Impostor Syndrome

Today – technically yesterday – I’ve done something that simultaneously feels very bold and very belated: I’ve made a profile on a freelancer marketing platform.

I’ve always wanted to be A Professional Writer of some kind, and this is really the most obvious and respectable way of going about it.  But it’s still, to be completely professional and respectable, shorts-shartingly terrifying.

My relevant experience is negligible, and some of my most personally-meaningful accomplishments are so obscure that I feel like I’d need a thirty-minute long audiovisual presentation to even begin providing the basic context.  I couldn’t even bring myself to list the actual paying freelance work I did earlier this year, just because I’m sure the average client would find it unconventional to the point of abstruse. I’m nowhere near good enough or competent enough to do this.  But somehow I’m apparently doing it anyway?

I was somewhat relieved to see that the platform had skills assessment tests, right on site.  I’m one of those few, rare people who actually made Poor Life Decisions by not majoring in English, so I thought it would be nice to get some objective proof of my writing skills without having to spend four years of my life and another few thousand dollars in cash so that I could wave a diploma around.

But I was a little concerned. Sure, I love writing.  Sure, I’m pretty good at it. Sure, I’m one of those weirdos who loved spelling bees and competed on the high school Spell Bowl team. Sure, I’ve somehow cultivated such a strong and practically innate-seeming fluency in the English language that spelling, grammar, and usage errors can make me feel like I’m being stabbed in the brain.  But this is a site for professionals, and I am… not one of those.

So I took a basic English skills test and steeled myself for an “above average” at best.  Instead, I missed one question because it had two valid answers, and I wound up in the top 3%.

My first thought was, “There has clearly been a mistake.”

So I took a spelling test, and I wound up with the top score out of all users.

Rationally, I know that strong performance on an objective skills test is – assuming the accuracy of the test – absolutely strong evidence that the person is good at those skills.  And I’m pretty sure that it would be normal and acceptable for that well-performing person to feel some sort of pride and accomplishment.  If this were anybody else in the Universe, I’d absolutely believe they were really inordinately good at those skills, and I’d say they should be very proud!

For some irrational reason, though, those beliefs are not at all absolute if the person in question is me.

Instead, my brain pulls the Cognitive Dissonance Fire Alarm.

I actually feel intensely uncomfortable about doing well on these skills tests – like there’s something wrong with the test, or like I caused a problem somehow, or like they’ll somehow see my Google search history, see that I looked up a couple of the words after the fact because they got songs stuck in my head, and decide that I had somehow cheated retroactively.  Even if none of those are the case, I feel like I’ve just painted a big bright target on my head, and that everyone’s going to be paying attention to me to find all of my flaws. This is business, after all. AND it’s the Internet.  I’ve accidentally made myself out to be “better” than other people, and that’s absolutely unacceptable.  I feel even more like, from this point forward, I am never allowed to make any sort of mistake.

This is old familiar ground, really.  I’d say I’ve walked it before, but there was very little walking involved.  Instead, it’s a place of complete paralysis: the paralysis that comes of believing that mistakes are both unacceptable and unavoidable, and that, if you can’t be certain of doing something absolutely right, you have no right to do anything at all.

I even took another office skills test, just because I thought I’d do okay-but-not-awesome at it, thus putting myself in more comfortable territory.  Knocking myself down a few pegs before anybody else has the chance to.

I got in the top 3% of that, too, and I am doing to go dig a hole and hide in it.

For someone who is attempting to become a freelancer, this reaction is incredibly non-optimal.

This freelance platform I signed up on has gone through three name changes since I first learned about it.  I’m not even sure how many times I’ve gone to the site – whatever it was at the time – thought about signing up, decided I was nowhere near good enough to even try, and closed it again for another year.

I know it’s stupid to even consider it significant, but the fact I’ve signed up at all feels like a milestone.

But it also feels like a millstone.  So much is going to be expected of me.  Can I carry the weight of this?  What if I can’t? What if I’m promising more than I can fulfill?  What if it doesn’t matter because I don’t get any clients? What if I do get clients? What if they hate my work? What if I’m not actually educated enough in writing to do it correctly, and this seat-of-my-pants, doing-what-sounds/looks/feels-right is going to make me a complete failure? Because, seriously, I know what a grammatical sentence looks like, but I still forget what the pluperfect is, or what a subordinate clause is, so what do I really know?

And then there’s all the other practical stuff. What if they don’t pay me? What if I’m asking for too much money? Or not enough? Between this, the dayjob, my book, and that craft project I intend to have ready by mid-January, what kind of unholy mess am I making of my taxes?  What if I’m doing something terribly wrong as I start out that’s going to chaotically branch forth into uncountably many more mistakes with every step I take?

