I’M LISTENING, STOP LOOKING AT ME: The Grumpy Introvert’s Advice on Impostor Syndrome

Dear Grumpy Introvert,

I’m a thirtysomething woman with a life that hasn’t really added up to much so far. I would call myself an introvert, I guess, but I’m afraid of labeling myself as anything at all. Not because I resist labels, but because I feel like a fraud all the time, at absolutely everything. I’ve read about impostor syndrome, and that’s pretty much my life. I feel that I’m faking it all, I’m secretly terrible at everything I do, and it’s just a matter of time before I’m outed as the incompetent nothing that I really am. I know that sounds harsh, but that’s what’s going on in my head almost 24-7. It’s crazy-making. To make matters worse, I feel like I’m surrounded by happy people who know exactly who they are and are completely winning at life: adulthood, parenthood, careers, you name it. 

I’ve felt this way for as long as I can remember. And I don’t know why. My parents were good-enough parents, maybe a little distant, but they meant well. I have a decent job and good friends, and I own my own home. But lately, it’s gotten so much worse. I wake up seized with terror and self-loathing, like nothing I’ve done has justified my taking up space on the planet. I don’t want to wake up this way for the rest of my life, especially because I have three amazing young daughters I’m raising mostly on my own (their dad lives in another state and is pretty much out of the picture). I’m terrified that I’m going to pass on to them this devastating, pervasive sense of being a total fake, despite all my outward efforts as a mom to empower them. How can I raise strong, brave women when I can barely look at my own face in the mirror?

Sincerely (but it still feels fake),

Possible Impostor

Dear Possible Impostor,

Let’s get one thing straight off the bat, my friend:

You are not a possible impostor. You, dear heart, are an impostor impostor—which means you’re as real as the Velveteen Rabbit, my laugh lines, and the sun.

I don’t know you, P.I., but I can SEE you. You there, with the nervous eyes. You there, with shoulders hunched ever so slightly, certain you’ve made yet another blunder. You there, silently begging your molecules to pack together a tad more tightly because you’re afraid to take up space in the world.

There’s nothing fake about you, P.I. And here is how I know this, down to the lining of my grumpy gut: the fake people of the world present very differently from you. True frauds (how’s that for an oxymoron?) don’t admit to any problems, insecurities, or fears. And they can be very convincing, devastatingly so to those of us feeling a little wobbly on our self-esteem legs. Everything is great; everything is super; and everyone and everything are held at arm’s length, lest anyone or anything get too close and scratch off their thin lottery-ticket veneer.

You, on the other hand, are brave enough to let it all hang out. You wrote to me with very few details of your life—you don’t say what your job is, you don’t say what you like to do for fun, and you don’t claim any political or religious affiliation. You don’t even mention where you’re writing from. You just said (forgive my paraphrasing), “OUCH. I HURT. AND I’M SCARED.”

You know what that means? That means, P.I., that you skipped straight over the small talk, like a zippy nonstop from LAX to JFK. I, Grumpy Introvert, salute you. Like many introverts, I hate small talk. So, your plaintive, honest words immediately earned a spot in my oft-churlish heart for the very thing you think you are missing: authenticity.

You don’t have to believe me. In fact, I can tell from your letter that you’re not in the habit of believing any nice things about yourself…especially not compliments from a total stranger, as your brain may be warning you, who probably gets paid the big bucks to blow smoke up readers’ tushies…

[Ed. note: Don’t say “tushies.”]

[GI: But what if the letter-writer’s brain says “tushies”? What if I’m grumpy AND I can read minds?]

[Ed. note: NO “TUSHIES.”]

Well, okay then. As I was saying, you don’t have to believe me, P.I. But I am asking you to hear me out because I happen to be familiar with impostor syndrome. Your words, good soul, hit close to home. And I’m betting when we publish your letter, you’ll be amazed by how very un-alone you are. There are plenty of us, wondering every day if today is the day we’re finally, awfully, terrifyingly going to be “found out.”

I did a little research on impostor syndrome. Let me sum up my findings for you: people with great childhoods feel like frauds. People with appalling childhoods feel like frauds. Poor people feel like fakes, and rich people do too. People of all ages, races, genders, and sexual preferences report nagging feelings of unworthiness and incompetence.

My takeaway? Maybe this uncomfortable state is not so much a syndrome as it is a very human condition.

Kiddo, I’m here to coax you onto the big, bright, messy stage of humanity. Congratulations. You’re real; you’re honest; and you’re one of us. We’re a very big cast of characters, all lurching and slipping and wondering whether anything we do or anything we are will ever be enough and whether we’ll ever trust that applause at curtain call.

You want to know what to do to live your way into a more joyful life for you and for your girls. You called your three daughters “amazing,” the most enthusiastic, telling, free-as-a-bird word in your letter. I bet they are amazing, and I bet they get that from their mom, a woman so darn strong, she’s raising three (!!!) daughters on her own EVEN THOUGH DOUBT AND FEAR SPEND ALL DAY GNAWING AND SLURPING ON HER BONES.

I have faith in you, P.I. Just like those amazing daughters of yours have faith in you.  

Let’s DO this. Are you ready?

Step One

Repeat after me: “It won’t ever be a perfect life, and that’s wonderful.” You’re human like the rest of us, and nothing we do is ever going to be perfect. GIRL, I AM SAYING YOU ARE OFF THE HOOK FOR PERFECTION. You just have to promise to show up and be perfectly imperfect, got it?

