What do I want from me? On impostor syndrome and senior year

I’d like to make an announcement, for feminism: I am having a hard time. In the past few weeks, I have walked around with one persistent feeling: that I’ve failed. I feel that I’ve failed at being in leadership positions in two activist orgs. I feel that I’ve failed my senior thesis, though the process of drafting it has only just begun. I worry that I’ve failed my friends when I cancel on plans, or show up to plans too tired to participate fully. I feel I’ve failed my boyfriend, when we disagree or miscommunicate. Sometimes, I simply agonize over the failures yet to come.

The closest thing to what I have been feeling might be described as “impostor syndrome.” Impostor syndrome is a psychological reaction, not a disorder – it’s not even a personality trait, more a certain propensity for feeling a certain way. It has been studied primarily in high-achieving women (only with great reluctance do I place myself in that category.) These women believe that they are not intelligent or capable, and that evidence from external sources to the contrary is skewed. In other words, they believe that they have somehow gamed the system, and they feel incredible pressure to keep up the “fraud.” My feelings of failure are like this: it is a failure that has been confirmed by nothing and no one around me, a failure that only I can sense. It is a failure I have to keep from becoming visible.

I have to say, I know a lot of “impostors.” The women in my life are all high-achieving. I have friends that work multiple jobs while maintaining academic scholarships; friends who run student publications; friends who achieve great success without any familial support and friends who must navigate familial strife from thousands of miles away. Despite their indisputable awesomeness, these women feel insecure, undeserving, and yeah, fraudulent. This seems so colossally unfair that it makes me want to yell. WHY? Why can’t it just be hard to do everything, time-in- the-day- wise – why does it have to be hard on the heart, too?

Recently, I was texting two of my best friends, both of whom are extremely hardworking women. The conversation went from the amount of work we all had, to things like this:

“I should have cleaned out my room and my car. Or showered. I feel gross. :(”

“My friend is going to a research conference this weekend. What do I ever even do?!”

All of us are busy, and merely human, but it’s hard for us to admit that we need to take a break, or to let ourselves feel good about the things we have accomplished. Maybe it’s because of that word: undeserving. I don’t deserve to be in this class, or this thesis cohort. Maybe I don’t deserve to be at this university, or to graduate in April. I feel I don’t deserve to be tired, or stressed, or sad, because other people are more tired and more stressed and more sad because they have more on their plate. However much I feel I’m balancing, I can’t help but convince myself it doesn’t matter, because other people have more.

I can’t help but feel that I don’t even deserve to have impostor syndrome. I haven’t achieved enough: I haven’t earned it. How crazy is that?

It seems to me that impostor syndrome is rearing its ugly head this year because we are all about to go out into the world, as women with something to prove. Suddenly it’s not just about college – it’s about our whole lives, and what they are supposed to look like. As feminists, we are driven and defiant. Also as feminists, we’re told that taking care of ourselves is of the utmost importance. I am trying to learn to reconcile those two things. Self-care seems like an indulgence, just another thing to “deserve”; or else, another imperative that I have failed.

But the thing is, I can see that my friends are struggling, too, and I know that when they feel like impostors, they are wrong. Because of this, I can learn to treat myself like I would treat them, and cut myself a break as I do others. At any given time, the answer to the question “what do I want from me?” could be a thousand different things I’m not doing or could do better. The answer I am trying to choose is “patience, and peace.”

Yes, I feel like a failure sometimes. But what have I failed to do, really? I have failed to love myself, feed myself, and let myself be.

To conclude, I think I just want to say that if you’re having a hard time like me, you should know:

You are real.

You are important.

You will be fine.


Hannah Engler

Editor-in-Chief, What the F magazine

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