Imposter, not syndrome
Oh good lord. I just learned from reading Rebecca Traister that Judith Warner has a pitiful article up about poor Sarah Palin, who suffers from Imposter Syndrome. Warner admits that she just heard about this syndrome the other day—which is very real, if not a diagnosable condition—which somewhat explains why she doesn’t understand what it is. But I have as much pity for Warner as I do for Palin, because Warner almost surely wrote her piece on a computer with internet access, and could have used Google to look it up.
Regardless of what level of success they may have achieved in their chosen field of work or study, or what external proof they may have of their competence, they remain convinced internally that they do not deserve the success they have achieved and are really frauds. Proofs of success are dismissed as luck, timing, or otherwise having deceived others into thinking they were more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. This syndrome is thought to be particularly common among women[citation required] who are successful in their given careers and is typically associated with academics. It is also widely found among graduate students.
The gap here is between perceived competence and actual competence, with the former rating lower than the latter. It’s more common in women, because women have received subtle but untrue messages their whole lives about women’s lesser intelligence. So when you act more intelligent than you’ve been led to believe women can be, these feelings of self-doubt creep in. The important thing is that Warner’s example of the syndrome is actually its opposite.
The “Legally Blonde” fairy tales spin around the idea that, because Elle believes in herself, she can do anything. Never mind the steps that she skips. Never mind the fact that — in the rarefied realms of Harvard Law and Washington policymaking — she isn’t the intellectual equal of her peers. Self-confidence conquers all!
But people who have Imposter Syndrome aren’t self-confident. Quoth Warner’s own paper on the issue:
Researchers have found, as expected, that people who score highly on such scales tend to be less confident, more moody and rattled by performance anxieties than those who score lower.
The article is interesting, because it’s reporting on research that separates genuine sufferers from people who self-deprecate to lower expectations because they are, in fact, imposters. Like George Bush, for instance.
But the point is that people with Imposter Syndrome have low self-esteem (if not chronically, at least when they’re having these feelings). Elle in “Legally Blonde” had loads of self-esteem, but as the movie reassures you, she was right to have it because she’s so smart under the bubbly exterior. Sarah Palin’s problem is the opposite. Sure, there’s a gap between her perceptions of her own competence and reality, but this time, the former is higher than the lower. She has an excess of self-esteem. Warner feels sympathy for Palin because she recognizes that moment of terror in her eyes in this picture.
But there’s two causes of such terror—either you really don’t know what the hell you’re doing, or you have Imposter Syndrome. If you’re having trouble telling the difference, here’s a clue: People with Imposter Syndrome might seize up if asked to discuss a Supreme Court case other than Roe, but they’d be able to do it.
I agree with Rebecca—sympathy for Palin is condescending, paternalistic, and therefore sexist. We wouldn’t feel sorry for a man “put” in this situation, because we’d know a belligerent asshole whose overweening sense of entitlement has landed him in a situation that he’s not only not prepared to handle, but doesn’t care to handle. For instance, who feels sorry for George Bush? We all see him and see the snotty brat, the guy who coasted through his education on his father’s name and the gentleman’s C, because he thought he was too cool to study. I fail to see how Palin is any different. Rebecca:
Sarah Palin is no wilting flower. She is a politician who took the national stage and sneered at the work of community activists. She boldly tries to pass off incuriosity and lassitude as regular-people qualities, thereby doing a disservice to all those Americans who also work two jobs and do not come from families that hand out passports and backpacking trips, yet still manage to pick up a paper and read about their government and seek out experience and knowledge.
If I’m going to reckon back to Bush’s youth, I’ll do the same for Palin. It’s not a mistake either that she still uses her high school nickname of “Barracuda”, nor that she had it. For all that many a school environment is ruled by a jock/rich boy royalty that coasts on assholery and considers knowledge too nerdy to be engaged, there’s also the mean girls, who cultivate a well-practiced sneer for the underlings and doe eyes for the guys at the top of the pecking order, who reward them for their work in sneering down the mountain and flattering up by bestowing popular girl status on them. In other words, it’s the act that Palin is pulling as McCain’s running mate—doe eyes for him and his, and sneers issued from the podium at the RNC at the smarty-pants geeks who think that you have to have things like knowledge and understanding to be a successful leader. The sort of people who work as community activists.