Recently, while chatting with a group of friends, one of whom is a psychologist, the topic of Imposter Syndrome came up. A couple of us were describing the paralyzing fear of being “found out” as being an incompetent idiot in life. Our friend casually said ‘oh yeah, Imposter Syndrome”.
What?! There’s a label for that? I love labels. They are so validating aren’t they? I kid. Kind of. But seriously it was a relief to have a name for something that I consciously struggle with almost every day. And if there is a name it means I’m not the only way who has it, right? Can I get an Amen? Misery loves company.
Imposter Syndrome is not an official psychological disorder but it is a name for something that many people (particularly women) struggle with in a very real way. It generally strikes women who are quite successful in their careers, especially targeting highly educated people and academics (particularly graduate students), but according to this article there is a sector of individuals (like me) who never do become as successful as they could be in their chosen careers, because the Imposter Syndrome paralyzes their progress. According to the article, for all of them the same is true though:
The thing about "impostors" is they have unsustainably high standards for everything they do. The thinking here is, If I don't know everything, then I know nothing. If it's not absolutely perfect, it's woefully deficient. If I'm not operating at the top of my game 24/7, then I'm incompetent.
Yup. If there was a photo next to that little blurb, it would be my mournful little mug.
Imposter Syndrome manifests itself alllllllll over my life, but for the sake of brevity (except it won’t be that brief at all-sorry), I’m going to use my writing non-career as an example.
Here’s where I’m going to warn you..the tale that follows is “organic and unedited”. In other words it is long and rambling and somewhat redundant tale of how Imposter Syndrome has blocked me over and over again…. It’s naval gazing at its finest and so it is I fear.. boring. Self absorption is always boring. All that said, I wrote this as a form of therapy and I don’t want to mess with it too much lest it become less authentic- which would defeat the point of this post. Maybe something in there will be a helpful or familiar nugget to someone else who can relate. OK:/Disclaimer.
I have always loved writing, I’ve always known I would be a writer in one way or another.
Back in the dawn of time, when social networking was all about forum boards,I would blow off steam by writing funny anecdotes about my life as a stay at home mom. They were intended for the reading pleasure of just my friends on the board. I would get plenty of positive feedback, and several people would tell me that I should try to write professionally. I would brush off the compliments, thinking they were just being kind. After all my mom had been saying the same thing for as long as I could remember, (moms!) and I would always tell her that every second mom was writing funny stories about her kids. I was not unique. I had nothing new to offer. Nobody wanted to hear it.
Then one of my little anecdotes got passed from board to board until it attracted the attention of the powers that be at iVillage and they offered me a paid contract for a monthly column on their site, just doing what I was already doing, writing funny anecdotes about life at home with four little kids. For a year or so while I had the gig, I allowed myself to believe that perhaps I was in fact a decent, entertaining writer. And although I hated that almost all of my pieces were left with very little of my voice after the “makeover” they received from my very zealous young editor, I felt satisfaction that I was turning what I loved into a paying gig. This gave me the confidence to send out a few queries to magazines, and one of the first ones I approached gave me a feature article-front cover of the magazine no less! It seemed like this was going to be easier than I had dared to hope.
Then iVillage revamped their site and phased out my monthly feature. They invited me to pitch another writing project to them to fit in with their format. But after one initial phone call, which really didn’t go badly, I did not follow up in any aggressive way because I felt that if they’d loved my ideas they would have followed up with me first. My insecurities kept me from doing what every successful writer MUST do, which is to be absolutely rabid in getting their work published, whilst accepting that rejection is as much of an occupational hazard as writers block and to shrug it off. Instead I came to the conclusion that I had finally been exposed as the fraud that I was and that I would never be paid to write again. And so I put that dream on the back, back, back burner and focused on finishing my degree in the hopes that this would make me feel more legit in life. (Let’s see how that worked out for me gentle reader). Go on…
A couple of years later, blogs started popping up. Not in the ubiquitous way they are now, but people knew what you meant when you said the word “blog”. I started to wonder if I should start one. But I put it off for at least a year. Why? I was terrified of putting myself out there on the internet (haha-hard to believe now, isn’t it?) and being told that I was, what I deep down knew I was..a rubbish writer who had nothing new to say. So I put it off…(at a time when I really could have jumped into a much less flooded market that was actually very hungry for writers like myself .) Yes I am kicking myself every day for that. Which is so helpful.