What the hell gives me the right to act like anything I do should be worth anything to a stranger?

The thing that bothers me most is that I know exactly why this reaction is happening.  Given the set of assumptions I have in my brain, it’s a logical, justified, and even necessary conclusion.  So it’s incredibly hard to make it stop happening in any way that feels equally logical, justified, and necessary.

Let me give you a little context about tests.

I did well at school, growing up.  As I’ve said before, it was the only thing I did well at.  I didn’t have any more practical skills or talents, I looked like a third-rate Muppet knockoff, and I had all the coordination of a newborn foal, but at least I could conquer a standardized test.  The most nervewracking part of any test, for me, was trying to keep my #2 pencil marks inside the circles while trying to make my mark heavy and dark. I got along with my teachers better than I got along with my classmates – they, of course, subscribed to that same value system.  But I was an eager participant in it all.  I wanted to listen quietly, hands clasped, and learn.  I was excited to learn new ideas.  I felt validated when something I said or did impressed an adult.  So I saw my grades as a clear, objective evaluation of my merit – the evidence for how competent, valuable, and worthwhile I was as a human being.

In second grade, I took a placement test for the gifted and talented program.  I remember sitting in the brown-brick cafeteria in an uncomfortable plastic chair at a round, beige table, looking at a question at the top of the right-hand page of my test booklet.  The test was nearly over, and I’d thought I’d been doing so well.  The math problems had bothered me some, but all the word problems had been easy, and the pattern-problems were fun.  But this innocuous multiple-choice question was confusing:  to my great discomfort, it had a word I did not know.

I squirmed in the ugly orange seat.  They’d said this part of the test booklet wasn’t like the rest of the test, so I raised my hand to risk asking a question of one of the milling adults – feeling like I was trying to cheat, not sure if they’d be allowed to answer.  But one of the adults came over to me, and I awkwardly asked the shameful question.

“What’s this word?”

The word, she – smiling – said, was opinion.

It meant your own feelings and thoughts, and so there was no right answer!

“But how do you know what to pick?”

The right answer is the answer you think is right!

“…But what if that isn’t any of these?”

Just pick whatever’s closest, or whatever you feel like picking!

All of this was profoundly uncomfortable.  I complained about it at the dinner table that night, feeling like I’d been tricked.

My new classmates, however, also gave clear and objective evaluations of my merit, and they were significantly less glowing. The more I tried to assert myself and my interests, the worse it got. Some refused to talk to me, some just tried out their favorite insults no matter what they were, some tried to mislead me or build up false hope.  A few brimmed with that carefree, pure-hearted cruelty that only a child can know.  The only reason I wasn’t actually beaten up was that anyone who touched me for any reason was just as shunned as I was – at least for a little while.

Adults, of course, did little to help or to teach me whatever social nuances I lacked. Instead, they recited that dreaded litany: Ignore Them And They’ll Go Away.  Forgetting, somehow, that they don’t, and that this only makes bullies try different and harder-to-ignore things. Forgetting, somehow, that nobody else was ever going to speak up for me besides myself.  And forgetting, somehow, that they’d instilled in me one core belief: that being wrong and doing wrong were equal, and equally prohibited.

Learning wasn’t as valuable as knowing, and improvement was only as good as an apology: it was expected, and it was even noble, but it was never as valuable as as never having made a mistake to begin with.

I couldn’t understand why, when it came to Statements About Who I Was And What I Was Worth, being incorrect no longer mattered.

Ultimately, I just couldn’t sanely sustain this belief that everyone – everyone but me – was allowed to be wrong, wrong, wrong.  I was supposed to be A Good Student, a gold-star stellar nursery in the nebulous fug of a thousand scratch-and-sniff stickers.  But I was nothing but the sum of a thousand red check marks, forever unbalanced against a straight-A+ ideal.   I wasn’t even truly good at the only thing I was good at, and no matter how good I was, it wouldn’t save me from all the other awful things about me.

The only way I could make any sort of peace with myself was to assume that everyone wasn’t wrong – that only the logically-consistent things people said about me were true, that I was simply too stupid to even know which things they were, and that my insistence on asserting myself – and even on having a sense of self – was the direct cause of the problem.

Early on in school, I simply couldn’t wait until I became an adult so that my fellow adults would take me seriously, appreciate my work, and even give me whole hundreds of dollars for it!  I was going to be a writer, and I was going to say really interesting things that would even teach the adults, and people were going to be proud!

Before elementary school was out, I was trying to go entire days without speaking or being spoken to, and wishing I simply didn’t exist.

