Imposter Syndrome And Outside Perspectives Ruled My Life
Imposter syndrome is something prevalent to most high achievers. A recent study estimated that more than 80% of adults experience imposter syndrome at multiple times in their lives. In fact, the more ambitious you are, the more prevalent it is. Many high achievers like Paul McCartney, Viola Davis, and former First Lady Michelle Obama have spoken about dealing with imposter syndrome. In my life, this phenomena has morphed over time to being more than just a feeling of being a fraud but living a life based on other peoples’ characterization of me.
Oftentimes, people tend to have the wrong impression of me. I found myself restricted and pressured into making decisions based on how others perceive me. I would not have otherwise made these decisions if it were not for their judgment.
Growing up, I felt most folks valued me only based on my physical qualities. That lended itself to my own understanding of self worth. I only saw value in my athletic abilities and never intelligence (in the traditional sense). It is not a fair assessment of myself. I have grown up feeling like a meathead — but now I know there is so much more value in my mind and the power of my perspective.
When puberty hit, I became a 6’ 1”, 215 pound man. This growth spurt brought with it attention from coaches and athletic peers to sign me up for everything. Yes, in high school, I was the kid that played every sport; in the fall, I played football, in the winter wrestling and in the spring lacrosse. In high school, I would become captain of all these teams and win MVP multiple times. However, what I was doing and what I truly wanted to do were in conflict with one another. I remember my football coach and the theater director would be in conflict with each other because I had to split my passion for theater and athleticism. My adolescence was spent trying to be more and be seen as more than an athlete. I remember in high school, a lot of teachers and counselors would only associate my achievements to athletics but not to my poetry and writing accomplishments or my intelligence. To everyone, it seemed I was just a body, something to look at, something to put to work and that was the max of my capabilities.
This made me feel insecure about my intelligence, a lack of confidence about who I was and wanted to be. It is this lack of confidence and fear that drove me to community college instead of pursuing the collegiate sports opportunities I received. These insecurities solidified the persuasion of my immigrant family wishes that I needed to be in the medical field and become a nurse. If I was a nurse or if I was someone in the medical field, I felt I would be important and smart, so I dreamt of becoming a nursing anesthetist.
Yet no matter how good my grades were, no matter how accomplished I became in writing in community college, winning scholarships and getting rated highly by professors, I still did not feel I was smart enough, at least compared to my friends.
These status symbols, I believe, imprison a lot of us into living lives we do not truly want.We instead have assigned ourselves a persona based on the life society thinks we ought to be living.
Being recognized only for my physical abilities is not specific to my experience in the United States. It was also a part of my experience growing up in Cameroon when I was always praised for my abilities to carry multiple jugs of water or multiple pots of food to deliver to my aunt’s restaurant. On Thursdays, when the government turned on the pumps for water, I felt obligated to get water for the entire community and not just my family. Realizing the strength I had, I would get water for the Aunties in the community. I did these tasks for altruistic reasons, however they resulted in me being reduced to only this type of work.
The feeling of just being physically appreciated would continue to manifest itself throughout my adulthood. As I progressed through different friend circles and environments, I felt insecure in speaking in group settings and that my opinion would be deemed “dumb” and it would be found out that I am not smart. Driven by this insecurity and anxiety, I became an avid reader and podcast consumer. I consumed a lot of random information from the intricacies that went into filming a movie/tv show to autobiographies about Lincoln, Stoic philosophy and learning the elvish language in J.R.R Tolkein novels. I felt I needed others to see me beyond my physique. I constantly searched for what I did not know, devouring all knowledge in my path and yet my insecurities did not go away. I would even pretend and lie to have done or read certain things because it made me fit in and I was perceived by others as intelligent — I was being a real imposter.
No matter how successful, no matter the achievement, the feeling of inadequacy remained. A feeling of unworthiness and anxiety of what is next became crippling.
How does one battle such an issue? In my case, I found that comparing myself to others induced my anxiety and lack of self confidence. Comparing ourselves to others and thinking we should be where they are in life or be as exceptional as them is only a recipe for disaster. I continue to learn that we are all on our own journey and have different gifts that make us shine. I have always been intelligent with a unique perspective and lens. I just did not know it. I let noise from others and their perspectives determine who I was.
We also live in an age where digital metrics have become a form of validation and measurement of worth. How many likes, retweets, views, saves or comments on your post determines its worth, not the quality of the content. I have bought into this system and no matter how much of a contrarian I try to make myself, I find myself still euphoric by these metrics when they are high and question my work when they are low. I ask myself why do shirtless Instagram reel videos of me get 25k views but my writings on the depth of myself and my understanding of society gets less than a quarter of that engagement? I know I shouldn’t tie my value to these metrics but it is difficult not to do that.
I have come to learn that caring less about what other people think of us and paying more attention to how we think of ourselves is important in battling imposter syndrome and self worth issues. We lose leverage in building ourselves when our definition of self and ideas of success are determined by external factors we cannot control rather than self satisfaction and alignment with who and what we believe is “good enough” for us. I’ve also learned it is easier said than done. I find myself questioning my posting decisions. Am I posting or publishing because it is what I want to do? Or am I only doing it because, like most of society, I am addicted to the dopamine release that comes from others liking, commenting or sharing our posts? I can’t seem to tell the difference these days.
We as a society have built and galvanized around certain status symbols that are supposedly a measure of success and signal to others a person’s value — what company you work for, how many followers you have on social media, what school you go to, your job title, what awards you have won. These status symbols, I believe, imprison a lot of us into living lives we do not truly want. We instead have assigned ourselves a persona based on the life society thinks we ought to be living. In a recent Mckinsey employee survey, 70% of respondents said their sense of purpose is largely defined by their work.
Like most Americans, I found myself reckoning with my life choices — brought on by the pandemic. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an average of 3.95M employees per month quit their job in 2021. It has become known as “the great resignation.” I think of it more as “the great reshuffle or rethink,”as many of us question and rethink the relationship of work in our lives and a need to live a more purpose driven life on our terms. I had put in the backdrop my love of storytelling because it was not financially sensible and did not fit the perspective many people had of me. With this reckoning, I reconnected with myself and pulled away the scales of what I thought was lucrative about my corporate job — reengaging with my passion and love for storytelling.
As part of this realignment to a lifestyle I want, I am learning our jobs do not signify or define our happiness, worthiness or purpose. Your job and many other factors society dangles in front of us as status symbols are meaningless if it does not fulfill you. 89% of respondents to the Mckinsey employee survey said they desired a sense of purpose at work.
Though reevaluation does come with a promise of happiness, I think I also fear the financial reckoning that comes with it. Taking a step back and restarting your life to be passion filled is not easy, it does come with an ever present worry of what it means living in a capitalistic driven construct — what happens when you go against society’s thinking?
My story is still developing and there is still much I need to grow into. I am learning from my past experiences and reshaping how others’ opinions impact my life and the definition of happiness, success and worthiness. The imposter phenomenon and external perspectives of myself has not only been negative. It also pushed me to be better and have an impeccable work ethic. The challenge I currently face is being in the present and understanding right now I am doing the best I can. Right now I am enough.