Have you heard about “imposter syndrome?” If not, a quick google will show you. It’s essentially a fear that though you are accomplished or successful or admired, you are somehow a fraud and don’t deserve it. It’s especially common among high-achieving women, and I’ve read a good bit of commentary about it online in recent months. The term was first coined by two researchers who noted that women were often under the impression that they were not as intelligent or deserving as their position would suggest and they had somehow been over-evaluated by others.
I do this – as I think a lot of us do. I do it at work or when I am describing my job to someone else. I usually say I am an English teacher or “I teach English classes” at a nearby university. I hesitate to say “College Professor” as a title to someone in conversation. Feeling like an imposter or overblown somehow. I can remember being in graduate school at an excellent university with some challenging classes, and I’d think I was somehow an imposter. Like a “how did I get here?” feeling. Even in the days of teaching high school, I’d wonder if I was really all that great of a teacher. Do I really deserve the Honors classes? Am I actually succeeding in teaching them something? As a writer, I do this as well. I’ll hesitate to post something because I feel like it is boring or disorganized and difficult to follow, but then I’ll receive a kind email or comment praising that particular essay.
I’ve had so many outside confirmations that I am smart and capable and the real deal. Solid student evaluations. Recognition and compliments from bosses I see as far superior to me in intellect. I can remember when a particularly scary graduate school professor (He left one girl crying in the midst of her class presentation!) emailed me to ask if he could keep a copy of my essay as a sample for others who are lost or less inclined to write analytically. It was a compliment, yes. But I remember it was also a little confusing for me. Like he has to be kidding, right? It was just my essay; I’m sure there are better ones out there.
I’m not certain what it is about women that makes us do this. We are socialized in a million ways to always give someone else the credit for our accomplishments. We are made to think from a very young age that charm and looks are our currency, and I think it can make a lasting impact. We neglect to see what is in front of us and inside of us when everyone else sees it so clearly. I find I do this not only with professional accomplishments but with my personal traits as well.
I commented on this phenomenon a little when I wrote about the manifestation workshop I attended a few weeks ago — how we tend to focus on that one person out of 100 who doesn’t like us. It sucks so much life out of you.
On the list of a million other things I’ve learned in this season of my life is this: When someone tells you something about yourself that you don’t recognize, listen hard. Internalize it. And especially when more than one person says it and you hear that sentiment repeated, know that is is real. It is true. You are not an imposter or lacking in substance. Their reactions are valid and warranted. This is HARD for us as women. Admitting our faults? That’s easy. Taking credit for our positive traits? Not so much.
I’m open and honest in this space, but I am more tight-lipped on most social networks. Here you only visit if you want to and if you are interested in my life’s growth or the conversations happening in this space, but I feel like Facebook or Instagram followers are sometimes more surface level. I’m not going to bombard you with personal musings as you just want to scroll through cute kid pictures.
But this week, I was feeling especially challenged, and I opened up more than usual, and like always, people respond to honesty and vulnerability. (Another lesson that it has taken me far too long to learn.) As some heartfelt comments lifted my spirits so much, I started to think about all the other moments this has happened in my past year. It prompted me to go back and re-read emails and messages that pulled me through some very dark moments, and before long I found myself copying and pasting countless affirmations onto one document that I am printing and placing in my bedside drawer.
Some of these comments are long-lost friends from ages ago whom I hardly speak to much anymore as time and distance have separated us. The way you are handling this journey, in all of its weak and shaken moments, is so inspiring to me as a mother and a friend. You are stronger than you know. Or another old friend… I respect you so much for the way you’ve told your story. You’ve done so without painting her as a slut, him as a villain, or yourself as a victim. Your softness and wisdom comes through so honestly. As your sister from what seems like a lifetime ago, it is comforting to feel a feminist kinship with you from afar. Your children are so fortunate to have you shaping their lives. I admire your sincerity and grace.
Or for all of us, there are people we barely cross paths with, yet we make impacts we are not aware of. From the day I met you. I’ve always known that you were someone special and amazing, and it is no surprise to me that you have remained classy throughout this entire awful ordeal. I know that you are showing your children how to handle things with grace and dignity. — I don’t have anything worthy to say about how inspiring you are. The word “inspiring” alone doesn’t do justice to the way I actually see you through the little glimpses into the window of your soul that your writing reveals — I don’t know your struggles down to the details, Katie, but you’ve got grace and strength girl!! And you’re one hell of a writer.
