Impostor Part II: I am Still Real

Shortly after I started my first post-grad job, I wrote this post about experiencing Impostor Syndrome as a young woman beginning her career. A lot has happened since then, and it’s strange to look back on the woman I was then and the woman I am now, and see how different they are. I’m starting a new job next Tuesday and it seems like a good time to take stock of the exhilarating, terrifying, incredible mix of emotions I’m feeling.

Much of the past year has been hard on me (is it just me, or has this year seemed hard on everyone?). I have fought severe, debilitating depression, an anxiety disorder, and anorexia. I am still navigating those experiences to different degrees. I experienced my first major loss: my paternal grandmother. A slew of family crises of varying severity. Boyfriend accepted a job at an emergency clinic that promptly lost two of its five vets and recently lost another, and works 15-20 hour overnight shifts. We don’t see each other much, and when we do it’s often muddled by the haze of exhaustion and stress. I experienced my own challenges of professional doubt and frustration (to put it simply). Friends who have largely been silent when I needed them to be loud the most.

But there have also been moments of softness. An incredible international trip. Reconnecting with my cousins and finding they are friends as well as family. Presenting on digital communication strategy to an association full of people much older and wiser than me. Beginning to build a home, family, and life with Boyfriend. Friends who have bridged the expanse of my pain to help me heal.

2017 has pushed me to the edge of what I thought I was capable of handling. But this year has also made me a more resilient person (it’s just taken to the end of December to see some of the payoff of the pain….). I have learned a lot in what feels like a really short period of time, and since it’s almost the end of the year I may as well do my annual “lessons learned” post! This bear of a year, 2017, has taught me:

Know who you are. Know what you can do.

Over the past year, I’ve been working on finding validation within myself instead of relying on external affirmation – and let me tell you, that’s hard. There are many external forces that seem to exist just to make you question yourself and your abilities, and I seem to have encountered those in excess over the year. I feel like I have existed in a positive feedback loop of narratives telling me I have no worth or skills, which in turn has made me question my worth and cemented me in place so I can’t use my skills, which just made that narrative of worthlessness and lack of skills louder, which in turn made me question myself even more, and so on to infinity.

Guys, negativity will always exist around us and unless I want to constantly be playing this game of questioning and stagnating and worrying, I’ve had to find ways to move past the narratives of worthlessness I know aren’t true. Because I know who I am, and I’m not worthless. I am compassionate and smart and creative and funny and strong. I know what I can do, and I can do a lot. I can write and edit and design beautiful things and strategize and transform the stories around me. I’ve spent most of the year buying into those negative narratives because it was easier than pushing back and standing my ground as a strong human who can do a lot of things really well (even though I still have a lot to learn).

Beating the negativity means remembering who you are even when the voices around you try to tell you who you’re not. Oftentimes our truth does not match the strokes those negative voices try to paint us with, but their colors are so opaque that we can’t always see beyond them. But in times of uncertainty and strife, it’s all the more important to hold onto what we know to be true and hold onto ourselves. I know who I am, and I know what I can do. I am more than I have been allowed to be.

Sometimes the best way to appreciate yourself is to appreciate others.

We’re told that we can’t love others before we love ourselves, we can’t respect others until we respect ourselves, etc. Self-love is important to a healthy life, but honestly it’s sometimes just not there yet. As I dealt with depression and anorexia this year, it often felt impossible to love myself because all I could feel was the pain of my experiences. As difficult as it is to exist when you don’t even really feel human, that can’t be an excuse to treat others with anything but respect and compassion – even on your worst days, you don’t get license to forget that the people around you are human beings.

What I found as I grew through my health issues was that the best way to reconnect with myself was to reconnect with others. As I said, it seems like 2017 was a tough year for most people. Taking the time to check in with friends, send care packages and cards, and just in general be there for the people in my life who needed it helped me learn how to check in with myself; it’s always been easier for me to show compassion and appreciation toward the people I care about, but I struggle to treat myself with the same kindness. Sometimes, it takes throwing yourself into being there for others to know how to be there for yourself, too.

