It’s become almost trendy to say that you have Impostor Syndrome. Perhaps that’s only in some circles I frequent, perhaps other people in other circles still don’t even know what it is.
But I see the phrase used very often, by people who are simply feeling a bit insecure in one situation or another and want some reassurance in public.
Somebody “outs” themselves on social media, saying they have Impostor Syndrome, and out gushes the support and pep talk about “me too”, “we all do”, and “don’t worry, you got this ????”.
What purpose do these public displays of vulnerability serve? Sometimes it feels like the poster is just fishing for some ego-stroking and general cheering, and the followers and friends rally around them, happy to oblige.
When I grew up, I subscribed to a monthly magazine. In it, there was a section where you could send in questions and have them answered by experts. One of the section topics was about the body, as could be expected for a magazine whose readership were in their tweens and starting puberty.
The actual content and story could vary a lot, from emotional changes and physical appearance transformations. Almost all of them ended with the question: “Is this normal?”
- I am starting to sweat a lot, is this normal?
- My face is blushing often when I don’t want it to, is this normal?
- I feel like crying all the time even when I don’t have any reason to, is this normal?
And basically always, the answer from the expert is the same: Yes, this is normal.
This is of course comforting to hear. We want so desperately to be normal and just like everybody else, especially during that age.
Often this need don’t leave us completely as we grow up. In the end, we all want to be normal. Or I should rather say: we all want to be accepted.
Outing oneself in different ways on social media becomes a cry for acceptance. Instead of writing to a magazine expert you write to the crowd, and the crowd validates you back with: “Yes you are normal, we accept you!”
At least that’s the idea. Except that sometimes they don’t.
If any one person reaches enough people, he/she is bound to come across somebody who disagrees or disapproves. Suddenly the feed is no longer filled with encouragement only, and we start to talk about toxic social media. Mentioning Impostor Syndrome in this landscape becomes a safe bet because the likelihood of receiving negative reactions to that is pretty low.
But there is a difference between having the Impostor Syndrome and having “only” normal insecurities. And what if the purpose of the post is not solely social validation, but an honest request for help?
I came across this tweet the other day:
Notice what the poster does here. There’s no “woe is me”, no fishing for sympathies or hidden compliments. Instead it’s a genuine ask for help and tips to overcome these feelings.
The resulting thread is great. Yes, it contains plenty of encouragement – as is natural after all – but it also contains stories and tips from others who have been in the same situation. This is much more helpful because it points to a path forward, instead of only wallowing in a present non-desired situation.
For me, the difference between this tweet and the kind of posts I describe in the beginning is clear.
The former is looking for a way forward and with high awareness. Knowing what Impostor Syndrome is, still experiencing it, and actively seeking out solutions. In return, the poster gets constructive advice as well as encouragement.
The latter is not looking for anything else than affirming the current circumstances. And while needing or asking for pep talk is not in itself a bad thing, there’s something about asking for it publicly on social media that can come across as almost disingenuous to me. Where the purpose of posting is more personal validation than invitation for feedback or conversation.
Ironically, social media is not the right place to look for social acceptance.
But through the strength of knowing how to phrase what we share and ask for, we can make it a place for giving and receiving healthy ideas about moving forward on our paths.