The impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalise their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
Last year, a young woman from IBA reached out to me for advice, while breaking down into tears. Her story went something like this: she was about to graduate and had a very specific passion she wanted to pursue. While at IBA, she was a star student and successfully pursued her passion in parallel to her studies. Now her mother wanted her to get married but her husband-to-be didn’t want her to work. It was a hard point for him. She didn’t want to disappoint her mother. And yet, her passion meant the world to her. She said she knew exactly what the right choice for her was but she lacked the confidence to make the right decision, despite being a high achiever.
How can you tell if you are suffering from the impostor syndrome? The most revealing sign is the co-existence of high achievement and low self-esteem. In Pakistani society, self-esteem is perceived to follow a linear path. The more you accomplish, the more your self-esteem should grow. But in real life, the path towards high self-esteem is rarely linear. A visible manifestation of this is the paradox that Pakistan’s top universities produce some of the brightest, hardest working individuals in the world. But rarely do Pakistani graduates have the self-confidence to pursue what they really want to do. Instead, they settle down into the life scripts written for them by society i.e. get a nice job, save to get your sister married, buy your first car, get married, send your children to university, get them married, play with your grandchildren in old age and almost on cue, die after your grandchildren get married.
The existence and broad acceptance of this life script teases out an interesting insight. Self-esteem, for most young Pakistanis, is measured versus their ability to follow this script rather than in the context of any unique life goals or objectives they may want to achieve. This results in the impostor syndrome silently weaving itself into our personalities (think classic definition of the syndrome quoted from Wikipedia at the top of this article). We aren’t necessarily living our own lives but the life that is deemed best for us to live by society. Some of us may actually enjoy living these scripted lives. But for those odd balls who want to live life slightly differently, there are only two choices: 1) live the life of an impostor or 2) break free and do your own thing.
Let’s dive deep into the second category, where you break free and do your own thing. This is where you choose not be an impostor and live your truth but in a strange twist, you still feel like an impostor. This is when you achieve remarkable things but your family, friends and you can’t recognise the value of your contribution to society because it doesn’t get you further in the script of the life you’re supposed to live. This is a pity: Pakistani society will be transformed by those who refuse to follow this script. But they’re struggling in the quick sand of low self-esteem.
Here, I have an admission to make. Originally, I had written this article with the story of a young man who broke this script but at the last minute, he didn’t want his story to be released publicly. It’s paradoxical that I have to protect his story and hide his real name. We name criminals, murderers and rapists in Pakistani newspapers. When it comes to an genuinely extraordinary Pakistani, I have to protect his identity because his family wouldn’t react positively to the story. His story is a microcosm of our national impostor syndrome narrative. So consumed are we with our real and perceived weaknesses that we discount our success by assuming we’re faking it and our stories are unworthy of being appreciated. In the guise of humility, we hide our deepest and darkest fear of being ‘found out’ for being a failure pretending to be a success. The world is a poorer place because Pakistanis pretend to be impostors, instead of being themselves.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 4th, 2014.
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