So many people want to help. It’s okay to let them.

There were many people absent over the past year that I’m used to being able to count on, which sucks. But what I noticed is that those empty spaces were gradually filled by others checking in and offering support, especially as I started to talk more openly about the health issues I was experiencing. There’s so much strength in shared struggle, if just to remind you that you’re not alone. This year, I was reminded how many people out there truly want to help when you’re going through tough times – all you have to do is ask, or talk about what’s going on.

When I began writing about depression and anorexia, a lot of people said things like “Oh my god, I never would have known” or “But you’re always so upbeat.” I concealed the challenges I faced because I didn’t want to be a “burden” or a “nag” to those around me, and because I thought the secret to strength was dealing with everything on my own. What I found is that my strength comes from knowing when to hold myself up and knowing when to lean on others. Accepting help doesn’t make you a burden or a nag because most people want to be there for you – you just have to let them and show them how. I’m not always good at being vulnerable when things are difficult, but it’s vulnerability that has taught me how to regain my strength. It’s been letting others in that has helped me heal the most.

If you aren’t singing in the car, figure out why and change it.

I don’t know how to impress upon you guys how shitty it felt to not sing in the car over the past few months. I have an almost 40 minute commute, and car karaoke is second nature for me (thanks, Mom). I didn’t realize as I started to sing less and less, but when it finally hit me that I wasn’t singing at all I felt more defeated than I had the whole year. My favorite high school English teacher talked to us once about how the phrase “broken heart” is so overused now that we don’t understand the strength of the feelings described the first time it was used. Imagine something so painful that your heart, the strongest muscle in your body, literally breaks. When I realized I didn’t have the will or energy to sing in the car anymore, a piece of my heart broke.

It’s often the most (seemingly) trivial aspects of life that amplify the challenges we face; for me, that trivial thing was car karaoke. I already knew there were life changes I had to make, but having a small, tangible goal – to sing in the car again – felt more achievable than “beat anorexia” or “beat depression” or “change my situation.” I still have a lot of healing to do, but I can tell you that over the past two weeks I have started singing again and it feels liberating and beautiful and joyful in a way I have not felt in months.

Pause.

I suck at slowing down. I always have a to do list running in my head and it feels like a constant race to scratch things off and move on to the next. Talking with my therapist this week about struggling with compulsions to restrict or binge highlighted the importance of pause. When I don’t take time to pause before acting on a restrictive urge or binging, I don’t have time to reflect on my actions and make sure they’re the healthiest choice for me in that moment; I move on to the next thing on my to do list because that choice has already been made and I don’t have to think about it. I’ve learned that living my healthiest life involves working time to pause into my schedule, no matter how jam-packed it is.

Earlier this week, I made a series of unhealthy eating choices (because who doesn’t during the holidays when the company kitchen is swimming in toffee, chocolates, and caramel popcorn?) and I was convinced I needed to workout to “balance it out.” I also had three hours of Christmas shopping and didn’t get home until after 9pm (which, anyone who knows me knows, is on the precipice of bedtime), but I pretended that working out would relieve some of the stress I was feeling. I was about to head to the gym when I realized I didn’t have my armband or headphones. I stood in the kitchen for about five minutes, debating whether I wanted to go down the five flights of stairs and through the parking lot to get them out of my car. That moment of pause helped me realize that I wanted to workout because I felt guilty, not because it was the healthiest decision for me – so instead, I took a bubble bath and painted my nails. Pausing is absolutely essential to acting with a clear head and heart (not just when fighting disordered relationships with food or exercise).

I am not an impostor. I am real.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, I often struggle with feeling like people are going to “find out” that I can’t do the things they think I can or that I’m not who they think I am. That I can’t really do anything at all, and those negative voices telling me I’m worthless are right. But they are wrong. I know who I am and I know what I can do. I am strong and capable. I belong exactly where I am and I am worthy of the successes and opportunities I have been given as the new year begins. No one is going to “find out” that I can’t do what they think I can do because I can. I am not an impostor. I am real.

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