“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, smarter than you think, and loved more than you know.”
I stare at the image of the silver key chain in my Amazon shopping cart and hit purchase, sending it as part of a Valentine’s care package to my daughter, a sophomore in college. I don’t know what magical powers I think this key chain has but I hope that it, along with the ridiculous stuffed bear and Valentine’s candy I included, would help her through the vicious loop of self-doubt and anxiety currently plaguing her.
But while key chains and candy are nice, I know that they are, at best, band aids for what she is currently struggling with — a raging case of “Imposter Syndrome,” – the belief that you can’t possibly be good enough or smart enough or talented enough to have gotten the job, the grade, the part, etc., and that you are going to be found out any second now.
I’d suspected that Imposter Syndrome had been rearing its ugly head a few months earlier when her semester grades came in and she had earned three As and an A- in some seriously challenging classes.
Her response? “I think I must have just taken really easy classes.”
I had stared at her in disbelief. “What? Those classes were not easy. Why would you say that?” I asked her what her reaction would be if she had gotten Cs in her classes and she replied that she’d think she wasn’t smart enough for them that they were too hard.
“So why is it so easy to believe you’re not smart enough for something but impossible to believe you are smart enough?”
A shrug was her only reply.
Second semester brought her first foray into the college honors program, to which she had been accepted after a rigorous application and interview process. And right on cue the Imposter Syndrome struck again as I received regular calls – sometimes tearful – about how she clearly wasn’t as smart as the other students in her honors seminar.
Initially I was ready with my stock answer — that when you are around people who are smarter or more talented than you are, it can make you work harder and grow in ways you never imagined. That pushing herself outside her comfort zone and being challenged in this way was good for her.
But as I marinated on my response, I realized that I myself was so deeply entrenched in Imposter Syndrome, and so conditioned to downplay my own talents and abilities that I couldn’t even come up with a way to help her that didn’t reinforce her belief that yes, everyone was smarter than she. Why was that our default setting?
This caused me some uncomfortable moments addressing my own long history with Imposter Syndrome. The times I had brushed aside a compliment about my acting because I didn’t think I was a ‘real actor.’ The times I had sat at my desk thinking “today is the day they’re going to find out I have no idea what I’m doing.”
The times I had hastened to add “but I’m not a real writer” when someone commented on my work. Why, just this week upon being invited to join a Facebook group of writers and bloggers my reaction was “Me? Really? Why?” I realized that I’d been modeling this behavior for my daughter for nearly twenty years, the result being I had a child who not only looked like me, talked like me and had a sense of humor like mine, but who also fell prey to the same pitfalls that I did. Ouch.
Now, of course I’m proud of my daughter. I am 100% guilty of over-boasting about her accomplishments. We definitely have that “you and me against the world’ dynamic going on and when she’s struggling I want to help her, especially when it’s this particular devil. But that desire battles with the very real knowledge that she has to find her way through these things herself if she’s going to ever get over it.
So, I handled it the way we handle everything in my family – with food.
I took a day off, drove to campus and took her out for a late breakfast. Over egg sandwiches and muffins, I listened while she talked of other students in her honors seminar who were so smart it was intimidating, about being the lone Theater Major among Poli-Sci and History majors who seemed much more able to grasp the subject matter.
Finally, I gently said
You don’t have to be those kids, you just have to be you. Don’t try to read the texts through a lens you don’t have – read them through the lens you know. You’re in this program because you earned your spot and because they wanted the voice that you provide as a Theater Major. Use that voice. And believe in your abilities.
I returned her to campus and, after six or seven good-bye hugs, made my way the 70 miles homeward hoping I had helped.
Imposter Syndrome is anything but rare.
Ask any of your (usually female) colleagues if they suffer from it and chances are every one of them will raise their hand. Generations of downplaying our intelligence, stepping aside, and dismissing our talents (because to do otherwise would seem boastful) has landed us here and now our daughters grapple with the same thing. Maybe that’s why I brag about her so much, to show her that she has earned everything she’s achieved, and in so doing, has also earned the right to work hard to achieve even more.
So now I’m pledging to try to lead by example and to strike phrases like “I’m not a real writer” from my vocabulary. It’s time we owned our smarts and our talents and believed that our accomplishments are anything but accidental.
In the meantime, maybe I’ll get one of those key chains for myself, too.