“All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare said in As You Like It, “and all the men and women merely players.” Maybe this explains why many of us feel like impostors. We may master the lingo, wear the uniform, even get the degree, but there’s always this feeling of looking over our shoulder, waiting for the men in black to bust in and rip off our disguise: “Aha! Just who do you think you are?” Back in the late 70’s, a pair of psychologists actually coined the term “impostor syndrome,” a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud. Despite external evidence of competence, about 70% of us, particularly high-achieving women, remain convinced we are phonies.
In my first class in grad school, I remember looking around the conference table at my classmates, all of whom seemed intellectually superior, able to discuss literary theory as easily as last night’s sitcom. I did a lot of nodding and concurring, mastered pensive expressions, and all but took up pipe smoking in an effort to seem up to par. What I failed to realize is that half of them were doing the same thing.
Martha Beck recounts a fantastic anecdote in her book Expecting Adam. As a PhD student at Harvard, the bastion of intelligence, she once stopped in a friend’s lab and watched her performing a psychology experiment on some rats, monitoring them as they swam in a kiddie pool –a Smurf kiddie pool. When she gets to her next class a little late, she apologizes, “I’m sorry. I was in the Psych lab, watching rats swim around in a Smurf pool.” Not to be outdone by her, the instructor, a fellow student, and a visiting dignitary all pompously pipe up: “How’s Smurf’s work going?” “I read his last article.” “He’s had some remarkable findings.” The important thing–more important than being smart–is the prestige bestowed by appearing smart.
I once presented a paper to a room full of scientists at an environmental conference in Rome, Italy. I’d done the research, written the report, and polished the presentation until I could field any question, despite having had not one chemistry class in college. For twenty minutes at least, I was the expert and knew the material better than anyone else in the room. I would have been much more comfortable talking about themes in 18th century novels, but that wasn’t my job. Sheer fakery. But it worked out. I met some interesting people, and the research was well-received. I felt a little like Leo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can. Just carry a clipboard and you’re automatically in.
The other day my son questioned another parent’s behavior. I told him that she’d never had a teenaged son before and was just doing the best she could. No one gets a step-by-step manual for every parenting situation. At times, we are all flying by the seat of our pants. I remember leaving the hospital with my firstborn, flabbergasted that these people would just give her to us. Clearly, we were unprepared. Obviously, we had no idea what we were doing. I spent most of my kids’ childhoods feeling like an impostor, amazed that The Experts weren’t bursting in with video footage, eager to point to all the evidence of my screw-ups, mistakes, and fodder for their future therapy.
I toppled off the lofty parent pedestal a long time ago. My offspring are (all too) aware I’m not perfect and sometimes making it up as I go. Here’s the secret: we all are! We are all first-time, amateur humans winging it. No one is an expert, even if they’re carrying the clipboard. Fortunately, that allows for lots of teaching moments on forgiveness, grace, and how we learn from mistakes.
Unfortunately, feeling like a phony tends to limit the risks we’re willing to take. We’re so worried about being unveiled that we pull back–from opportunities, relationships, or dreams. If we are trapped by the “appear competent at all costs” lie, we keep our challenges–and consequently our victories–small.
Doesn’t it get tiring, this rationed life? So many of us are reined in, our potential and gifts spring-tight and begging for release, but we tiptoe obediently to avoid appearing foolish. A grace-filled life is abundant, not careful. We all have symphonies in us, waiting to be heard. How can we muffle the music because we might look silly? Disrobe, unmask, and go take a dip in the Smurf pool.