Something that I’ve been struggling with for some time now is a nagging “background noise” of smallness and mediocrity often triggered by what I read and observe online (in particular, Facebook and Twitter). A tweet I came across the other day pointed me to a name and definition that I had never associated with my own feelings: “imposter syndrome.”
Here’s how the good folks at Wikipedia define imposter syndrome:
“Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with 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 believe themselves to be. Notably, impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women.” (“Imposter Syndrome,” cited April 17, 2015)
I’ve written before about the slippery slope of careless comparisons, and how one can never expect to keep up with a curated life. Still, I’ve found it exceptionally difficult to shake off the cloak of inferiority that comes with imposter syndrome. Because folks are curating the highlights (or lowlights) of their lives, you never see the whole picture … mostly, the mundane middle stuff that is the majority of what makes up a person. Awareness of my mundane moments is what I feel contributes strongly to the feeling that I’m not worthy or deserving of the things I have, say, or do. This is a classic fool’s errand! If everyone else presents themselves as polarized highs and lows, of course they’ll seem so much more talented or deserving than me.
That’s why I found the following diagram, which was included in that tweet, so illuminating. It really nails down what I feel versus what’s really going on. I’m not some subset of someone else. I share an overlapping set of attributes, beliefs, and talents. The strengths and depths of where we overlap can and do differ, but that doesn’t diminish who I am or who you are.
Now, the second part of my thinking today is a personal fear that often collaborates with imposter syndrome: what I call the “fear of critical failure.”
In role playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, you roll a 20-sided die to determine how well you accomplish an action, goal, or task. A higher number yields a better result. A roll of 20 is called a “critical hit” or “critical success,” and is usually accompanied by an extra bonus for doing an amazing feat. A roll of 1, on the other hand, is a “critical failure,” which produces a “comedy of errors” type of result (your character trips, drops their sword, etc.) that simply wouldn’t happen if you merely rolled lower than necessary for a successful outcome.
“Fear of critical failure” is drawn from, and stacked upon, my misguided sense of imposter syndrome. As a self-perceived “imposter,” I’m already running the risk of being “unmasked” or “found out” as inferior or unskilled. Add the fear of a critical failure into the mix, and it’s all paranoia and madness. It can range from the vital (fear that I missed a critical step in selling a house) to the ordinary (fear that I’ll botch an opportunity to get a better deal on my cable bill). It’s made me risk-averse, and, frankly, a bit of a coward. I’ve missed chances to save money, fight for my convictions, and be a good example for my family.
And so, finding this message on Twitter has been so immensely helpful as a reminder … and as a mantra.
So, why I am telling you all of this? Two reasons:
First, writing is therapy for me. Getting my thoughts organized into a coherent structure, like this essay, helps me better sort out the mish-mash in my head. When I can better identify what’s swirling around inside, I can formulate a plan of attack to prevent these thoughts from affecting my daily life. It’s also helpful from a personal accountability aspect. When I choose to make something public, it’s harder for me to simply ignore my problems and retreat into old habits.
Second, it’s the hope that I can help someone who’s struggling with similar issues. I’ve come to believe that each of us has purpose in life … not just a singular, overarching objective, but many overlapping reasons for being that connect us to others, whether we realize it or not. Also, finding out that you’re not alone in your struggles is undeniably helpful. I have a very bad habit of not reaching out for help, whether that’s family, friends, or faith, so I want to do what I can to ask for help on a regular basis, even if it’s just the hope that someone will read this and connect with it … and, in turn, help someone who may not know how to ask themselves.
Thanks for taking the time to read this today.
Author’s note: If either of the images shown in this essay are yours, or you know whose they are, please let me know and I’ll be happy to give the proper credit that’s due.