I have spent a lifetime chasing wins. Get the A, accomplish every goal I’ve ever had on time (if not earlier), impress everyone always—and do it all without any help. Some would call that being motivated, and to an extent, they’re right. I’m certainly motivated… by a deep, crushing fear of being found out and losing everything.
According to experts, there are five subcategories to impostor syndrome; is anyone surprised that I’m all five rolled into one? (Overachieving even in my mental illness. Go me!) The thing about this particular brand of anxiety is that it all ties back to two main factors: success and self-worth.
Impostor syndrome tells you that your entire existence is a well-crafted lie, and any good thing you get isn’t deserved because you tricked people into giving it to you—you didn’t earn it, like everyone else.
It started innocently enough in elementary school, after I was celebrated for my advanced reading skills. I noticed all the praise I got from teachers and my parents—and sometimes other people’s parents—because of my good grades and general intelligence. “OK,” I thought. “This feels nice. How can I keep it going?” The answer was simple: Keep getting good grades. Stay above my classmates when it comes to reading and writing abilities.
And with that, I sealed my fate. Because that is when perfectionism got introduced into my life.
And here’s the dirty little secret about perfectionism—it eventually robs you of your sanity.
The older I got, the more complex my emotions and motivations became. I consistently got good grades, but I convinced myself that Bs were garbage. My parents had stopped noticing my As, but it seemed like anything below that caused them to sound the alarm. This hot/cold reaction to my grades was frustrating as fuck, so even as I actively chased these high scores, I started downplaying them. Another A? Who cares; school is a joke because you’re just expected to regurgitate facts and equations, and that’s not real intelligence.
But wait. If that wasn’t real intelligence… did that mean I wasn’t actually smart? And there it was—impostor syndrome had another foothold. Of course I wasn’t smart! I was just parroting my textbooks. Only prodigies are smart because they naturally know and understand things. If I didn’t immediately take to something, then obviously I wasn’t smart, and therefore was a waste of space.
I abandoned the outgoing personality I’d had as a child, replaced it with a fear of rejection that grew exponentially every day. Things I’d done before with no problem, like audition for honor choir in middle school—and sure, I needed my mom in the room with me, and my voice cracked, but I still did it and fucking nailed it—became laughable. You couldn’t convince me to do anything that required subjective approval, and I wasn’t about try anything new if there was even a ghost’s whisper of a chance that I could fail at it.
Sometimes, this led to a weirdly chill reaction to failing. I knew in my heart that I was a failure, after all, so when faced with a situation that proved me right, I’d be happy. “See,” I’d say. “I told you!” I once made a bet with a friend that I would get a barely passing grade on a test in our music history class, while she swore up and down that I’d get my usual A. I won, and I gloated when she bought me my “victory” burrito.
But, these instances were few and far between. Because of my general perfectionist tendencies, when I inevitably stumbled, I usually just fell apart. “See,” I’d say to myself, sobbing, “I knew I was trash this entire time.”
These feelings remain with me to this day, which is a bummer because I really thought I’d have my life figured out by the time I turned 25. (Yet another way that I’m a failure, I guess!)
I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve frustrated my husband by saying my accomplishments aren’t real. I’m not a good singer; I can just mimic people’s pitch. I don’t know how to cook; I’m just good at following recipes. Yeah, I’ve been published, but obviously the people who chose my piece have been exposed to a gas leak! Then he gets mad because I let this logic spill over into his opinion of me—Lawrence, you can’t possibly be objective about me! Much like Ursula, I tricked you into marrying me with the sound of my voice, so you’re already compromised!
It’s hard to explain to the people you love that you’re pretty sure their entire idea of you is fabricated, and that one day they’ll wake up and want to leave. It’s even harder to explain that this thought makes me feel like I should never try to improve my opinion of myself—everyone is used to me being this way, and if I change, they might leave!
Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I’ve spent my life avoiding losses. If I’m perceived as a winner, people will want to be around me. But the problem with being me is that my definition of “winning” is a moving target, and I’m very worried that, one day, I’m going to run out of ammo before I hit it.