by Grace Lee
I’m friends with a lot of brilliant people. Not to brag, but it’s true – they’re intelligent, mature, empathetic, and passionate. They’re the kind of people who excel in life, who win flashy awards, write brilliant papers, and get accepted to prestigious programs. However, very few of them, if any, feel like they deserve it. These girls, who study for hours and practice for days, consistently feel like they’re not enough. Somehow they feel like they’ve cheated their way into accomplishments that everyone else has earned. They’re the biggest witnesses to the work that they’ve put in and to the ideas that they’ve fostered, and yet few see this as evidence of their own merit. How is that possible?
Simple – imposter syndrome. It’s the idea that you, despite being absolutely incompetent, have scammed everyone else into thinking you are good at something, whether school or a sport or an instrument. It’s pervasive, and it’s damaging. It instills a fear of failure, a fear of being called out for your flaws, into everything you do.
My high school was competitive. My freshman year, the girl next to me at orientation said she wouldn’t go to any college that had an acceptance rate above 10%, and this set the tone for the next four years of my life. Existence was a giant round of sink-or-swim. You either pushed yourself to the limit in an attempt to walk on water, or you drowned as your classmates watched like piranhas, desperate for that extra 0.01 boost in GPA. The culture, especially among the “smart” kids, sacrificed integrity and happiness for A-pluses and leadership positions.
This insane environment birthed and then cultivated imposter syndrome, but the thing about imposter syndrome is that you don’t think you have it. For ages, I was familiar with the idea of imposter syndrome, but I was convinced I was the exception. Sure, there were many, many deserving people who didn’t see their hard work (like every one of my incredible friends!), but I believed that I was a case where I actually didn’t deserve my accomplishments. When my other friends felt the way I did, I had the clarity to see how ridiculous they were being, how obviously they had earned their accomplishments through their own merit, but I could never apply the principle to myself. Windows clear; mirrors distorted. And so I felt out of place everywhere, trying to tell myself that I belonged but failing again and again.
There’s the mask of confidence, the mask of calm, that makes all this possible. On me, that mask felt like it was coming apart at the seams so that everyone could see what a disaster I was inside. But when I looked around, everyone else’s mask looked perfect, flawlessly bright colors and cheery expressions grinning back at me. It’s a perfect illusion.
Think of it like this: a TV show ending can’t be both good and bad. It’s either Avatar: The Last Airbender, satisfying and neat, or it’s Game of Thrones, a complete implosion of a pop culture phenomenon. The same show can’t do both. For me, I thought I couldn’t be both the low-lying, constant buzz of panic in the back of my skull and the well-adjusted, accomplished girl that others seemed to claim I was – one had to be false. So my brain selected the former as my true personality and rejected the latter as an 18 year long con job that I’d been pulling on my family, friends, and teachers.
I hope that one day, my friends and I can look back on the things we have accomplished and feel that we really, truly deserve them. I hope we can see our losses and our failures as blips in the screen rather than a completely fractured display. I hope we can recognize our own duality and know that a few days of total failure don’t cancel out months of hard work. I hope that one day, we can stop holding ourselves to an impossible standard and just let ourselves try things without fearing that we will be revealed as the imposters we think we are.
In the two hours since I started writing this article, I’ve already considered quitting twice. I’ve gone back to the last issue of kitsch and decided that everyone else is a thousand times smarter, more creative, and more talented than me. And who knows? Maybe they are. Maybe I actually do write like a sixth grader with a Wattpad account and way too much time on her hands. But I think I owe it to myself to give it a shot. So here it is.