It is the bane of many successful people’s lives.
It sabotages the best of intentions. It wreaks havoc with the idea that we can ever truly accomplish anything and it is something that I have endured for much of my life.
Most people who know me would be shocked by this admission, since the image I project is uber-confident, outspoken and motivated. Even as I am writing this piece, I am hearing a voice that says “Dig deeper. You’re skating on the surface of the pond. Are you afraid that the ice is thin and that it will crack and you will fall into the frigid water?”
Yup. I am equally certain that I’m not alone in this experience and that many who are reading this feel the same way.
Wikipedia defines Impostor Syndrome as:
“…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.”
In my case, it likely had its roots in childhood during which most adults perceived me to be precocious, bright and—although they might not have used these words that are part of the metaphysical vernacular—an “old soul,” who knew how to converse on their level.
In retrospect, although it was an ego-boost to have that kind of applause, keeping the tap dance going was exhausting and I found myself (or lost myself) needing to be one step ahead, figuring out what people expected and giving it to them, sometimes even before they asked.
Five decades later, I am living with the fragments of those feelings, designing a newly patterned patchwork quilt. Noticing when the twisting and turning butterflies are dancing (and not in a fun manner) in my stomach as I second-guess my choices. I often stand on a precipice and look at the options I have laid out before me and ask if I should stay right where I am or take the leap across the chasm, uncertain what awaits on the other side of it.
My parents didn’t use baby talk with us and didn’t want others to either when they spoke with us. As a result, I was using ‘big kid words’ before I was in kindergarten. I was six-years old when I set foot in the half day class at Pennypacker Park Elementary School in Willingboro, NJ and was given the opportunity to leap frog into first grade.
Now the problem was that no one told me what was in the offing, but rather, the teacher invited me to go into the next room and “play some games.” I guess I was in a pissy or otherwise disinterested mood and didn’t want to play their games, so in kindergarten I remained for the next year. Each subsequent grade provided an opportunity to prove myself a shining star; the pressure was on and I kept on giving it my all so as not to disappoint my parents or teachers.
Amping up in my late teens and early 20s, I went to college full-time and worked part-time and over a six-year period. I held down a few jobs waiting tables, scooping ice cream, lifeguarding at a health club, doing D & A education, offering therapeutic massage as well as being a GTA (Gynecologic Teaching Associate) at a local hospital. Our role was assisting second year medical students in becoming compassionate and caring docs.
Two years later, I decided that having a BA just wasn’t enough and I needed more ‘alphabet soup letters’ after my name and completed graduate school and added MSW (Masters of Social Work, although a friend and former colleague with the same degree refers to it as ‘Master of Saving the World’) to my resume and then a few decades later an LSW.
Said curriculum vitae is now two pages long and growing.
Fast forward to the early 1990s and I found myself juggling a career as a magazine publisher as well as parenting and marriage. I often felt as if I was in a spinning class, in which I was dripping with sweat and pedaling along at such a pace that I couldn’t keep up, but had both internal and external expectations to do so.
My marriage ended in 1998 when my husband died and I took on single parenthood, seminary; studying to become an interfaith minister and was sole support for the family which kept the wheels turning even faster. Heart racing, anxiety sequestered neatly under wraps, I kept on keeping on for the next 15 years, taking on greater responsibility.
One friend commented that I would “run around 100 mph with my hair on fire.” I laughed until I realized that she was right and that by dashing by, I was missing so much and that life is a marathon and not sprint. I occasionally wondered if it was all a charade that prevented me from feeling, just feeling. Something to do to fill a growing hole in my soul.
I put on that proverbial mask, that shining persona, so as not to appear in any way sad or bereft of anything—while in the mean time, I was crumbling inside.
In 1999, the title Rev. was added to the front of my name as I became ordained as an interfaith minister and it enabled me to officiate at rites of passage in other people’s lives. For the first few years, that meant 30 some weddings per year with a few funerals and baby blessings in there to balance things out.
My journalistic career has allowed me to interview some of the most amazing movers and shakers on the planet including Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, Debbie Ford, Ram Dass, Dan Millman and His Holiness the Dalai Lama and I still feel like I have pulled the wool over people’s eyes and that my writing skills are a fluke.
My schedule these days looks like part time therapy with folks in recovery from addictions, writing, speaking, ministry, promo and hosting a radio show, planning future events and believe it or not, I still feel inadequate at times.
“Not enough,” screeches the workaholic monkey mind. “Gotta do more!” Even as I am typing these words, my heart is racing and I can sense the blood pulsing in my head.
Who, I wonder, is the slave driver that keeps me zipping through my days? Whose approval do I believe I need in order to feel as if I myself am enough?
The more important question is what will it take to once and for all, to lie back and sigh in satisfaction, hands behind my head, taking a breather and know that I do enough and am enough?
Need you ask that same question of yourself?
Will the real you please stand up?
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Ed: Bryonie Wise
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