I’ve got old college acquaintances and friends — I wanted to reach out and tell you that I think you are an incredible, fabulous, super smart, kind and graceful person. — Katie, you continue to amaze me in the best ways. Stay strong –– I know that real love is coming for you someday. So few people have the capacity for that kind of love (or friendship). But you certainly do, and I believe God/the universe wouldn’t prepare your heart like this and not answer. — Thank you for your willingness to express your pain and vulnerability to the world. Please know that you’ve helped other people by sharing your own journey. While our stories are different, I have found so much comfort in knowing that I’m not alone in many respects. Reading your piece has helped me understand so much about my value as a person and the beautiful self-awareness which often accompanies pain and growth. Thank you… — Darling, you are a BEAST….and I mean that in the best way possible. Bravo, Lady. So proud of you. Stand tall. I can feel your strength from 3000 miles away.
And even old grad school classmates from a decade ago who have reached out. You are smart and kind and strong. One thing that particularly sticks out about you is that you always approached life so gracefully. I’m sure this situation will be no different. — I’ve lived long enough to recognize rare beauty in the world. You are one of the rare and beautiful people we get lucky enough to meet in life. — You are one of the ones who thrives and doesn’t just survive. I was struck with how much growth and wisdom you’ve accumulated. … You will live a fuller and richer life because of it. You already are, dear. Breaking out of the molds others have made for us or the narrow minds of loved ones we once trusted is extraordinarily painful – and so necessary in order to become your best self. You have been saved. Keep going.
I’ve heard from former students I taught when they were so young, and now I see them as adults nurturing me with their words in the same way I nurtured their growth almost a decade ago. You’re a rock star and inspire me so much – I admire your positive outlook through the tough times. Thanks for being a wonderful mentor over the years, even if the last have been virtually. Norah and Jude are so lucky to have you as their mom! — You are an incredible human being, role model, mother, and friend! I have always admired you and know that there is no insurmountable task that can stand in your way of what you dream not only for yourself but also for your children. — You’ve always been such a role model for me and glad to say you still are.
And even distant family states away whom I never see anymore, but offer kind words and prayers and thoughts — I know that it’s been years since we’ve seen each other or even spoken, but I’ve always thought you displayed such strength and grace. Sometimes those two qualities are most obvious when we feel our weakest. I hope you can continue to see in yourself what so many other see as you begin a new path.
That last comment hits the nail on the head, doesn’t it? It’s so hard to see in ourselves what others see when they look at us.
And this is not an exercise in conceit or Katie-praise. Here’s the thing: if you are reading this right now, you’ve heard these affirmations, too. (Yes, you! I’m talking to you.) Somewhere, at some point, you’ve heard someone echo what is the very best about who you are. And though we have a hard time internalizing all that we are, I’m realizing that this many people cannot be lying to me or putting themselves out there on a limb after years of no contact to say something that is inherently untrue. These people span two decades of my life and do not even know one another. This many people cannot be wrong about who I am.
Say it with me friends. All of us: I have value. I’m strong. I’m capable. I’m loving. I am enough.
And this honesty and accountability? It works both ways. If I am doing something unkind or seeing life through some other distorted lens and a friend calls that to my view, I need to pay attention. If I’m in a relationship or engaged in habits that don’t serve me and a friend brings that to light, I need to listen hard. Let’s stop looking at ourselves through some weird distorted view and see our lives for what they really are in the faces of those who know us.
Your homework this weekend if you are reading this: dig up those comments and affirmations you’ve buried or neglected to give yourself credit for. Emails or text messages or Facebook comments or conversations in your memory. I’m not talking about someone’s compliment that you looked cute or baked a pretty cake. But the real stuff. Those moments of connection when someone has assured you that they see the very best parts of you. Dig that up, dust it off, and when you see a common thread, let me explain something to you. It is real. It is you. This is who you really are. Write those down. Hide them somewhere. And when you feel like you aren’t quite sure where you are headed or how to move on, take that paper out and read every single word. That is who you are.
And the best part of all of this is that the good traits just keep growing. When people tell you that you are strong? You just grow stronger. When people tell you they appreciate your honesty? You grow more honest and more accountable. And when people tell you that you’re loved? That one is the very best. You grow in every way. Bolder and bigger and more loving than the day before.