by Jim Herr
I’m a sheep in wolf’s clothing.
Not really; I don’t even own a fur. But that’s a good explanation for my biggest fear.
I fear that someday someone – or, even worse, I – will figure out that I’m not this person, husband, father, friend, professional, whatever. Think of that. Everything you do every day that you think you do well enough at any point could be debunked. Put me on the highest height, the biggest stage, the largest stakes. Those are all cake compared to this fear. Probably because it’s more irrational than those. With those you can lose something. With this, you run from nothing because you know – deep down and with all the effort – it’s completely false. Yet, it’s there. A fear you can’t really face because facing it means, maybe, you believe it? Maybe if you give it any consideration, there’s something rational about it? You only have to deal with what’s real, right? Otherwise, don’t sweat the small stuff, or at least that’s what the posters would say.
I’d never pinned this down until a friend clued me in on it, and it was in a very innocuous way. He paid me a compliment for something I’d done, and I did what I normally do: I batted the compliment away, saying it was nothing and really not because of me or my influence. All he said to that was, “Ah, impostor syndrome.” I laughed at him, saying I was just modest, but he encouraged me to Google the concept and read about it. So I did, because I trust his advice.
A couple hours later I felt like the Internet had found my letters and read each one out loud.¹ It was a little too on the nose, and when that happens I usually revolt. Shut it down and turn it off. But I turned this one over and over a bit for quite a while.
Impostor syndrome: a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.² Legend has it, Albert Einstein suffered from this affliction, calling himself an Involuntary Swindler.³
I thought about a meeting I had with an executive coach a few years ago. He was hired by my company to help people like me excel. In our first meeting, he pegged me. It’s one of his most incredible skills. “You have to be more than adequate all the time, don’t you?” He hit me right between the eyes. He’d known me for fifteen minutes, but he nailed it. That’s been me since I can remember. I thought about how my wife made fun of me in college for the way I studied. She knew my grades. She knew I knew the stuff. Yet when mid-terms or finals came around, I was dead to the world for days on end studying. Why? So no one could say I didn’t earn it, I guess. I pushed myself that way, I think, because it made it less likely I’d be an impostor. If I excel, how can I be a fraud? But it isn’t always the effort or the outcome. Sometimes just the idea that praise, even well-deserved, was undeserved, and certainly provided no cover for my feelings. That’s what’s screwed up about this fear. Let’s say you do excel; your feelings won’t necessarily let you accept it because you don’t feel like you deserve it. Fucked up, right?
This is not uncommon. And from my armchair it slots in nicely with other “established” fears, particularly according to statistics which say 70% of us will battle this at least once in our life.† Heck, your odds of dying in a plane crash are about one in 11 million. And to make matters worse for those of you whose fear is flying, your chances of dying in traffic accident are one in 5000. Maybe you need a new fear? I’m not asking for pity or input. It has nothing to do with how many trophies I received, or didn’t receive, as a kid. It doesn’t mean I’m depressed. It really doesn’t affect me on a daily basis. Honestly, I only put it down because I figure* (*know) I’m not the only one. And maybe if I define it, it’ll help someone else define it. I’ve found that by recognizing it, I’m empowered to overcome its negative effects. So much so, that I entered a writing contest, which may certainly out me for being the impostor I am.
Back to the Internet for some additional therapy.
¹ Watch Lou Solomon explain it all in her TEDxCharlotte TED Talk:
† https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321730.php (last visited February 18, 2019)