Step Two

Take a deep breath, and fire your brain. Yup. Give it a pretty pink slip and a nice severance package. Someday it will thank you, but right now, your poor brain is on overdrive, at a job it hates, in a stinky cubicle it shares with Fear, Dread, and Shame. 

Because somewhere along the way, your brain appointed itself the Thing That Must Protect You from the big bad world and from yourself. But it’s terrible at this job. I mean, really, really terrible. And it’s miserable. Which is why you’re miserable.

Step Three

Let’s re-hire your brain. After all, it’s a pretty great brain, and it really does want to be useful. Let’s give it another job, a job it’s going to like much better—although not at first because, hey, not even brains enjoy the first day at a new job. This new job comes with all the training it needs, a way better title, and a lot more downtime. Tell your brain it is no longer employed as Freaked-Out Protector. From here on out, your brain’s new job title is Chief Executive Rememberer of Good, or Curator of Life Verbs (more on this in a moment).

Step Four

Come out, come out, wherever you are. I find that when people think they’re just plain lousy at life, it usually means they’ve glued together tiny, desolate huts from all the wood chips of their lives’ mistakes and regrets. And they’ve crawled inside, hoarding a whole bunch of completely useless nouns there: failure, fraud, idiot, loser. I think you’ve got a hut like this, P.I. Time to set that sucker on fire and walk away, without looking over your shoulder. Now, hear me loud and clear: I’m not suggesting ditching the negative self-talk is an easy feat. In fact, I often want to throttle the relentlessly cheerful folk who insist on flinging about smug (and, I would argue, harmful) platitudes like, “You choose your own happiness” and “God never gives us more than we can bear.”

I call B.S.—

[Ed. note: Call it something else.]

But B.S. has more oomph. Crap? Crapola?

[Ed. note: Just. No.]

I despise that “just choose happiness” stuff. You can’t just waltz into a Target store and pick up some Happiness and extra exclamation marks from the Yay, Life Is Super Easy!!! aisle. I resent that attitude because sometimes unhappiness chooses you, and for whatever reason, it just won’t let go. It’s not fair; it’s definitely not fun; and it’s certainly not something you can shrug off as easily as a pesky mosquito. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were you, P.I. This is going to take some doing. You’ve spent a lifetime listening to (and believing) your brain’s smack talk about you. Like I said before, I’m not going to demonize your brain. It really thought it was just doing its job, poor lamb. You can’t solve it in a day, but you can decide today that the old rhetoric has got to go. Today, you start over. Clean slate.

Step Five

No more mean, judgmental nouns. You teach your amazing girls no name-calling, right? So, how come you’re fielding every rotten self-descriptor in the book?

Get brain on the line. You did the rehiring; now, it’s time for the rewiring. Every time you think you’re as fake as a spray tan, tell that brain to knock it off and report on the real stuff you’re up to. Because our authentic selves happen in the verbs, not the nouns. No more B.S. name-calling. What are you doing? No, really. What are you doing right now?

Start simple. At the very least, you’re breathing. Think it: I BREATHE. Whisper it until I BREATHE takes up the space where “impostor” and “fraud” like to sprawl and lounge and spill their beer in sticky pools. I BREATHE. Are you faking that? Nope, or you’d keel over before long. 

Now. What else are you doing that nobody, not even you, can argue with? 

For one, I bet you are mothering, right at this instant. Even when your amazing girls are somewhere you’re not, you’re still mothering. Go on. Own it. Think it loud: I MOTHER. I can’t think of a more bad-ass job in the universe. Find some trees (they’re very good listeners) and tell them: I MOTHER. Feel silly. I FEEL SILLY. The trees won’t mind.

What else? Do you work? I know you do. I WORK. Do you struggle? You bet. I STRUGGLE. Do you keep going—no matter what—even when you’re utterly exhausted? I KEEP GOING NO MATTER WHAT. I SURVIVE. 

And on days when you’ve got nothing else, the best verb of all is to be: I AM. Because that is enough. Forever and always, P.I., I AM is enough.

Are you seeing a glimmer yet of just how stunningly real you are? Because I sure am. 

Promise me you’ll stay the course. No more dilapidated DIY Failure Huts. Dump the old icky labels for good. Take up your rightful space and sunlight in this world, and verb it up like a BOSS. 

Your brain will get the hang of it. Soon, in fact, your brain will start taking great pride in its work, and it will be so busy reminding you of all the good verbs you’re verbing, it won’t have time for the old fear rhetoric. One day, you might just wake up and realize you’re no longer defining yourself as what you’re not, but rather as a grand, beautiful, technicolor tangle of doing and going and dreaming. And being.

You’ve got this. 

And until you’ve got this, we’ve all got you, P.I. 

Yours in solidarity,

Grumpy Introvert

The Grumpy Introvert (otherwise known as Jennifer Mattern) is smarter than your average border collie, stronger than your morning coffee, and impervious to Comic Sans and all other forms of forced cheer. She has been an annoying know-it-all since the tender age of 8, when she first began correcting her teachers’ misspellings and offering copious amounts of unsolicited advice to her parents.

Have a question for the Grumpy Introvert? Write to her at [email protected]!