I still did well on most schoolwork – when I wasn’t hamstringing myself by forgetting assignments or turning things in late.  But I no longer had the idea of doing well in school and getting a career and having a future.  That was hubris.  I was just trying to do whatever would be least noticeable, least bothersome, least remarkable.  I still hated the thought of making mistakes, still feared getting in trouble, still saw decades of horrible consequences spiraling out from my every smallest flaw – but I was so overwhelmed by it all that I couldn’t see the point of trying, sometimes.  Nothing good would make up for all the bad, and I’d only find a way to ruin it.

My best was never good enough, because it was my best.

Now I’m many years removed from school, trying to keep my head above water in the Real World.  But some of those old, bad lessons linger on.

Every time I venture into any new territory, no matter how small and well-calculated that step, I fear it’s a world full of classmates – now older, craftier, and more powerful – who not just might but will try to make my life terrible. People who do not need any reasons, who do not care about being wrong, who do not care about being punished, and who are serving me my rightful punishment for having the stupid, selfish gall not just to exist but to call attention to myself.

But I learned, not so long ago, that it’s really just a world full of adults: people whose answers often rely on ignorance, artificially limited choices, and carefully-filled circles.  People who, somehow, don’t know yet don’t feel wrong, don’t care yet don’t feel cruel.  People who legitimately don’t expect anything out of me in any way, because they will never even register my existence.  I learned that I am not, somehow, the focal point for everything everyone dislikes.  Not everything is my fault.  Even some of the things I could, in theory, have helped or have prevented, are somehow not my fault, and aren’t even mistakes!  People are not going to automatically blame me for everything just because it’s easy or funny. People do not magically know how awful I am.  They somehow don’t even realize I’m awful at all until and unless I tell them so, strangely enough.  Even then, they often say I’m wrong!  Regardless, whatever they know about me is based only on what I show them, and it’s not dishonest or necessarily even selfish to share the things that I personally find more appealing.

I wish I would have realized this a long time ago, in all those years of deer-in-the-headlight paralysis.

But, to this day, some part of me feels like the word opinion is a nasty trick.  Yet another setup by someone trying to get me to say wrong and ridiculous things about myself, trying to get me to assert anything about myself at all.

There are still times I wish I could be some anonymous, formless cipher. That someone could need work to be done, and that I could do that work, and could receive some sort of compensation and vague appreciation for having done that work, but without anyone giving me any actual attention or scrutiny. Something with personality and experience enough to make work that’s lively and interesting, witty and engaging, and worthy of the occasion, without in any way conveying the false idea that it, itself, is interesting or witty or worthy.   Something still so ultimately immaterial that IT, itself, is less than an afterthought.

A friendly ghost, only without all that unpleasant-sounding “being dead” malarkey.

Instead, I feel more like Schroedinger’s cat: not dead, not alive, unduly affected by the simple act of observation, and probably better left as a thought experiment.

But here’s the thing: I went through so much of my life trying to be a nothing, or trying to be whatever my observer wanted. And it was always out of fear that they’d be something more like a classmate.

The amazing thing is, though, that there are surprisingly few classmates out there, and a hell of a lot of adults, but there’s truly an incredible number of teachers.  True teachers.  Patient, compassionate, knowledgeable people of all ages and backgrounds who know wonderful things and are glad to share, who accept my interest and participation, who support my work as it stands, encourage me to develop, and even help me redeem myself for my mistakes. People who don’t just give me a checkmark, a gold star, a number, but – bizarrely enough – seem to want to learn things from me as much as I want to learn things from them.  People who let me work with them to help create something more amazing than either one of us could have accomplished alone.  People who see other people as they are, and as they can be.

It’s understandable that I formed such terrible expectations of other people, and it’s understandable that I tried to dissolve myself.

But it’s also understandable that I was wrong on both counts, and that that’s okay.

So I am stepping forth into freelancing, and maybe ghostwriting, and maybe things I can’t even expect – or maybe nothing at all.  But it’s a very me-ish thing that I’m doing. I’m putting myself out there with the one-and-only thing I’m good at, the supposed best of myself, and crucial, company- or even life-affecting assignments could be on the line. I’m going to make mistakes, and things are going to be imperfect, and there will probably be clients who are insensible or cruel or downright criminal.  And, yes, this is terrifying, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to live up to any expectations.  Especially not the expectations someone might have of anyone who, however accidentally, is showing themselves to be objectively high-performing at something. They will expect their perfect ideal, and I may or may not be able to fulfill that.

I just have to try to remember that most-incredible thing I’ve come to learn through all of this: that no matter how bad I’m doing compared to any objective measure, no matter how bad I know I am as a person, no matter if my very best just isn’t very much…

…Sometimes, maybe, it’s good enough to help someone today.

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