I nervously grip my glass of white wine, which I’ve drank too quickly anyhow, and smile broadly at the woman who’s just asked me: “So what do you do?”
All I can think of is: “I’m twenty-seven and I work at a coffee shop. I’m twenty-seven and I still work for minimum wage. School has just not panned out for me. An English degree has taught me how to bus tables and make lattes.”
What I say, instead, is: “I’m a poet.” Which sounds better, I guess, but still makes me feel nervous. How do I explain myself? I’m still smiling at this woman, who is a chemist and a professor, but I’m searching my husband out. I don’t like these faculty parties for this reason. I’m not established enough for them. I guess I can talk to this woman about the finer points of a sonnet, but I know I’m not impressive enough to hold her attention. And I can’t even tell her how sonnets work, anyway! I don’t write them, dammit!
This is how it feels to be imposter. To put a finer point on it, this is what it feels like to have Imposter Syndrome. For me, it’s constantly looking over my shoulder to make sure no one finds out I’m a fraud. The accomplishments I’ve made are because I’m luck and have good timing. I’m not that smart, I’m rather average actually. And one day, someone will find out.
I didn’t know that something this clinically textbook sounding existed until my friend told me. She and I had talked about our intellectual hang ups before, saying, “You’re the smartest person I know!” “No, I’m not! You are!” We’d continue this self deprecation until one of us finally admits: “You know, I think we’ve got a problem with recognizing our self-worth.” If you think this is funny, I have to admit, it kind of is. Watch this:
- It was originally thought to be just a lady issue. We still have odd gender roles in America. There are still enough people who don’t believe women can do anything outside of the home. Women being in positions of authority is a relatively new idea in our country! Of course, we’re slow to catch up with progress
- But some men can feel like frauds too. Society can work against them as well. The measure of a MAN can be hard to live up to and feeling as though you’ve fallen short is just as stressful.
- Because of Affirmative Action, people of color feel like fakes, that the work they do doesn’t really count because they’ve been offered a special pass.
- Graduate students suffer as well. I haven’t gone through it yet but people tell me that grad school breaks your confidence like the military. Hopefully, like the military, it builds you back up to be a book-killing machine? Not always the case. Constantly hanging out in a competitive academic environment where your intelligence is constantly being assessed, might effect your confidence.
How can Imposter Syndrome negatively effect you?
- There are a lot of things I don’t do because I’ve already told myself that they can’t be done. At least by me. The things that I do, don’t measure up to my standards.
- I might get something accomplished, but basking in the glow of my genius is very short lived. After I’ve done it, I say big deal, I could have done something bigger and better.
- Even though I’ve been told I possess leadership qualities, I can’t deal with being responsible for something. How can I be in change when I don’t have my own shit together?
- When my poetry has been accepted by journals, I’m excited and then there’s that feeling of, What’s wrong with them? Maybe they aren’t that great of a journal. It’s like when Groucho Marx said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that accepts me as a member.”
- When I got accepted into grad school, I was excited and then thought that I was the luckiest bastard in the world. The statement of purpose I churned out was bullshit enough to suffice (which is insulting to the judgement of those who read it). I also thought I had excellent timing. I must of just narrowly slid in there somehow.
What the hell can you do about Imposter Syndrome?
My therapist has told me: “Learn how to take a compliment.” I say, learn how to take a compliment before people get tired of giving them. If you continually tell people that they’re wrong about you, you’re essentially telling them that their judgement is flawed. People will eventually get the picture and just give up.
But your existence isn’t totally sustained by external validation. You need to do some of the work yourself, even if that means you fake it until you make it. When self-doubt rears its ugly head, I have to actively tell myself: Shut the fuck up for a minute and just rest on your laurels. You’re doing a good job.
I might not believe it in that moment, but I need another voice opposing the one who does all the thinking. Sounds a little multiple personality disorder, doesn’t it? Maybe, but faking it until I make it has gotten me out of some jams. It’s pushed me into taking some risks I wouldn’t normally take if I just sat wringing my hands. I’ve thrown myself into situations which have made me anxious about performing, but when I’ve done them, I do take solace in being ambitious and brash.
I constantly write about my feelings in a journal. I take stock in the things I’m doing and when I see the proof, in black and white, it’s hard to ignore. Once you look at that list and see your life measured out, you gain a new perspective for how valuable your work is.
Talking with friends also helps. When you examine your feelings aloud with someone else, it can also put your life in perspective. Your friends will tell you if you’re being irrational or not. They will also tell you about their own insecurities. If you share these feelings, you’re less likely to feel so lonely.
Here’s how I’m looking at life these days: There are no private detectives snooping around the corner waiting for me to slip up. I’m also not going to slip up because I’m going at my own pace. I’m actually a pretty good authority on my own life. If I really think about it, I know a lot of things. I’ve experienced quite a few things. I’m capable of doing and knowing and experiencing more things, if I want.
If you’ve led a pretty normal life (if you weren’t a bank robber in your youth and abruptly left the game in pursuit of safe family living), there’s a pretty good chance you’re not a fake. There’s a good chance that you’re legit. What people see in you is probably true. The key is to keep telling yourself: “I’m being me and I am good enough for me.”