I have a theory about the way the world works: we all experience some form of imposter syndrome at some point during our lives. That is, there comes a time when each of us questions our own legitimacy, owing to an overwhelming perception of ourselves as fraudulent or less than capable in the face of increasing expectations and a higher level of accountability. Imposter syndrome is often associated with the experiences of young adults who, emerging from the carefully controlled confines of academia, begin to question their own skills and judgment in the real world. I would argue, however, that life finds each of us in this uncomfortable position at least once, and it is usually time-dependent and contextual. For instance, friends who have recently become parents tell me that all the book-reading, babysitting, and planning in the world could not adequately have prepared them for this latest leg of their journey. Some of them even admitted to feeling an overwhelming sense of fraudulence (“I’m not really an adult”) or not being capable of “parenting properly” despite their extensive preparation.
Here’s an example from my own experience. While earning my doctoral degree, I had an overwhelming sense of fraudulence, as if the program administrators hadn’t yet figured out that I just didn’t belong. At some point, they granted me my Ph.D., though it took me a while to realize I deserved it. Even after six years of successful training and a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears, sometimes I feel doubt has become my permanent residence in my new academic position. Who am I to speak up, to try to contribute to a project or venture when everyone else has so much more experience? I’m just not “there yet,” right? I’d better keep my mouth shut!
And the weird thing is, these feelings are contextual. I have no problem speaking my mind or employing my considerable skills in “real life.” It’s only in the vocational arena that I feel so woefully unequipped and inadequate.
This sense of inferiority—in my experience, that’s the exact essence of it—is associated with anxiety, self-criticism, and feelings of depression. Moreover, self-suppression impedes our own growth and actualization, and it may even hurt our career because, when we tell people that we are a certain way (meek and unequipped), over time they begin to believe us.
My theory, however, is that we each are granted a moment that signifies we have arrived, that some notable milestone has been reached and our journey is valid, even if it is still burgeoning. In this moment, we emit a fledgling roar as a slow pearl of realization settles in our gut: we are legitimate. We are the real thing. We are intelligent, insightful, and skilled. We matter.
My moment was simplistic, and it came one sunny afternoon when my precocious three-year-old niece referred to me by my title.
“Who said you could have the last Oreo cookie?” my mother had asked her, furrowing her brow because she had earlier imposed a restriction on sugary indulgences for the day.
“The doctor did,” Kaydence responded matter-of-factly, not even cracking a grin as she enjoyed the treat I had surreptitiously slid to her.
My heart leapt at that little spark of recognition. Somehow, hearing that I am “the doctor” from my niece was more meaningful and validating to me than hearing it from my colleagues. After all, when a kid declares you official, you’re official. Did her one casual reference resolve my work-related feelings of inferiority and fraudulence? No, of course not. But it let me know that what I had achieved in my doctoral program was real and that I have a shiny, new, legitimate title now. That gave me the courage to keep trying. Something inside me roared.
Earning a Ph.D. is difficult. With mountains of readings, papers, statistical code, and comprehensive exams—and that doesn’t even include your life-encompassing dissertation—it can force even the strongest person to her knees. I’ve been told, though, that earning it from the second highest-ranked institution in the United States while suffering from type I bipolar disorder is damned near impossible. I did it, though. How I did it is beyond me. I wish I could say I adroitly channeled my inner badass into an almost military command of the program, all while wearing Louboutins and Chanel lipstick in Star Red. Honestly, though, I just dragged myself by my sweaty collar over each hurdle, bloodied and battered by the journey but fortified by my family’s love and a stubborn sense of determination. Okay, so there might have been some Chanel lipstick, too. All things are possible with Chanel lipstick.
We all have that sense of determination stirring inside us. Life challenges us to tap into it with conviction and take it out for a spin.
Rather than an exercise in frustration dominated by the Imposter, let’s allow life to be about recovering our voices, finding our truths, digging deep within ourselves, and transcending our challenges. It should be about living out loud, being real, and opening ourselves to experiencing the universe around us.
Life is about finding the courage to roar.