serious stuff

Impostor Syndrome, Sylvia Plath, and Being 20

Alternatively Titled: How I Went From Being Ahead of The Game to A Prime Example of Failure to Launch

At the beginning of the year, I was Maggie McMillan, followed by a recited list of all of my accomplishments. Maggie McMillan, high school honors graduate at 16, college graduate magna cum laude at 20, well-travelled, decently ambitious.

I figured I had three weeks after graduation before I had to change my title to something relevant.

So now I’m Maggie McMillan, underemployed nanny, neurotic millennial.

I easily can tell you which one I want on my business card.

I think in this instantaneous culture, we can’t let ourselves be defined by past events, as we’re always moving and changing and re-identifying. And it felt important to me not to be defined by my college experience, mentally stuck in that frigid New England campus. The true panic began when I realized that my present didn’t feel like enough or fulfilling to be defined by.

It began a cycle of catastrophic thinking that because I couldn’t identify in my unfulfilling present circumstances that I could then never have fulfillment, and I would waste away with my potential sitting heavy and dusty on my shoulders, until I withered away into something resembling Roz from Monsters Inc. Except not the secret Roz in charge of a powerful secret agency but the grumpy, old bitchy Roz with badly applied lipstick. A real nightmare.

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I feel like I went from the confident girl who once wrote in her notebook after reading Sylvia Plath’s fig tree excerpt from The Bell Jar “I will not be Sylvia Plath, starving under the fig tree, watching opportunities rot in front of her in her desperation not to have regrets. I will choose. I will fill myself until I can no longer eat. I will be bloated with seized moments” (I cringe at my earlier self’s drama but damn, she was cocky and ambitious!) to laying on my dusty kitchen floor wallowing that my life is over.

I felt like an idiot, having to be reassured by my parents that I had done enough, that I was just a 20 year old who was allowed breathing room, that working to save money and studying for the LSAT is doing something, that I would find my way, my calling, my meaning. I wondered why I couldn’t believe in this myself, that I didn’t believe that I had a positive future that employed all my potential.

I think this points back to the Impostor Syndrome and why women seem to suffer much more acutely to this.

The Impostor Syndrome is thus. “It can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence” (Caltech Counseling Center).

Becca, my last roommate, called it “American Idol” syndrome. Every contestant with a horrible voice is coated in self-confidence encouraged by well-meaning, supportive friends and families. They audition, are terrible, and feel blindsided by this reality that they are actually tone-deaf.

We fear secretly being this Impostor; we don’t want to be the horrible singer ignorantly thinking they’re great. We believe any good response is actually a well-meaning lie; we refuse to be blindsided so we don’t encourage self-confidence.

This intense insecurity didn’t recently emerge in the post-grad instability but rather was lurking under the surface, greedily attacking any crack in my confidence. I remember telling people that I got accepted into college by mistake, that my application for graduation must have never been looked at, that my honors were a typo. I made self-deprecating jokes because I really couldn’t accept anything that told me I belonged. And boy, this twistedness really feasted at Gordon where the academic competitiveness felt both intensely occupying and also so meaningless. I have one specific memory of being in my Women in Politics class during a discussion. The professor asked us all if we felt like we could pursue a pipeline career into politics. I was the only one who felt like I couldn’t. I masked this by saying that I just didn’t like the negative aspects of politics- the banality, stunted progress of bureaucracy, the fakeness of constantly selling yourself- and it was overall just not for me. But that’s not true. I love justice, and mercy, and efficiency, and community. I am a massive supporter of politics. In that moment,  I was paralyzed not to raise my hand because even in this hypothetical, I didn’t even believe in myself enough.

I feel like I’ve frozen myself in time in these seemingly wasted last few months, because my Impostor Syndrome planted me under this fig tree, too scared to try, too hesitant to harvest a specific opportunity, to lose the rest in which I could better hide my “fraudulent” abilities. I don’t want to be found out, discovered, so maybe if I just joke that I’m a career nanny, the insecurities of unfulfillment will disappear.

This didn’t happen. It didn’t create some magical dreamland where I was okay with feeling like I’m not trying. It only created a downward spiral in which there was no out.

The out, the solution is obvious. I have to believe that I’m enough, that my present is enough, and when I finally go out into my career, I need to believe that I belong there, as the following passage illustrates.

“Somewhere, deep inside, you don’t believe what they say. You think it’s a matter of time before you stumble and “they” discover the truth. You’re not supposed to be here. We knew you couldn’t do it. We should never have taken a chance on you. The threat of failure scares you into these long hours. Yet success only intensifies the fear of discovery. Stop. It. Now. You’re not an impostor. You’re the genuine article. You have the brainpower. You have the ability. You don’t have to work so hard and worry so much. You’re going to do just fine. You deserve a place at the table” -Joyce Roche, CEO of Girls Inc. (in a letter to her younger self in “What I Know Now“)

I think that women feel this vulnerability much more sensitively because our place in society and in powerful positions is always precarious. We’re already told that we’re not enough and can always improve and can always shut up and keep quiet and can watch out for the vice of ambition and we can let the big boys talk and we can keep to ourselves.

“It’s not psychologically good for you to make yourself a little person” -Liz Smith, gossip columnist, (“What I Know Now“)

I think beating the Impostor Syndrome for me, at least for right now, isn’t breaking my mentality for my sake but for my sisters’, and my mother’s, and for all women. I would be torn apart if my little sister said that she didn’t feel like she should pursue engineering or my mom didn’t feel like she is a superstar entrepreneur. Our seats at the table are marked for us because we deserve to be there, because we are enough and important and can do it well. I just need to find that table that’s for me.

It’s a long road to overcome the damage that negative thinking and insecurity creates but if I begin it, that’s a step, that’s a mouthful of a fig.

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