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The Imposter as Perennial Obstacle

by Maryam Piracha

My last editorial was a lot easier—new beginnings are always easier to address than murkier middle grounds and this issue’s theme feels more like a throwback to my angrier twenties than it is a testament to my later thirties. Anger was easier when I was younger—raging against the machine felt like a rite of passage, whether that was towards an organization I was a part of, a society in which I didn’t fit, or an ideological mindset espoused by my family who was, in a very real way, a product of the milieu of their time. Adulthood doesn’t always bring emotional maturity, but emotional maturity almost always brings understanding and forgiveness.

To forgive people for not living up to the ideals we imprint upon them is perhaps the hardest thing to do, but nonetheless integral to long-term mental health. Forgiving them means in some small way, forgiving ourselves. For recovering perfectionists, self-forgiveness is perhaps the greatest mountain to climb.

A former boss and one-time mentor, when I confronted her about what I felt was a “poor” performance appraisal, told me something that I have kept in the bank for many years. She told me that when I first joined the company, she had no expectations from me and so it was easier for me to exceed them. But what was stopping me wasn’t her already high expectations. It was the fact that they were no match for my own. She was saying, in the softest and most diplomatic way that she could, that I was setting absurd expectations for myself. Expectations that I could never realistically meet and was then judging myself for not meeting them and asking her what I could do to increase the odds. 

Encompassed by Light
Encompassed by Light by Lynn Bianchi

As someone who has long considered herself as being a familial black sheep, everything that I have done has been to combat this idea. An idea, it must be noted, that I kept and perpetuated, based on an offhand or callous remark someone said or that I overheard, and that I just accepted wholesale as being completely true. I’ve spent too many years fighting an idea that existed only in my mind. So whatever I did, by definition, would never be “good enough” for that voice in my head. Whose voice that is or was no longer matters because it’s mine now.

For recovering perfectionists, self-forgiveness is perhaps the greatest mountain to climb.

During one of my many Tumblr prowling sessions a couple of years ago, I came across the following quote, which has illuminated many a murky rabbit hole.

“We are our own dragons as well as our own heroes, and we have to rescue ourselves from ourselves.” ~ Tom Robbins

For far too long, I have been the fire-breathing dragon of myself, infusing my soul with self-limiting beliefs and sabotaging my success as a means of staying in the box that I’ve trapped myself in, so that I can continue to berate myself for all my supposed transgressions and “not good enough-ness”. What tragic webs we weave around ourselves.

That entire mode of living became a self-fulfilling prophecy and has stymied me for years in ways that only became clearer as I turned inward with a magnifying glass. 

“They are not always quite sure of what they are doing here. They spend many sleepless nights, believing that their lives have no meaning. // That is why they are Warriors of the Light. Because they make mistakes, because they ask themselves questions, because they are looking for a reason, they are sure to find it.” ~ Paulo Coelho, Warrior of the Light, p12

The more I excavated and investigated what I found, the more my self-doubt made its way into plain view until I discarded the devices and came face-to-face with myself.

For years I had bought into the lie that I was an imposter, that I had only made it as far as I had—which also wasn’t very far—because of the efforts of others who had offered me words of wisdom, or whose efforts had trumped my own, or whose experiences I had built off of. I didn’t notice that there were two people in this exchange—that the person implementing everything, no matter the source, was me. That’s what the imposter syndrome whispered in my ear: that I alone was nothing. That part is true, but not in the solipsistic way my imposter claimed it was.

I am a sum of many parts. Multiple identities, varied experiences, and happenstance encounters with the countless souls who have crossed my path and whose paths I have intersected. I alone cannot achieve greatness… but together with others? Oh, my! I am a force to be reckoned with when I believe in something, operating on visions and plans for the future, and channeling them into a dream that others can buy into. I can lead through empathy and shared experience and love and emotion because that is what I bring to the table. Belief and empathy and acceptance.

That’s what the imposter syndrome whispered in my ear: that I alone was nothing. That part is true, but not in the solipsistic way my imposter claimed it was.

A few years ago, I worked with an editing mentor who cracked open the doors to the novel that I had been struggling with because I hadn’t been able to access the real emotion that lay hidden inside it. When she saw the new iterations of what I had written, accessing sides of myself and the story that I couldn’t believe existed, her words still carry me through the darkest of nights: “I’ve never seen anyone take to this process the way that you have… or seen it create this much of an impact than with you”. She showed me the door, but I chose to walk through it and traipse down the path.

Reading the books and implementing what I was learning was all me; finding time to write in the company’s basement parking lot where there was no internet was all me; digging deep into the cavernous depths of my writing unconscious was all me; finding the courage to write what I was discovering was all me.

I owe writing a debt that I will never be able to repay in this lifetime because it continues to bring infinite returns. It did, in a very real way, save my life. By helping me step into this reality, it made space for me to realize that I’ve done a lot in my life in service of continuous learning, even when the lessons were difficult to confront. That thirst for learning and bettering myself isn’t just a means to self-flagellate myself for all the things that I “should” be doing. It can also be used for good.

It was at a recent job interview when it hit me while recounting my experiences to date and noting my interviewers’ wide-eyed looks of surprise and awe: I am pretty fucking awesome and I’ve done some pretty fucking awesome things. Saying that acknowledges the help I received from the people around me and integrated into my life in a way that worked for me. And if there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this, it’s that interdependence is the future, not the enemy.

That’s how I can counter the imposter syndrome inside me. I am fucking awesome and so is the village around me. I am only as strong as the people in my circle, the people who, in Rumi’s words, “fan my flames”. The people in my corner, the ones in the ring with me. There is no shame in admitting that, when I don’t have the strength to continue, someone from my circle will step forward, lean up against me, and whisper “I’ve got you”.

And I can sink into the comfort of knowing that I am not in this mystical fun ride known as life alone. That this can be the end and the beginning of a new journey.

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