So apparently there’s this thing called “Imposter’s Syndrome.” It’s something that occurs often in highly successful people who, despite their talent, intelligence, and achievements, still feel like frauds—like any day now someone is going to discover the truth, which is that they are undeserving of their success and have been “faking it” all along. I daresay this probably sounds familiar to a great many people reading this post (and not just because readers of my blog are naturally talented, intelligent, high achievers), simply because most people at some time in their lives have felt doubtful and unworthy and in over their heads. It sounded very familiar to me when I read about it in a New York Times article, but when I got through nodding my head and saying “yeah, that’s me” I started shaking my head and rolling my eyes. Then I found I had a headache so I cut all that out.
In some ways this doesn’t appear to me so much like a specific syndrome as a general prerequisite for being a member of society. These days it often seems we are compelled to state our thoughts, feelings, and views in writing, publicly, all the time, and this makes it appear that we are definitely sure of these views. A statement made on facebook sounds absolute, even if it’s a statement about how you see multiple sides of the issue (because that will sound like you believe everyone should see multiple sides of the issue, just like you do), and even when someone responds to your post with an opposing view (often beginning with “um,” signifying that the responder intends to make you feel like an imbecile for not getting the point they are about to make), you simply cannot back down, ever. We feel like frauds because we are frauds, in a sense, in that the way we represent ourselves to the public is so limited and extreme, and when we are called out on it, we have no choice but to stand strong, not back down, insist that we are right, even if we have doubts. The “fence-sitting” emoji has yet to become popular.
All that said, there is a big difference between a syndrome and a trend, even if they often seem to overlap. I don’t ever want to make fun of mental illness; after all, there was a time (which still bleeds steadily into the current time) when clinical depression was dismissed as a bad attitude. I have no doubt that “Imposter’s Syndrome” at its most severe could morph into heavy-duty anxiety or depression that could shut the sufferer down completely. At the same time, “Imposter’s Syndrome” sounds to me like one in a line of “ailments” that that I like to call self-aggrandizing disorders. I can just see people reading the NYT article and nodding their heads just as I did and thinking, oh wow that’s totally me—not because they want to be considered mentally ill but because of the other part of the equation, the part that suggests that if you think you’re a fraud, you must not be one, you must actually be pretty freakin’ awesome, you just don’t realize it. It’s nice to have neuroses that affirm your awesomeness, instead of ones that make people’s smiles freeze when they see you, make them say falsely cheery things while backing away. Better to have a syndrome written about in the New York Times than one made fun of in a facebook meme with Willy Wonka or Sam Elliott.
The same thing goes for orthorexia, the term given to an eating disorder whereby an individual obsesses about eating only “correct” food, whether that means becoming a vegetarian, a vegan, a raw vegan, a locavore, a cruelty-free-vore, a -vore or -arian only of food you personally grew or raised, or some combination thereof. As with mental illness, I don’t like to make excessive fun of people who have food rules if those rules are borne out of a desire to consume in a thoughtful, conscientious manner. Even if the person who decries hamburgers isn’t much fun to be around, I respect their attitude a hell of a lot more than the person who hears the hamburger decrying and then purposely goes out and gets a double with cheese and gobbles it up in front of the decrier (perhaps making pathetic “moo! moo!” sounds in between bites). Believe it or not, you can enjoy food without being an asshole. At the same time, I cringe at the idea that people obsessed with correct eating will decide that they must be orthorexic, that they must announce this in the mental illness equivalent of a humble-brag: They have a disorder, one that far from seeking treatment for, they can flaunt, because it’s a tribute to their evolved mentality.
I say all of this as someone who couldn’t even admit her own mental illness for a good quarter century, and certainly didn’t seek medical treatment for it until it was almost too late. I still have a hard time telling people about it, not because it’s too traumatic but frankly because it really isn’t all that interesting, not even to me. A former addict once said that despite the way TV and the movies dramatize it, drug addiction isn’t very dramatic at all—in fact, just the opposite: an addict reduces their entire life to one single thing. Obsessions are intense, so they seem exciting, but the truth is all the richness and variety of living disappears because all the addict wants is the next fix. So, too, I think, with illness, mental or otherwise. Suffering may seem dramatic, but believe it or not it’s mostly just unpleasant.
At times in my life, my brain has decided to shut down everything except the part responsible for feeling lousy. It’s not glamorous or tragic that this happens. People have sometimes linked my depression with my “creative” sensibilities, noting that a disproportionate number of writers and artists and musicians suffer from depression. I don’t buy that; far as I know there aren’t any serious studies linking depression to creativity, and it could simply be that creative people are more likely to be aware and expressive of their emotions—and more willing to risk scorn and censure by making them public. But there I go again, trying to make a brag-worthy silk purse out of a psychological sow’s ear. I’m not proud of my depression; hell, after so many decades I’m just grateful that I’m no longer ashamed to admit its existence. It may sound to people like I’m flaunting my illness whenever I talk about being clinically depressed—the strain on their faces as they try to keep their eyes from rolling is patently palpable—but I’m not. Depression is just a sucky thing that happens that I have to deal with. It isn’t just a bad attitude, but neither is it a movie-of-the week.
I say all of this as we head toward Thanksgiving because it’s an anniversary of sorts for me, the anniversary of the night I felt tired of being an imposter. Despite everything I had achieved in my life, I was bitterly unhappy, and I was tired of pretending to enjoy my success when I really felt like a big stupid failure. Ironically, I failed in what I set out to do that night, which is why I’m here today. It isn’t such a bad thing to fail, you know. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to feel like your success is undeserved, since that can give you perspective, keeps you level-headed and humble. It isn’t even necessarily bad to feel bad sometimes; after all, when you spend a lot of time faking happiness, it’s a relief once in a while to admit that’s a sham. But it isn’t always a sham. It would seem we all have the Schroedinger’s cat-like ability to be two mutually exclusive opposites at once. We can be happy successes and miserable failures at the exact same time, a syndrome otherwise known as existence. If the New York Times writes about that one, you are welcome to nod your head in recognition.