“Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome or the imposter experience) is a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.”
In short: crippling self doubt.
There have been many moments in my life where I have felt like an imposter in the world of academia.
Growing up, I was never high-achieving in school. I didn’t push myself to be great; I was fine with being, well, fine. It wasn’t until college that the desire to have a 4.0 manifested, and it wasn’t because I wanted to be the best, but because I felt the pressure of the world for the first time in my life – the need to take care of myself and move in a direction where others did not have to worry about my well-being. A 4.0 was my ticket to the holy grail: a job. I worked hard and took advantage of every resource available to me at my campus. Although English has always been my best subject, I took my paper to the writing center for a second or pair of eyes.
It just so happened on that fateful day that they were short-staffed, and the director was my tutor. She read my paper, helped me with some grammatical and ideological issues, then asked if I was looking for a job. She told me to come back in December, when she was hiring, for an interview. I was flattered but had no intentions of actually returning other than to be tutored. I knew she had the wrong impression of me. This was the first moment impostor syndrome snaked its way through my veins.
When December arrived, I went about business as usual. I checked my email shortly before the new semester began in case any professors sent information about the course or a book list. Instead, I found an email from the director, asking me to come in for an interview. I was stunned; it had been months since that tutoring session, yet she kept my information and, for some reason, remembered me. She read me wrong. That was all I could think, but I went against my instincts and took the interview; accepted the position; realized my passion for teaching and, more so, writing; met my husband, a fellow tutor; worked inexhaustibly; achieved my 4.0; and began my career in teaching.
Looking back on that time period in my life frightens me. If it weren’t for that person who saw something in me that I did not see for myself, my life would not be in any way similar to what it is today; imposter syndrome would have won. I would not have contacted her for that interview. I would not have learned how much I love to teach. I would not have met my husband or my closest friends. I would not have fine-tuned my writing craft. I have no idea who or where I would be right now.
I reflect on this every so often when considering the vision for my life. Even after a career and life-defining breakthrough, imposter syndrome is still something from which I suffer. Only now, I don’t have someone holding out a mirror in which I can look at myself; it’s the opposite. I’m a face in this world among other, more talented faces. I’m a mind among other, more intelligent minds. I’m a body among other, more motivated bodies.
I didn’t get into grad school last year. I worked painstakingly all summer – I studied for the GRE. I wrote a writing sample. I collected letters of recommendation. My sight was set on the prize: a Master’s in Fine Arts, my pathway to writing a book. I submitted my application and waited. The day when I got the mail, I eagerly ripped at the envelope, only to have the wall of excitement come crumbling down on top of me. I cried, laid in the fetal position, and felt the weight of imposter syndrome, which I have shouldered each day this year. I wore it when I received the email clarifying why I hadn’t been accepted moments before teaching my first creative writing class. I wore it as I taught my advanced students each day. The snake coiled around my wrists, preventing me from writing. I read myself wrong. I felt like that young student again.
I felt myself slipping into a depression, dragging down my motivation and self-worth.
Until recently – when my husband bought me a lap top. He said, “I’m only buying this if you promise me to write.” He pointed to my head, then my heart. “If this can fix what is in here – and here, it’s worth every penny.”
And so I write, and write, and write, severing the head of imposter syndrome and, with each keystroke, feel the fog lifting, thoughts emanating once more. I’ve had a friend from the world of academia appreciate my initiative and help me workshop an article to publish. I’m researching, and I’m writing. I wake, and I write. I think about what to write throughout the day. In the evening, I research, then write. I’m not sure if I’m going to reapply for school, but I’m still writing. I’ve placed less importance on having a Master’s degree to be a writer.
I went to a bookstore yesterday and, for the first time, felt encouraged. I walked aisle after aisle, gazing at each book after book, author after author. Some I know; most I do not. I realized it can happen for me, too. All I have to do is be that person for myself. I must keep writing – be a writer. This must be the time of my life I reflect back on in the future that frightens me when I imagine if things had gone differently, if I hadn’t defeated self-doubt.
Home from the bookstore, I began reading Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, and his introduction was serendipitous:
“My name is J.D. Vance, and I think I should start with a confession: I find the existence of the book you hold in your hands somewhat absurd. It says right there on the cover that it’s a memoir, but I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve accomplished nothing great in my life, certainly nothing that would justify a complete stranger paying money to read about.”
Right there in the first few sentences of his book: imposter syndrome, yet that doesn’t stop him. He is, admittedly, not important, but has a story to tell all the same, a lens into a world that can help others better understand some facet of the world we are all trying to make sense of.
Everyone has a story to tell, but not everyone finds their voice.
Allen Ginsberg once said, “to gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard.”
Here I am – hear my thoughts, my ideas, my voice, my consciousness.