For those of you who know the history of the Pixies, you may have looked at the title of this post and thought I was talking about Paz Lenchantin, the current bassist and vocalist for the band. Or you may think I was talking about Kim Shattuck, the bassist and vocalist before her. Neither of them is Kim Deal, the woman who originally held that role. And there are a good many purists out there that think that “there is no Pixies without Kim Deal.” That’s a perfectly valid point, but one I don’t subscribe to. No, I’m talking about myself. I am the imposter. Or so my brain tells me over and over again.
The dictionary defines an imposter as “a person who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others, especially for fraudulent gain.” It doesn’t explicitly state nefarious intent in the definition, and I would agree with that. An imposter usually works for some sort of personal gain, but not necessarily to harm others. I don’t think I’m intentionally an imposter, I don’t try to defraud people on purpose. I have what is known as “imposter syndrome.”
This is not something I talk about that often. The horrible truth is that living with imposter syndrome is a recursive argument. Here’s the summation from Wikipedia:
Impostor syndrome is a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they really are.
The funny thing is, I don’t believe I’m talented enough to genuinely have imposter syndrome. I have imposter syndrome about imposter syndrome. That’s next level imposter bullshit.
I don’t know how this developed. Perhaps it’s just an evolution of the low self-esteem I suffered through as a child. I can’t trace the origins of that beyond being bullied quite a bit in grammar school and middle school. The only reason I was not explicitly bullied in high school is because I learned to “keep my head down” and avoid putting myself out there. That wasn’t a great tactic, but it worked well enough that I no longer got taunted or called names. I still felt left out and unhappy, but I took much less direct flak. I maintain that it still happened, just not to my face, though there is no evidence to support or refute this. It’s just what makes sense in my mental narrative.
Alternatively, it may be the result of higher expectations. I’m an only child, and while my parents did their best to not spoil me, there was still a decent amount of praise lauded on me as a kid by them. I can’t fault them for being proud of me, or doing their best to encourage me as often as they could. Maybe all of that positive reinforcement led to higher than reasonable expectations of myself that I’m attempting to fulfill.
In talking about it now, I think it might have been the confluence of the two that created this. On the one hand, I have kids telling me that the reason I was adopted is because “my parents didn’t love me and wanted to get rid of me.” Kids are savage. On the other side, I have a teacher telling my parents in a parent/teacher conference that if I “don’t do something great then it will be a loss for the world.” That’s a bunch of pressure to lay at the feet of a seventh grader. Perhaps it was how diametrically opposed those two ideas were, and the fact that I have never known which one was true. I suppose they are both opinions of a sort, which are never actually true. But, as someone who also has opinions, I have to believe there is a sliver of truth in there somewhere, on both counts even.
Whatever the reasons are behind it, the fact of the matter is that it is there. The result is a little chaotic. I have a bipolar ego. In the same day, I feel extremely good and confident in my abilities. And then I feel like a sham, and that my abilities are a lie that I’ve been able to sell. This usually happens when I make small mistakes after big successes. This happened just this week. I was able to remotely configure a switch and a firewall very quickly and efficiently, getting the remote office up and running within minutes of the changeover. I felt it was an impressive feat. I felt it justified my opinion that I actually am really good at my job, that I deserve my success, and that I can be exactly the engineer I think I am. But the phones didn’t work at the remote office after the changeover. It took us a couple of hours to figure out, and it came down to a small detail I had missed a week before. And I was crushed. No one said anything about it, which made it a little worse. My head likes to fill silence with judgement, so I assume that saying nothing is the same as quietly critiquing me in a disappointing light. It was a simple mistake, but something I would have thought I would catch, but it did get missed and it did require two hours of troubleshooting and multiple calls and emails between multiple people. The only thing hurt was my ego, but it’s like a hemophiliac. Once it is wounded, it could be deadly. I went from “hey, I’m as good as I think I am” to “I’m a failure and a fraud” in the span of an afternoon.
My imposter syndrome comes and goes. Some days I’ve got it under control, some days it spirals out of control and then so do I. The worst it has ever been was last summer. There’s nothing like looking for a job to feed that particular demon. Every rejection was a blow, to be sure. But a lot of those could be rationalized. There were some jobs I didn’t get because I didn’t have the exact right set of skills. There was no criticism of my reported skills, there was just something I didn’t have. I can understand that. If you’re looking for something blue, something green isn’t going to cut it, though it’s close. The tough ones were the applications that never went anywhere. Flat out rejections before an interview were frustrating, but a lot of them provided feedback. The ones that didn’t were kidney shots and body blows. Was I revealed as the fake that I am? Did they see through the carefully crafted resume to the lackluster person I was? The worst were the hundreds (yes hundreds) of applications that got no response at all. Again, you give me silence, my mind instantly assumes it’s because you’ve discovered that I’m not worth your time.
I wish that this was exclusively tied to my job, but the truth is that it extends farther than that. I feel this way about friends, too. I live in constant fear that they’ll discover that I’m not funny or clever or a good friend, that I’m actually a shitbag that they shouldn’t associate with. The overwhelming feeling that I do not deserve to be associated with such fine people, or the basic idea that so-and-so is “too cool” for me is something I can’t seem to shake. It has even infected my relationships over the years. The idea that the person I am with will one day wake up and say “why am I wasting my time on this, I could do so much better.” This would be easier to brush away if it hadn’t happened in at least one relationship I had (thanks for that Meghan). I still have that feeling, even after close to twenty years with Heather. I’ve been more successful pushing the notion away with this relationship, mostly thanks to time but also thanks to her constant affirmation, but it just never completely dies.
Imposter syndrome is not fun. It feeds and is fed by the other ailments in my mind, and they create a horrifying symbiosis that makes any one of them difficult to defeat on their own. But I’ve tried. I refuse to let this beat me, just like I’ve refused to allow any of its friends to stop me. I don’t know what the final solution will be, and as someone who enjoys solving problems, that is frustrating. But fighting is still the best option, and I shall continue to do so.