I finally did start a blog. It was more of a distraction from my studies than anything else. I made no effort to market or monetize it. I got lots of positive feedback from friends and family who encouraged me to market it, but of course they have to say that stuff. I was terrified that if I threw my writing in front of an impartial (not to mention anonymous and unaccountable) audience, I would be revealed as the loser that I was, and crucified as a boring, unfunny stay at home mom writing poorly about nothing of any consequence to anyone but her boring family. (After all, this happens to even the most fabulous bloggers with super glamorous lives…all the time!)
Incidentally I did finish my degree. I did very well, with 4 kids aged 10 and under. But I didn’t take a huge amount of satisfaction in that fact. I was very relieved to have finished what I started but I was also kind of embarrassed that it wasn’t more…at that stage of life it should have been a graduate degree.
And so for a while, I satisfied myself with keeping my blog as a sort of journal/scrapbook. (Don’t get me wrong, if my blog is never anything more than a journal or scrapbook I will not consider it a waste of effort. I feel that a pictorial journal is a pretty precious thing for my kids to have, not to mention for me to have, and I am gratified by that. But I’ve always known that it didn’t have to be just a scrapbook. I’ve always know that I could and probably should be killing more than just one bird with this blogging stone. )
Then, lo! Happy day! As I kept writing and putting myself out there a tiny bit more, I started getting approached by sponsors. I realized that I could maybe make a buck or two off of this thing. Doing what I loved, not having to leave my kids to do it and making some money sounds like a dream job to me… and so I started tentatively putting advertising up. Some lucky exposure, just around this time, increased my traffic dramatically, and I finally felt a burgeoning sense of confidence and excitement that there was actually some promise of making blogging into a little career.
Then out of the blue, just before Christmas one year, I got a flurry of intimidating emails from someone who threatened legal action if I didn’t shut down my blog or at least change the identity of it (which would mean changing the url which would mean losing all my hard-won followers and starting from scratch. Awesome.) Well after checking into my legal rights I discovered that she didn’t have a case. I was sufficiently upset and determined to get her out of my inbox and my life though, that I decided to remove any appearance of my blog being a business, that could be construed as competition to anyone else’s business. So I pulled all the advertising.
Wind vacated sails and I was now thoroughly discouraged. It seemed that everything I had always feared was right on the money. Just when I seemed to be on the brink of some kind of real success, exactly what I had always feared was indeed happening. 1.)I had become popular enough to get the attention of someone who did not wish me well. Even if I minded my business and didn’t try to make any trouble for anyone else, if I got successful enough, someone was inevitably going to make it their business to make trouble for me.-Check. 2.)My fear of being “caught out” (even though I was not in the wrong) had come to pass.-Check And finally: 3.)My terror of having the rug suddenly pulled out from under me while I was trying to do something that I really had no business doing, was confirmed as not being irrational after all.
And so I backed way, way off. Without sponsors, I didn’t feel obliged to make an effort to appeal to an audience larger than my family, or to market the blog further. I took no actions to grow my readership. I went back into scrapbook mode. I rationalized that it might just be a scrapbook….but it could be a good one. One my kids would be happy to have one day. Hey! Maybe one that even might uplift and inspire others. I convinced myself it was enough. To inspire even one person…that was an ok mission for me. And I still believe that. Truly, I do.
Except that I managed to sabotage even that limited definition of personal success.
One day a couple of years ago, a good friend of mine said to me, "Wow, I’m so glad I know you because if I just read your blog, I would be so depressed!” When I asked her what the heck that was supposed to mean, she told me that she had read my blog the night before and all our Christmas traditions had looked and sounded so lovely and perfect. (Notice all these crises tend to crop up around Christmas?)
I was of course very offended. Seething with resentment, I told her that maybe they looked that way because they were that way! I very huffily informed her that I was very sorry that I worked really hard to make beautiful Christmas memories for my kids. And I was very sorry that it might depress somebody that we loved each other, and that we genuinely had a good time together and that we weren’t gritty and raw and unhappy enough for her liking. As I paused for breath, she looked at me mildly (she doesn’t even bother to look concerned by my rantings anymore,) and said, “um, I didn’t say that all that wasn’t real, I just meant that I know that apart from all the beautiful times you show on your blog, you have hard times too…just like everyone else, and so for me, it balances the perfection that I see on the blog.”
Naturally, I was very offended. Because this was just patently untrue. I had no desire to present myself or my life as perfect on my blog. Blogs like that are vomit-worthy, and I wanted no part of them. In fact, I prided myself on being up front about my struggles. I had talked openly about my struggle with depression, with my sadness about being away from my family and the country of my birth, even with the fact that I was a total slob. What more authenticity did anyone want from me?
Later another friend pointed out that while yes, I was indeed up front and honest about all those things, I always wrote about them when I was either coming out of the crisis, or looking back at it from a better place. So they weren’t a really true representation of how low the lows could be.
