When I was in college I was given an editorial by Lynne Tempest called ‘A Pinch of Reality’ that I’ve hung onto all these years (it was originally posted in Network magazine in 1991 and I have the pink handout I got probably 12 years ago in college! I told you I was a pack rat!). It has always wrung true to me and I was thinking about it this weekend.
The main point of the piece is that many women feel they are ‘imposters’ in their own lives. Here’s some examples she gives:
‘”I’m not really a composer but for my final project I did compose just a couple of little pieces” said a classmate recently in a course on women composers. After several apologies and self-effacing gestures, she sat down at the piano and played 3 magnificent compositions.’
‘”It’s just a simple pet project. Nothing really” said another classmate, as he pulled from a plastic bag an exquisite front panel for an Amish quilt she recreated.’
“‘After studying several months in preparation for the LSAT, and after having taken a handful of difficult classes to boost an already high GPA, a close friend was recently surprised to have been accepted into a prestigious law school. ‘I just can’t believe they accepted me'”
Tempest then goes on to describe what she calls ‘Imposter Syndrome’. She describes it in her own life as an editor “What if I can’t do it? It’s just a matter of time before they discover I really don’t know what I’m doing’. These were common refrains played over in my mind during my first months as editor. It didn’t’ seem to matter that I had been intimately involved in the production of network for 6 years. I knew it was just a matter of time before they found me out. I was scared. I felt alone”
“Why is it so hard for women to accept their own genius? What are we afraid of? And what does it mean when we don’t allow ourselves to relish in a job well done? By denying our own capabilities, we prevent ourselves from fully enjoying what we’ve worked so hard to achieve. ”
Isn’t it the truth? I was thinking about that this week, because literally every time I swim or box or lift a lot of weights, whatever, I’m shocked at my own accomplishments. Shocked is not too strong a word. It always surprises me. Every time I box I think ‘how did I do that?’ I watch that video of me boxing and there is a side of me that thinks ‘ah, I was just lucky’. This after doing it for months and months. It doesn’t seem like it could really be me? Every time I swim I look back at the lake and think ‘how did I do that’?
On one hand the imposter syndrome is a good thing because I get the thrill of surprise every time I achieve something but it can cause a lot of anxiety too. There is never confidence I can really do it. I am often plagued by the ‘what if’s’ and get anxiety. What if I wrote a book and someone hated me? What if I got half way through my swim and had to stop? What if I tried really hard at a relationship and was rejected? It seems almost easier to expect failure and be pleasantly surprised with success? but that doesn’t seem right either? but the times in my life when I’ve assumed things were going well, accepted success as a given have also been a bit of a nightmare. Hmmm… (You see why I deal with anxiety!). Maybe all of us women are just afraid of being dumped, being rejected because let’s be honest that sucks! So its easier to just fake it.
And it’s not just with sports. I remember getting that same feeling every time I got a good grade on a class or a paper. Thinking ‘wow I can’t believe I did that…’. Who knew I was smart? When I got my MBA everyone would talk about how I was one of the smartest people in the class but I never really believed it. I remember one person saying that Jodi and I were the ‘dream team’. I wish! (see…just did it)
I say this and I actually think I have a pretty healthy self-esteem. I’m comfortable with my body, I’m willing to compliment myself and I get excited about my life but still there is always that voice protecting myself. At least I never stop trying things but I can’t completely stop that voice in my head telling me that I’m an imposter like Tempest says. I’m not really a swimmer just someone with a cap and goggles making a show about it.
Tempest seems to think this is a problem only faced by women. What do you think? Men, out there- do you feel like imposters in your life? I know its not much of a problem for my Dad. He walks into a room expecting to be pretty darn good at everything he tries. He’s the most confident person I know.
The funny thing is that I don’t see anyone else in this way? I don’t think others are secretly not living up to their potential or not good enough. I think everyone else is awesome and inspiring.
Perhaps we do this to protect ourselves from criticism? We’d rather say the criticisms in our head first so that if the world let’s it out it’s not as crushing. Perhaps some of us felt over-criticized as a child and developed the technique as a coping mechanism?
I know for me I was plagued with a hard-edged, critical choir teacher in high school and I still definitely feel like an imposter in any kind of performance. I remember performing On My Own to a girl who had played Eponine on Broadway and she was so complimentary. She even said ‘I think that song is perfect for your voice’. While I was flattered there was a side of me that wanted to shrug it off like I was a singing imposter and she’d soon learn I’m not very good. Even someone of that caliber didn’t quite convince me. It excited me but didn’t quite convince me. I still LOVE singing every chance I get but don’t really feel great at it. Does that make sense? Can you relate to that in your life?
I mean there are some things I know I’m not good at like dancing. I suck at dancing. There is no imposter pretense going on there. For some reason I have an easier acknowledging the things I suck at then the things I’m good at. My friends gush and pay me all kinds of compliments and I think ‘oh, they’re just being nice’. And I say that having a pretty healthy self esteem!
I think the hard part is women don’t want to be too cocky or conceited but there has to be a balanced level of humility and pride? Right? What is the solution?
Maybe part of it is there is always someone else to compare to- sometimes even our former selves? We can beat ourselves up over our bodies, athletic abilities whatever that we used to have instead of just saying ‘wow, I did pretty good for a 30+ amateur swimmer’.
What do you think? Do you find yourself feeling like an imposter in your life and apologizing for your accomplishments? How can we stop this?
Tempest says, “This is where sisterhood comes in. Let’s make a vow to one another. Next time you hear a statement like ‘I can’t believe they accepted me’ or ‘It’s nothing really’, step forward and pinch that woman- a simple reminder she can’t deny her strengths. Let her know she’s real.”
Sounds like a good vow to me. I’m in and will be pinching myself a lot! What about you? How can we stop this imposteritis among us?