I have been haunted by my overly integrated superego for years, listening to it tell me that I am actually a failure. Only in college did it start to become crippling. This is around the first time I experienced a major depressive episode.
I remember the first time it became a legitimate problem. I had failed to turn in an assignment on time in a journalism class — I don’t really remember the reason — and so I decided that I deserved to be found out for the lazy, loafing, good for nothing, failure that I truly was and that I should be punished. Since the paper was already late, I decided that I did not deserve the redemption of an extension of the deadline. I decided not to turn in the paper and to stop going to class. I decided that I deserved to fail.
And then I did.
I withdrew after the withdrawal deadline and received what was essentially an F in the class. Through a lot of coaxing from my honors program director, I signed up to take the course over and this time did the work and got an A. I was such a “failure” in college that I graduated magna cum laude even with an F bringing down my GPA.
In hindsight — and probably to outsiders — this sounds ludicrous. That is, unless you know exactly what I’m talking about.
If We Were Talking About Anyone Else…
If a friend recounted his story to me I would be quick to reassure her. Tell her that the evidence clearly shows that she’s no failure. Not that failing or making mistakes makes you a failure anyway. But we’re talking about ourselves. Somehow it’s harder to extend the same mercy.
In Lean In Sheryl Sandberg talks about struggling with this feeling from early on and noting its prevalence among her female peers. In her experience, and in research by Dr. Valerie Young, it appears that a root cause of this is one’s internal dialogue and explanatory style. Dr. Young says that it goes beyond the occasional lack of self-confidence.
It is a chronic lack of self-confidence coupled with shame about poor performance and a sense that all success is because of “some slight of hand or that you are fooling others.”
Negative Self-Talk Is Learned Behavior
I think back to my upbringing. I was raised by a mother who suffered from a chronic physical illness that often completely disabled her and who struggled throughout her life with depression. I remember the first time my mother became disabled.
I was about 7 and I “knew” that it was my fault that she was sick for telling her something that she found upsetting. Her illness was triggered by stress after all.
Throughout my life, I would continue to take responsibility for her illness or her bad mood and then later I’d take responsibility for the binges of my addict step-father because of my teenage rebellion. It was all because I was bad and wasn’t well-behaved.
When It’s Bad It’s Your Fault, When It’s Good It’s Dumb Luck
A telltale explanatory style of those struggling with Impostor Syndrome is the way that they explain things that go wrong. In her research, Dr. Young found that those without the so-called syndrome often explain things that have gone wrong by referring to external factors, whereas those with it often look within themselves and what they see is inadequacy, which is the root cause of bad outcomes.
If you think about it, if the repetition compulsion (coined by Freud) is to be credited, it makes about as much sense for me to seek punishment when I feel I have been “bad” as it does that someone might marry a man just like her father. Every time I “misbehaved” by making even a simple mistake was evidence that I was inherently bad. Unworthy. The world needed to see this. They needed to see that I was a complete fraud and I needed to do the “good deed” of exposing myself to them.
So I set about self-sabotaging.
But there is another side to this internal dialogue. When things go RIGHT, those without Impostor Syndrome often use internal factors to explain outcomes, while those with it will say that it’s because they had supportive peers, or a mentor who went to bat for them, or God was on their side or whatever.
So basically, if you are caught in the cycle of Impostor Syndrome, when it’s right it’s luck and external; when it’s wrong, it’s all because of you.
Listening To and Rewriting The Script Is Key
I have been trying to learn to listen to my internal dialogue. I hear myself when new opportunities come up. It says that they are not going to work out. Not only are they not going to work, but they are going to be epic, public failures and I need to get out in front of them. Since I’m inevitably going to fail, I ought to just get it over with, be proactive.
I assume my recommenders are going to say terrible things about me in a job search, my conflict checks will never clear, a firm that made me a job offer will realize what a failure I am.
My law school is going to call me and ask for my diploma back.
No one is going to like me if I am just myself. No one is going to love me when they see how complex and messed up I am.
So I should just not apply. I should not try to make friends. I should not date. I should push people away.
Sometimes, I experiment with blaming external factors when things go wrong. When I failed to meet my billable hours I tried to tell the firm that it was because I had been asked to juggle 75 different small matters in 6 months for about 35 different clients working under 8 different partners in 5 different niche fields of law and didn’t have the energy to juggle more.
They didn’t believe me and this, of course, made me feel even worse. Now I was blaming others instead of taking personal responsibility. What a terrible person I am!
Impostor Syndrome Can Be A Crippling Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
I sometimes say that I made a horrible mistake going to law school and that I hate the law. I say that I hated law school by the end of orientation. Now it’s certainly possible that just isn’t a good fit. But isn’t it also possible, that I hated it because of my Impostor Syndrome, which went into overdrive once I was admitted to one of the best law schools in the country?
Could that be what almost motivated me not to go to the best law school I got into?
What has motivated me to leave Facebook and Twitter?
What has motivated me to leave the big city I spent my teen and early adult years in to move to a secondary market and a MIDlaw firm rather than BIGlaw? To believe that I will never succeed as a lawyer, a writer or a professor? To historically date men who were emotionally unavailable?
Could it be because the one thing I just couldn’t stand was to put myself on the line and for someone to finally find me out?
If You ARE An Impostor, You Shouldn’t Trust Your Own Self-Assessment
People are constantly telling me that I don’t give myself enough credit. I’m constantly telling those people that they just don’t understand what it’s like in my head. That they don’t know what a failure I really am. How selfish, dishonest, cynical, doubtful, hateful and generally bad I really am.
Here’s a question though.
If I’m such a bad person and a failure, why is it that I don’t believe anyone else’s assessment of me, but instead, only believe my own? Isn’t that inconsistent?
Either I am competent and I know what I’m talking about or I’m exactly what I say and therefore unqualified to judge, haha. It’s a circle. Of the downward spiraling variety.
Maybe, just maybe, I’m not an impostor. Maybe there are just some things that I’m not so good at — like seeing myself completely. Maybe I should take someone else at their word when they say they see something beautiful.