There is a significant self-presentation element to imposter syndrome. We are a very social species, and we often attempt to manipulate how others perceive us to attain optimal interpersonal benefits. Imposter syndrome can be a very adaptive self-presentation strategy. After all, claiming that one’s ability is lower than it appears may lower the expectations of others, prompting encouragement from them and protecting your image if you fail, and inflating the impact of your performance if you succeed.
Indeed, research suggests that those who score high in impostor syndrome tend to express less positive views of themselves and their performance in public than they privately believe to be the case. In fact, those who report high levels of imposter syndrome aren’t actually all that bothered when others hold extremely positive impressions of them, which is what you would expect if people actually feel like an “imposter”.
As I was reading this fascinating literature on imposter syndrome, it occurred to me that many of the seemingly paradoxical characteristics of imposter syndrome are strikingly similar to the behaviors of those who score high on a particularly paradoxical flavor of narcissism: vulnerable narcissism.
The Two Faces of Narcissism
Psychologists have long distinguished between an “overt” form of narcissism and a more “closet” form of narcissism. Most people are very familiar with the grandiose narcissist, characterized by their brash, boastful, noisy behavior demanding the spotlight. The psychiatrist Glen Gabbard describes grandiose narcissists as “oblivious” because they tend to have a complete lack of awareness of their impact on others: “They talk as though addressing a large audience, rarely establishing eye contact and generally looking over the heads of those around them.”
The core characteristics of grandiose narcissism include exhibitionism, authoritativeness, grandiose fantasies of power, acclaim seeking, manipulativeness, exploitativeness, entitlement, lack of empathy, arrogance, and thrill-seeking. Here are some items that measure grandiose narcissism: