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  • michelle m. davis

The Imposter Syndrome

Who are you? I’m not asking what you do, the roles you play, or how you see yourself, I want to know who you are… you know, your inside core that motivates you to do what you do, believe what you believe, and feel what you feel. This isn’t your inner voice that constantly castes doubt in your head, chastising you for not being good enough or for saying the wrong thing. I’m talking about your essence… what you’re made of. As simple as this question sounds, finding the answer might be the biggest challenge we will ever face.

Actually, very few people know who they are. Typically, when asked, the responses address the obvious…

I’m the mother of three elementary aged children.

I’m an accountant at a mid-sized manufacturing firm.

I’m a triathlete.

I’m nurse in a neonatal care unit.

While these replies give us a glimpse of what individuals do each day and how they impact those around them, these descriptions don’t allow us to understand people’s thoughts, their reasoning, or their core values. We often identify ourselves by what others can observe, measure, and quantify. Rarely do we use terms that give insight to our being, or what’s happening inside. I would even venture to say that many of us aren’t even aware of what actually inhabits this space in our own bodies. We are constantly consumed by outward appearances, what others see and judge, that we shut off our inner self, the unique and beautiful aspect of our soul that cannot be compared, evaluated, or analyzed. In an attempt to craft the perfect version of which we think we should be, we ignore our true self, hoping instead to morph into the ideal image that we’ve painted in our mind. Unfortunately, the effort it takes to achieve this manufactured persona often comes at the cost of losing sight as to who we really are. In reality, the masks that so many of us create to complete the desired package of what we think we should be eventually overrides our true essence, causing it to run for cover and hide. Sometimes we cloak ourselves with so many layers of artificial “stuff” that we create an entirely new person, an imposter.

Yes, this term sounds harsh. I admit there exists a negative connotation that comes with the word “imposter,” almost as if mal intent looms. In no way is that my message. Instead, it is only an observation, both in myself and in those around me. We all know good people who lose themselves in their efforts to be perfect, to be loved, to be accepted. Perhaps we’re even one of them. It’s easy to fall prey. After all, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram can make it seem like our lives aren’t “all that.” Not only are our friends and family posting about their numerous joys, milestones, and achievements, but also we are constantly being bombarded with articles claiming to own the recipe for thinner thighs, fuller hair, smoother skin, and happier relationships. Add the airbrushed images that the media constantly flash before our eyes, and it’s pretty tough not to try to create the “best outer versions” of ourselves.

Admittedly, we live in a world rampant with victims of “The Imposter Syndrome.” But is it a bad thing? Are there any costs to being an imposter? What’s wrong with trying to enhance our image, doing things to help ourselves look and feel better? Why wouldn’t we all want to do that? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. However, it’s not the doing that’s the issue. What can become a problem is the reason we’ve chosen to act.

Basically, it boils down to asking ourselves if this is an act of self-compassion, or are we doing this to fit in, feel better about ourselves, find a new identity, or please another? The reality is that many of our actions, while good in nature, are done for the wrong reasons. Sure, they might be beneficial to our overall health and well being, but if they are performed under false pretenses, not in true alignment with the self, then might they be hurting us more than they are actually helping?

Let’s use working out as an example. It’s great to exercise. The benefits are numerous – better cardiovascular functioning, enhanced muscle tone, improved flexibility, and reduced stress are just a few. But, many of us (myself included for much of my life), work out for the wrong reasons… to be able to eat more, to keep weight in check, to look better. Are having a robust appetitive, maintaining a healthy weight, and looking fit positive outcomes? Absolutely! But observe why we exercise. Is it out of compassion for our body or the need to look a certain way?

Exercising as a form of self-compassion might appear similar to hitting the gym for the visual effect, but consider the minor differences. Do you make the commitment to workout in order to care for your body, to help it maintain an optimal level of strength, mobility, and agility? Is your goal that your organs and systems operate at their highest potential so that your body can provide you with the vehicle you desire to allow you to do what you hope to do throughout the day? Or, are you slaving on the stepper so that when you put on that bathing suit you don’t shudder? Do you run endless miles to benefit your heart and lungs, or do you remain on the treadmill past exhaustion so that when you weigh yourself, you can look approvingly at the number under the moving dial? In essence, are the reasons behind our actions based on what is best for our true selves, or are we doing it for external rewards?

Physical appearance is only one aspect of the Imposter Syndrome. Actions and behaviors are also susceptible to this disease. Let’s explore this concept further. Let’s say that your neighbor just had knee surgery. Perhaps you’re inclined to offer to make dinner for her and her family. That’s an incredibly kind gesture. No doubt it will take time, effort, and resources to complete this generous task. But, what are your reasons behind making that meatloaf? What is the motivation for your action? Be honest… does the word “should” come into play? If so, is your true self preparing the dinner, or is the woman, the one you think you should be, doing the cooking? Perhaps you hope that this act of kindness will keep your neighbor from complaining about your kids playing music too loudly, your large tree dropping branches in her yard, or soften the grudge from the “miscommunication” you may have had. Or, maybe you truly feel compassion for this individual and her inability to care for her family at this moment. If that is the case, then your genuine sympathy is the impetuous for your offer, not a compulsion to do something nice. Of course, the meal will be appreciated either way, regardless of the motive. We just must be sure that we identify the why behind it. It will assist us in examining whether or not we fall prey to this syndrome.

We all experience situations when we act in a certain way because we feel it’s the appropriate course. This is not wrong at all, and in fact, it may be quite necessary. Everyone wears masks from time to time; that’s part of the human existence. But we never want to lose the ability to distinguish what is the plastic covering and who is the actual being.

Understanding our reasoning for our behaviors help us nurture ourselves so that we are more willing to appear without the masks, allowing our inner selves, who we really are, to shine


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