The Imposter Generation

About a month ago, I made the big move from my parents’ rent-free and air conditioned house in central New Jersey to New York, New York. I found a cute apartment uptown (way uptown…the subway has to come back above ground to make it to my stop) that checked all the boxes on my checklist, in both the realistic and unrealistic categories: great roommates, proximity to food and travel, an exposed brick wall and enough room for me to successfully work from home without getting cagey in the process. On top of that, I had a network of friends that lived close by–– only a matter of subway stops, that shaved a lot of time off all the weekends I’d been traveling into the city to spend with them anyway.

I don’t wear my rose-colored glasses for New York City. I think it’s a wonderful place to live and to grow and I appreciate the proximity to the arts and a healthy nightlife that it can provide me with. But by no means was I expecting to live the Sex And The City dream of high, expensive heels and impossibly handsome men that emerged from the subway grates just trying to woo me. At the risk of sounding like a tourist’s t-shirt: I love New York.

But it also has a tendency to be a smelly garbage island and I think we can all get on board with that. My expectations for the city itself were not set too high. It wasn’t long after moving, however, that I found out my expectations for myself might have been.

I had all these grand plans that so often come along with making a big life change. I was going to blog, and take pictures! I was going to dedicate myself to writing every day! I was going to work in a new cafe or hotel lobby every single day, to see new sights and meet new people! Obviously, I’m human and it didn’t pan out exactly that way. I did see some cool things. I did take some nice photos. I got the chance to experience things I otherwise would not have.

A year ago, I would have been satisfied with the life I had started to lead–– I love my job, I have an excellent support system, I can afford my rent and I’ve been going to the gym on a basis more regular than I could have imagined.

But I didn’t feel satisfied. I felt, somehow, like a fraud.

Imposter Syndrome, In A Nutshell

Imposter Syndrome, for those of you that aren’t aware, is basically a situation in which a person (in this case, the person being myself) begins to feel like an imposter or fraud. They begin to think that they have somehow duped the people around them ––their boss, their friends, their colleagues, etc.–– into believing that they are smarter, worthier or more impressive than they actually are. In the face of receiving a promotion, they feel like they haven’t actually deserved it. In response to praise, they feel like it has been wrongfully given.

The biggest fear in all of this? Being “found out” and exposed as the person who wasn’t all they were cracked up to be.

This is something I’ve dealt with in varying degrees for my entire life. In fact, it’s something I’m grappling with right at this moment. Twice now, I’ve deleted this blog post and had to begin again, among thoughts like “I don’t actually have Imposter’s Syndrome, I have no right to complain,” or “I’m wasting my own time and others’ by writing this, because nobody wants to hear from a middle-of-the-pack 20-something about this.”

I have swiped left on Tinder matches that I deem “too attractive” because I’m worried that we’ll meet and they’ll realize that I’m not as pretty as my pictures may have misled them to believe. I wake up sometimes at night paralyzed with a sudden fear of losing my job, on the off-chance that my boss one day decides that I don’t know what I’m talking about after all, and should never have been hired.

I have extremely high aspirations to one day move up the career ladder, but over time I’ve come to equate “putting in a good day of work just like everybody else” with “coasting”, and “breaking my back, inhaling coffee and getting four days worth of work done in one sitting” as “just starting to push myself to my potential”.

I’ve actually been writing less since I moved to New York, because being surrounded by all of this talent and creativity has helped me convince myself that my own work will never stack up to others — in short, I’m worried that people will find out that maybe, I’m not all I’m cracked up to be.

The Silent Pandemic

Through conversations with friends, the feeling hasn’t gone away entirely–– but it has been eased, somewhat, by the realization that most of them have also faced this to some degree. For a generation that has been told to “fake it until we make it” it can be hard to make ourselves realize that, somewhere along the way, we have actually made it and don’t have to feel like fakes anymore.

I am a hard-working young professional, doing well at the job I love, living in the city of my dreams and pursuing one of my long-time favorite hobbies, writing, in my spare time for fun. And yet, I inexplicably feel like a notebook-toting child who has somehow conned her way into a seat at the grownup’s table, just trying to play along before I get sent back to the playpen and admonished. Despite the years of hard work and perseverance that led me to my accomplishments, I feel like I’ve lucked into something that I haven’t earned–– and am terrified, with decreasing amounts of logic, that it will all disappear overnight.

I’ve never been someone who suffers from low self-esteem. Do I want to develop better work habits? You bet. Do I need to hit the gym a little more and drink more water? Absolutely. But I’ve never been as hard on myself as I have been in the last month–– when I actually started to achieve what I have always perceived as success and a desirable life.

It wasn’t until I was truly happy and settled and on my way up the ladder than I began to panic about whether or not I deserved to be there. It hit me the moment I left my comfort zone, the fear that I’d be knocked suddenly back into it. Maybe it comes from feeling like I finally have footing and the rug could be pulled out from under my feet. Maybe it comes from comparing myself to others, now that I’m setting new goals and am in the market for some new role models.

Tying It All Together

I’m not really qualified to decide what’s behind how I’m feeling. I am qualified, though, to tell you what I’ve learned so far:

  • I’ve been here. My friends have been here. Famous musicians, writers and even Presidents have been here. So if you’re feeling something like I’ve been feeling? It’s not just you.
  • People get lucky all the time. There are lottos winners and people who accidentally stumble upon their big acting break. There are couples who meet by chance and fall in love at first sight. I’m a big believer in luck, so I won’t sit here and tell you it doesn’t exist–– but is it really reasonable to believe that the majority of successful writers, CEOs, businesspeople, musicians, artists, etc. all got to where they were today because the stars aligned just right? Absolutely not. Your success is valid.
  • Think of the phrase easy come, easy go. Even if it feels this way in retrospect, it wasn’t as easy to get to where you are are you think it was. And everything you’ve earned during that time is not as easy to take away as you imagine it is, either.
  • According to the Caltech Counseling Center, people who experience imposter syndrome would identify with statements such as: “I can give the impression that I am more competent than I really am.” In the world we live in, this should not be regarded as a con, but rather a skill. It’s nice to be able to act like you have it all together when you really don’t. And it’s okay to acknowledge that you have it all together on days that you do. Neither invalidates the other, and neither is something to be ashamed of.

Most importantly of all, I’ve learned that It’s okay to feel this way, because it doesn’t need to be permanent. Nobody is on the hunt to unmask you for beginning to get your life together. You have the power to succeed, and you have the power to change the narrative in your head.

Next time you find yourself hovering in the corner of a networking event worried that you’ll put your foot in your mouth and be found out, just remember: you’re not a ticking time bomb. You’re a person, just like everyone else who showed up that day. And you’ve earned your place.