I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the fears that people have and how they tend to govern and affect us. I think it’s a really fascinating question that lends a small window into their motivations and many of the choices they make in their daily lives. This is especially true if you can get to their deeper fears; the first ones they name are often superficial.
For me, most of my fears live under a larger umbrella-fear: Failure. Rejection, certain risks, and (sometimes) death, all point back to that one intense base fear.
Still, there is another constant, nagging issue, ultimately linked with my mental illness, that I will be found out to be the actualized version of my own warped self-perception. And, as it turns out, I am not the only one; this disquiet has already been recognized and experienced by millions before me. They’ve packaged it up among all the other disorders and ailments and given it a cute name: Impostor Syndrome.
Once, when I was living in Israel, Miguel’s dad expressed to me his fascination with a particularly successful, high-power woman in Israeli politics. He had been reading her memoir, wherein she expressed her experience with this particular brand of self-doubt. Astonished, he asked me if I had ever heard of such a thing. Little did he know, this is something I had been dealing with for the better part of my life. It is something that still presents frequent obstacles in my relationships. Little did he know, it is something that had negatively impacted my relationship with his own son.
Only a few short years before this conversation, Miguel had grown restless in Tel Aviv and was getting ready to leave Israel behind in favor of traveling to India. Instead, he found himself compelled to head west to the stark winters of Boston, confident that pursuing a relationship with me was worth forgoing whatever alluring adventure he had hoped the East may provide.
I bore the guilt of his decision for months after his move. Eventually, he became frustrated with my need for affirmation that life with me was indeed what he wanted. There was an urgency for me to believe his security in the choice he had made and that he didn’t regret the decision he’d made.
One night, the pressure overwhelmed me and I found myself sobbing in a heap on the bathroom floor. As Miguel soothed me once again, I understood that it was the last time I could bring this up to him. Still, the fear lingered. How could I possibly believe that I would be able to satisfy him with my love or my cooking or my sexual expression? How was I to live up to the life-changing experience of exploring a new country and culture?
Miguel believed in his choice genuinely and honestly. Quietly, I felt we were on a countdown to the day he realized his mistake. Soon, he would find that the things he loved about me were imagined and fraudulent. How long would it be until he saw that I’d fooled him into thinking I was better than I really was and hated me for it?
I would like to say these fears of inadequacy have dissipated over time, but that is unfortunately not the case. My tendency to believe I am deceiving the people in my life extends far beyond my romantic relationships. I operate in a perpetual state of anxiety, always fearful that I’m going to be unmasked and discovered as someone who is valueless and a failure.
My professional life is no exception. I have worked for my company for two and a half years and steadily risen through the ranks. I now hold a position that previously did not exist; have more autonomy than any previous manager; and have developed and intimate knowledge of our operations. Even so, I dread every single phone call, meeting, and email, afraid that I am in trouble or moments away from being fired. Objectively, I know this couldn’t be further from the truth. My work is valuable and consistent. Even so, I live in abject fear that I will be exposed as a con; a garbage person who forgets to make phone calls or is disorganized or doesn’t really understand excel spreadsheets. I am certain they will despise me when they find that I have been scamming them for both their respect and my salary. And worse: I know that when their hatred finds me, I will deserve it.
In a rare moment of vulnerability, I confided in my mother these deep-seated issues. I called to update her on the goings-on of my love life– one that seems to always fall squarely into the categories “rocky” or “DOA.” I told her of my friend Tony, who I’d recently met on a dating site, to whom I had quickly become close. We had decided early on that a relationship wasn’t in the cards for us, but our fondness for each other persisted.
“He’s about fifty times smarter than I am, Mom,” I wailed to her one day.
My mother gasped at this, and I smiled and rolled my eyes. I appreciated her confidence in my intelligence, but my anxieties forced me to take her support with a grain of salt; how could I trust her convictions to be at all reliable when they were so clearly biased maternal love?
It is these same anxieties that nearly convinced me to stop spending time with Tony altogether. My profound enjoyment of his company was becoming increasingly overshadowed by the certainty that he would soon learn I was not the person I presented myself to be.
I admitted the same to my friend Harriett: “Every minute more I spend with him is another minute closer to the day he realizes I’m not as smart or as interesting or as attractive as he thinks I am.”
I was frightened that when Tony discovered this, he would immediately revoke both his attention and affection. The thought of prolonging the inevitable discovery of my fraudulence filled me with guilt. I knew that I was tricking him and that doing so proved I was a terrible person.
Most of me knew this was my mental illness talking. Part of me was afraid it was Miguel all over again.
Maybe then, this is why in the previous few months I had opted for someone who wasn’t my intellectual match. I wasn’t satisfied, but I did not feel the angst and the shame of this supposed deceit.
These fears are echoed even in my activism. Every time I agree to speak or write or meet someone I begin to feel overwhelmed. I am one of the most active members in my organization and I am convinced that I am always on the verge of letting everyone down. Furthermore, when this inevitably happens, I have no doubt that they will hate me because I will have fooled them into believing I am something I am not. This organization is filled with some of the most wonderfully supportive people I have ever met. Around them I feel ashamed, as though I have infiltrated, playing the part of a kind and capable activist when in reality my abilities and my goodness fall far short.
At this point, I’ve been coping with my mental illness and all of the ways it seeps into my life for over 15 years. The dysthymia is constant and the suicidality comes and goes. I’m a high-functioning depressive, so unless I talk about it loudly and frequently, most people don’t know. From the outside, I know everything seems pretty okay; I don’t miss work, I find extra-curriculars, and I have an active social life. I know that I do my best to be kind and honest and giving and introspective. But my brain doesn’t like to be objective and often my energy is too used up to fight that fight.
One thing that helps though, is when I see other people talk about this. So for now, I’ll talk about it too. Loudly and frequently. Just in case.