome Institute and a member of the Beirut Institute for Critical Analysis and Research (BICAR). Dr Tal has worked as a psychotherapist with humanitarian organizations in the Middle East, including Doctors Without Borders, WarChild Holland, Handicap International, and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit. He also taught a seminar on “the Real” at the École Libanaise de Psychanalyse from 2018 to 2021.


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