My Impostor Syndrome Has Impostor Syndrome

Sometimes the best self-help is accepting yourself as a fraud.

My superpower is the ability to feel like a fraud about everything I do. My other superpower is the propensity to always fear bad things will happen whenever something good occurs. This is because it's scarier for me to feel good than to feel bad. Feeling good is too threatening. If I feel good, I won't be prepared for when the positive situation inevitably sours. If I don't feel like a fraud, then I will be caught off guard when people find out that I am one.

I suppose that I don't believe I deserve to feel good, mostly because I don't meet my own conflicting expectations of myself. Just give me a situation and I will find a way to be wrong. The other day I was hanging out with a bunch of artists and I felt that I was too square, too conformist, a “normie.” I felt so old and dried up that I was basically dead. But a little later I was with a bunch of corporate people and suddenly I was a fucking freak, hyper-confessional, too “out there.” I was somehow 16 again, a mess, as though there were a hole in my shoe and my toe was sticking out. The hole may be seen as literal, or metaphoric, but in either case, I was immature and exposed. I can be inadequate in diametrically opposed ways within the course of the same hour.

Memory functions as a narcotic taskmaster.

I don’t even have to be in the company of real people to imagine their judgments. I keep memories of past lovers rattling around inside me at all times, so as to have judgment readily available. Often, in these memories, I imagine my former lovers issuing decrees about what I’m doing wrong, and I use those imaginary judgments as impetus to be forever fixing myself. My attempts to "be better" — these little missions within the depression of existence — provide a sense of definition and purpose, so that I may feel less powerless over the mystery of life and also of death. In this way, memory functions as a narcotic taskmaster.

Yet all these examples are, of course, ego-based conceptions of identity, involving physicality, occupation, romance, and arbitrary conceptions of cool. Even my political affiliations are, in many ways, merely signifiers of the way I see myself and present myself to the world. One time, a few primary elections ago, the line was too long to vote. So I simply lied to my friends and said that I had voted, whom I had voted for, and why. Yet as soon as I revealed whom I’d pretended to vote for, I regretted my choice of make-believe candidate. I couldn’t even pick the cooler candidate to fake-vote for.

But did I give a fuck about the fact that I hadn't actually voted? No. On the time-space continuum, I am such a blip that it really doesn’t matter what I do. I mean, in the scheme of things, I barely even exist. Perhaps this ambiguity regarding my existence is another component of my feelings of fraudulence. If I don’t exist, it’s insane to pretend I do. It’s dishonest to pretend that things matter.

I also negate myself from an emotional perspective. I’m so afraid of being consumed by my feelings that I’ve been running from them for my entire life. Thus, my feelings are still unfamiliar to me, and whenever I feel one, I can’t believe that is what’s happening. Before the feeling fully surfaces, I will declare its fraudulence.

The other night I was watching My 600-lb Life on TLC. The doctor was being mean to a woman because she wasn’t losing the expected weight from her gastric bypass surgery. Then we cut to the woman at home on her pea-green couch, crying because she was no longer able to be an active part of her son’s life. To follow that up, she lifted up her shirt and revealed a maze of feeding tubes and bruises on her stomach. Apparently the woman was having trouble keeping food down because of the bypass, so she had gone to the local hospital and gotten these tubes put in. Now they were infected.

Suddenly, I couldn’t figure out why I was feeling strange. What was this sensation of doom in my chest? Why was I dizzy? Was I suffocating? For a moment it occurred to me that I might be feeling upset and disturbed because of the show. But I quickly swept that notion under the psychic rug. I couldn’t be the type of person to get upset by a TV show. Yet the sensations persisted, and my mind scrambled to figure out what they could be. My mind said: I feel strange. Why do I feel like this? It’s not the show. But what is it? Oh my god. Am I dying? I'm probably dying.

Within a few moments, I went from casually watching TV to the final minutes of my life. On some level, I suppose imminent death seemed preferable to feeling that sadness. Anxiety is a familiar and safe sensation for me, whereas other feelings — sadness, anger, fear, loneliness — are less familiar. It’s like the anxiety keeps all those other disparate feelings in line. The anxiety is the boss, captain of the team. If I'm not worrying about anything, the anxiety gets pissed off. It needs to run the show. It's like: OMG. She's not making a place for me. Must make a place for me now!

Spiritually, too, there is something that gives me a sense of security in feeling fraudulent or bad. When I “leave myself alone” or “cut myself a break,” I experience a terrible loneliness. Things feel so vacant, so quiet, when I finally cease all the self-flagellation, the attempts to fix and improve myself, and just say I AM. I know that the spiritual masters say surrender is the path to enlightenment. Like, there is supposed to be peace in that place of surrender. But there's also an emptiness there that makes me feel like I am so alone.

