We all know that feeling; a sometimes momentary, sometimes extended sensation where we question our own status, skill or understanding of something, concluding that we don’t really know what we think we know and are therefore “faking it” for the benefit of others. This phenomenon has been labelled Impostor Syndrome, with the obvious reference to a state of mind that derives from serious doubts about one’s true sense of self. Although the label is usually applied to social situations, it can have serious repercussions for an individual’s state of mental health, particularly where the sensation is prolonged and impacts directly on how that individual is able to function in society or deal with internal thoughts of self-doubt.
I’m certainly no stranger to this. I have often caught myself “winging it”, where the best course of action in uncertain circumstances seemed to be to just keep talking or moving forward, hoping that some sense of clarity about what’s unfolding will spontaneously emerge. I usually see the idea of “making it up as I go along” in a rather self deprecating way, but on the other hand it can be surprisingly satisfying when an improvisation actually works out OK in the end.
Impersonating someone other than yourself is fairly common – actors make a living out of doing just that, after all – so it’s not so surprising that cinema provides many examples of people dealing with identity.
Akira Kurosawa’s seminal screenplay Kagemusha is based on the idea of a real impostor acting as a surrogate for a samurai warlord in 16th Century Japan.The film depicts the impostor’s personal journey; traversing his initial fears and doubts, accession to real power, and subsequent paralysis when faced with a real conflict situation. The Japanese term “kagemusha” literally means “shadow warrior” and it’s usually used in the context of a “decoy” strategy in a political power play, as depicted in the film. It provides some interesting insights into the mind of a person placed in the situation of assuming the identity of another. A similar concept is explored in Joseph Losey’s 1963 film The Servant, starring Dirk Bogarde – although here the act of taking on the master’s role is a deliberate strategy.
The Fear of Self-deception
Underlying Impostor Syndrome appears to be a fear of deceiving oneself. In Hamlet Polonius advises his son Laertes to be authentic to himself, saying “This above all: to thine own self be true”. Shakespeare’s message in this passage is obviously that not lying to yourself is really important, even strategic, because he then has Polonius explain that “Thou canst not then be false to any man.” The corollary concept is the idea that if you can’t be honest with yourself what hope have you of being honest with the people you meet? I like this idea of self-honesty because it reminds me that humility is almost always better than hubris.
A recent article in news.com’s online Lifestyle pages tilted“Faking it? You’re not alone. Imposter syndrome is more common than you’d think” explores this phenomenon and provides examples from a range of commentators including film celebrities, teachers and scientists. The writer concludes that “we’re all faking it”, and I tend to agree. It’s those people who claim to be 100% authentic one hundred percent of the time that worry me the most.