I thought about it. They were right. When I am really depressed or overwhelmed the last thing I want to do is engage in any kind of creative endeavor like writing about it. Even when I did post when things were tough, I generally only wrote about finding perspective in the struggle, or my resolve to conquer the demons. I never wrote when I was at rock bottom-where my friends had seen me plenty of times. Before there was any perspective or resolve, when I hated everything and was nothing but a vortex of misery and negativity.
So yeah…even though I was not in any way trying to represent my life as perfect, I was only writing about it when it was good…or at least when it was not in the deepest depths of suckery. It was true! I was a fraud! In a whole new way I had not even considered before! There had been no intention to mislead but it was misleading. By their very nature, all blogs are just snapshots of life and therefore are in some ways misleading. Did I want to be a part of that? No! Of course I did not. (I also had very little interest in writing a dreary tome of a blog. What’s the point of that?)
At the same time I started hearing from people that after reading or seeing the stuff I did for my kids or with my family, they felt inadequate or bad about themselves. The most sadly ironic part is that they were putting some of my weakest qualities on a pedestal. Was I really coming across as “together” in the areas where in reality I struggled the most? I felt a pit in my stomach every time someone told me these things. Not only was I a fake and a fraud but I was even making other people feel bad about themselves because of it. So even my mission to uplift had failed. The fact that none of this was my intention did not comfort me, the fact that in reality I have no real control over how people feel about themselves, was of no consequence. What was the point of this exercise? I considered making my blog private so that it truly could just be a journal/scrapbook.
But something kept me from doing that. Not sure what…Ego? Narcissism? The belief deep down that I could make this work if I could get past myself? Maybe a bit of all three. But at some point in recent months, I started to realize in a very conscious way that I was blocking myself. I could almost see a big concrete block in my path. I could definitely feel it..almost physically. When I got up the nerve to isolate and name my hang ups.I realized that all of my them were fear, shame, and fear of shame motivated. And I didn’t want to live my life like that. Who does? It wasn’t an epiphany that felt awesome and exciting. Just a dawning that was actually kind of scary and panic inducing. Because knowing it and naming it meant that I couldn’t blame other things anymore. There was no more using crutches like, “I don’t have time for serious writing”, “I don’t want my family to be under scrutiny,” “I don’t want to be distracted from being a good mom”, “I’m actually just too lazy to do what it takes to hustle up more readers”. There is truth to all of those things but more than anything the reality is that I am just plain old scared. I am afraid of failing, I am afraid of being revealed as the imposter that I am. Except the more I think about it, the more I name the beast, the less afraid I am. What is the worst that can happen? People think I’m a moron? Plenty of them already do (on the strength of my politics alone). And why? Why was I giving these nameless “people” the power to determine my future? I give my kids pep talks about this stuff all the time. What a complete hypocrite that makes me. Why should they listen to me. I mean, I’m 36 years old for pete’s sake and I’m just as fearful as I was when I was 3. It’s got to stop.
When it comes down to it. It’s all about pride. All this fear of failure, fear of being exposed as a fraud, fear of being not good enough. Fear of feeling rejected. Fear of feeling bad about myself. It’s self absorbed. It’s the fear of man, not of God. It’s yet another form of pride. It’s always about the pride for me, man. That damn pride. It’s got to go. Maybe it’s got to go by failing spectacularly over and over and over again….but that’s authentic. That’s living. It’s got to feel better than feeling stuck and stagnant.
And so I’m taking some steps. I resurrected my fan page that the charming “legal action” person had removed from facebook. I gritted my teeth and did what I hate more than anything to do-I
asked begged people to “like” me. And many of them did. All I had to do was ask. I’d happily do the same for any of them. So why the big hairy deal?
Like I said at the start, the blog/writing thing thing is just one of the areas of my life where I’m allowing pride and fear to run the show. Don’t even get me started on motherhood, my spirituality, social life, physical pursuits or politics. If you’ve read this far, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t dare .
Despite the fact that there’s a very big part of me that wants to hide my head under the covers and definitely not hit publish on this epic post, I’m going to make a declaration. For the sake of accountability. And here it is. 2013 is going to be about consciously working toward becoming more fearless. To that end, I’m going to start becoming more familiar with scriptures like these:
The fear of man bringeth a snare, but whoso putteth His trust in the Lord will be safe. (Proverbs 29:25)
So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.
So that’s me.. in a very large nutshell. How about you? Do you ever feel like an imposter? Is fear holding you back in any area of your life? I feel like this is probably a more prevalent problem than we think.
And now I’m hitting “publish”…before I can chicken out