It happens to me in meditation. Usually I meditate for 10 minutes a day: enough time to “just be” so I can check “being” off my list of things to do. Occasionally, I will meditate for longer than usual. During these times, I’ve found that I can reach an extended place of deep inner calm, where I feel that I am alone witnessing myself, and the world. It feels really fucking good, and I often have the desire to stay there infinitely. Why should there be a rush to get out of something that feels so good? But inevitably, a voice arises in me and says: Now what?

I can always find someone’s judgment to worry about: a projection of what I imagine another human being, or even a cosmic power, might be thinking of me. 

This is the part of me that is scared to feel good, terrified of dissolving into an unbridled ecstasy. Quickly, then, I summon something to make me feel wrong: to create a boundary on the goodness. I can always find someone’s judgment to worry about: a projection of what I imagine another human being, or even a cosmic power, might be thinking of me. It’s as though I’m just not ready to be the witness. I’m not ready for that level of freedom. I still need to be the one who is watched and judged. And the judgment is inevitably cruel.

Let me put it another way. There was once an episode of Golden Girls where Sophia kept buying grapefruit in bulk. At some point, Dorothy was like: "Ma, enough grapefruit. What’s with all of the grapefruit?" So Sophia explained that she felt like God wouldn’t kill her until she finished all the grapefruit. The grapefruit was just a way of staving off death.

This is how it is for me with feelings of fraudulence. I know that this isn’t a pleasant way to live in the world. I know that it isn’t necessary. But the perception that I am being judged gives me something tangible to aim for. Through unnecessary self-improvement I can cordon off the abyss; I can distract myself from deeper existential questions regarding the nature of existence and the fact that I am going to die.

This kind of forward motion feels necessary. In an odd way it is the consistency of hope. It is like a little treadmill on the bigger treadmill of life, where death and aging reign. The little treadmill seems manageable, more doable, even if it is as never-ending as the big treadmill (there is always something to be judged). I am scared to lose the distraction of the little treadmill, to get off it. It means I’ll be getting on the big one.

The truth is, deep down, even I can admit that I'm really not that bad. I'm not the worst human being who ever existed. I don’t fuck everything up. I'm kind to people. I don't wish to cause harm. Let’s say there is no perfect person. In that case, I am just like everyone else. Perhaps even I deserve to feel good once in a while.

I have tried a number of things to get, as they might say, better. It takes a lot of sailors just to keep this ship afloat, and I have certainly put in the effort to change the way I see myself — even if I’ve been afraid to do so. Through cognitive behavioral therapy I learned that when something feels catastrophic, or horrible about myself, I can say: That's just anxiety, it isn’t reality. But the hard part is remembering to say that when you’re having a conversation with someone else. Through psychotherapy I’ve learned the origins of some of these patterns, and how they manifested from childhood. But what always makes so much sense and seems so possible in the therapist’s office — the revelations, the catharses, the aha moments — don’t seem to translate when I’m out in the world.

I’ve also read countless self-help books and watered-down texts on spirituality, personal growth, and learning to accept oneself. Yet these only left me with the impression that self-love could be something spontaneous — like an awakening — and could last forever. I remember reading the Buddhist Pema Chodron on vacation once. I was at the beach in Cape Cod and I read her for hours.

One of the things she said was, “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.”

I am no longer going to need to control things or obsess about superficial shit. 

I was like, yes! OK! I am going to be open to being continually thrown. I am going to bridle that openness and that will be the wellspring from which I garner my power. I am no longer going to need to control things or obsess about superficial shit. I looked at the ocean and its wildness. Everything made sense.

But then a hot woman walked by in a string bikini. Immediately I began comparing my body to her body. Her tits were juicy, her ass was a miracle of youth: biteable like an apple. I felt doughy and pasty compared to her. I tried to figure out what I could do to be better, to be more like her. I needed to fix something and then I would be OK. Then I thought about Pema. My desire for improvement eclipsed Pema. In fact, I kind of felt like fuck Pema. I ended up leaving the book in a public restroom.

I know that Pema and all the others aren’t promising the dream of immediate and finite spiritual rescue — a single epiphany that is sustainable for the rest of your life. I know that they, like the therapists, impart gradually putting in the work. But the long road of mindfulness and slow change is so tiring. The desire to get well — and sometimes those who claim they can help you become your “best self” — can become just another way to judge and measure yourself, and not add up. You can pretend you are more OK than you really are. It can be another form of fraudulence.

Maybe it's fine that this is how I am. Self-love and self-care seem to be in the air right now. The glo-up is trending. Everyone is doing face masks and staying hydrated and shit. But maybe self-acceptance is not about reaching that perfect state of self-adoration, but about accepting that I am always going to find fault.

In the end, I’m going to die. The other shoe is going to drop at some point. Maybe this will just be how I lived my life. Maybe, in some self-effacing way, this is my form of self-acceptance. Perhaps, eventually, I will say that I stopped trying to fight the ways I felt like a fraud. It might be the realest I could get.

Melissa Broder is the author of the essay collection So Sad Today, as well as four collections of poems, including the forthcoming Last Sext. She lives in Venice, California.

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