Persona and the Imposter Syndrome
Have you ever felt a prevailing sense of inadequacy, self-doubt and fraudulence, despite clear and consistent evidence of success? You may be suffering from imposter syndrome, a psychological pattern in which you doubt your accomplishments or talent and subsequently carry a continual fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’. It is thought to be a widespread phenomenon affecting both men and women in equal measure and can often be accompanied by symptoms such as anxiety, stress, rumination and depression.
Although imposter syndrome is not generally classified as a mental disorder, it can have a significant impact on your everyday wellbeing. In the work arena, you may feel reluctant to speak out on issues and lack the confidence required to push on in your career. In relationships, it can leave you feeling vulnerable if you constantly believe that you are ‘punching above your weight’ and cause persistent stress that things will quickly unravel as soon as you are ‘found out’.
While psychologists have put forward a number of theories as to why people may suffer from imposter syndrome, one of the most popular and widely accepted comes from the field of Jungian psychoanalysis and its concept of the persona.
In his 1953 study, titled Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, defined the persona as ‘a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other hand to conceal the true nature of the individual’. For him, every professional calling, for example, has its own characteristic persona which is forced onto the individual by society and its expectations.
And herein lies the problem. Imagine yourself starting a business: you build it from the ground up, attract clients, hire employees and steadily become successful. You are responsible for many people and every day you are required to make important decisions, manage tasks and hand out instructions. The new role you have created for yourself demands that you play the role - or adopt the persona - of a confident, decisive and directional entrepreneur. However, your ‘true self’ is not that way inclined, meaning you are not a confident, decisive and directional person at heart, even though you are required to act that way.
It is precisely in scenarios like this that the imposter syndrome results. The detachment from the true self, caused by hiding behind the mask of a persona, makes the individual feel as though they do not deserve to be in the position in which they have found themselves. It creates a feeling of paranoia that at any moment they will be found out, while any form of success is attributed to luck or simply the achievement of the persona. In short, the more deeply the individual relies on their persona, the more they lose sight of their true self.
It is worth noting that not all interpret the persona as a negative force. Some point to the benefits of having a mask that can easily be picked up and dropped, particularly in the case of failures as you may find it easier to handle judgement by rationalising it as merely a reflection of a character that you have created, rather than of your true self. Nevertheless, this can also have the same impact on success, in which the true self fails to acknowledge that any achievements obtained are as a result of the talent and hard work that they have brought to the position, and simply write it off as something their persona has achieved.
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