Recently I was struck by my friend Kaye Winnell’s wise and courageous facebook post:
“I struggle with anxiety and depression, and I have done since the birth of my first baby. Some days, no matter how many pies I bake or kilometres I run, I still feel fat, ugly, lazy and stupid. No matter how many people tell me I otherwise, I still feel worthless, and as if one day the world will find me out, and will realise what a loser I am and that I have just done a really, really good job of hiding it. Some days I am so scared to step out of my car and walk into work I can’t breathe.
But I truly believe that this illness has made me who I am, made me a fighter, made me more compassionate, and helped me understand that what we see on the surface is not always the truth.
We are faulty and human. We are scared and we make mistakes. We screw up our lives sometimes.
If you have similar struggles, be brave and don’t be ashamed. “
It’s really easy, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, to feel as though you’re the only person who has ever felt like this. The whole post is profoundly moving, but the bit about being found out is really striking. In private, tentative conversations I’ve discovered that many of my friends share that feeling. Regardless of how much positive feedback you get, how many awards you win, and how much tangible success you achieve, you may be convinced that none of it is your doing. Sooner or later the world is going to find out that you are actually no good at what you do. You are an imposter. Parachuted into your position by a series of freak chances, in no way are you actually qualified or capable to do your job – whether a profession or parenting. This feeling can be utterly corrosive.
It leaves you intensely vulnerable to any kind of negative feedback, regardless of how constructively it is phrased, because you are always waiting for that moment when the world realizes you don’t belong here. So anything from a friend canceling a visit, to your boss suggesting that you need to do something differently, can be that proof, and it can drive you to despair in a heartbeat. With a jolt of adrenalin you know that it’s here! You’ve been rumbled! It’s all over now.
If you’re lucky you have someone supportive nearby who can spot this moment and talk you down from the precipice. If you’re even luckier you have learnt some strategies over time for re-educating your hopelessly panicked self-esteem. And if you’re profoundly lucky, you have both. But there will always be days when your support person is absent or distracted and using your own self-rescuing techniques is beyond you, whether it’s because you are tired and run down, or you actually did make a mistake that you feel really bad about, or you’ve had a couple of run-ins with someone who really knows how to tear you into tiny pieces. Some days it would be so easy to give up.When your day is long and the night – the night is yours alone when you think you’ve had too much of this life to hang on don’t let yourself go, ‘cos everybody cries and everybody hurts sometimes
REM, Everybody Hurts
Researchers often claim that women are disproportionate sufferers of imposter syndrome, but I wonder if that’s because men are less likely to admit it and seek help for it. We still send very strong messages in our society that it’s ok for women to seek help, but men have to be strong and independent. Either way, no-one, whether male or female, talks about this much. It’s an intensely vulnerable feeling, and exposing it publicly feels like a huge risk.
So I was really impressed to see Kaye write about this and post it publicly. The more we can be open and honest about our struggles, the easier we make it for everyone struggling around us. You look at the strong, confident leader who sits near you at work, and you don’t hear his brain whispering to him “You’re no good at this. You’ll be found out, and it will be humiliating. And you’ll deserve it.”
You look at the successful, articulate, and assertive manager in the office next door, and you don’t know about those times when she closes her door and lays her head down on her desk, overwhelmed by the feeling that she is out of her depth.
And they don’t see it when you do, either. We’re all so busy being strong and independent, that we make it harder for ourselves, and for everyone around us, when we actually do need help, because we are pretending that we are always strong, always confident, and perpetually in control.
So I’m putting it out there. I suffer from imposter syndrome. I get huge amounts of positive feedback. My children are healthy and happy. My students get amazing results. But sometimes I firmly believe that it’s despite me, not because of me. Sometimes I feel like a giant spanner in the works of life. Logically I know I’m not. Rationally I know I am a good and loving parent, a supportive and encouraging teacher, and someone who gives everything I do everything I’ve got. I’m proud of that. But some days I don’t believe it. Some days I can’t understand why anyone would hire me, or even be friends with me.
But I know this: those days will pass, and they do not define me. Everybody hurts sometimes.