REED: Impostor syndrome

People keep asking me how I fill my days at Yale, the implication being that classes alone aren’t enough. New acquaintances ask directly; after learning my residential college, where I’m from and my major, it seems the next logical step. Strangers ask indirectly, in their glances — some covert, others less concealed — angled my way when I’m caught lingering in the dining hall too long after lunch. Potential employers request an attached resume; clubs ask for three-sentence bios that inevitably make their way to the unread “About Us” section of websites; relatives nestle the question somewhere in the first quarter of the biannual “checking in on you” email.

Last time I was asked, I had to repeat myself three times before my interrogator understood. “I try to be happy,” I said.

She had, I assume, expected a well-rehearsed litany of clubs. If I wanted to take a risk, I would add a hobby toeing that fine line between so unheard of that no possible conversation could ensue, and sufficiently unique to make me worthy of conversing with further. It is the elevator pitch translated into social currency.

I wish my response had stemmed from self-assurance and the confidence that I am more than a list of activities. In fact, my answer was rooted in insecurity and trepidation, the sort of self-doubt that I think plagues the majority of us here at Yale far more than it should.

There is a term for this, you know. Impostor syndrome. (True to form, as a psychology major and a pre-med student, I give nothing its due until it has been clinically explained and written down in the annals of some oversized and infrequently read volume.) This syndrome has its own eponymous website, dedicated to a book on the topic written by a Dr. Valerie Young, who clearly did not suffer from the condition herself.

Impostor syndrome: when capable people are convinced they are incapable, poets certain that their words possess neither elegance nor rhythm, photographers possessed by the fear that the right lighting will forever evade their capture. It might even explain why — at least on an anecdotal basis — the stereotypical high achievers, those lucky people granted admission to places like Yale, are so overrepresented among therapists’ clients. I sometimes find it preposterous that anyone could stand to be burdened by my worries without monetary reward.

But if we can catalog this as a syndrome, then accordingly we must be able to find a cure, or at least some treatment to assuage the symptoms. This past summer, I took up yoga at the behest of my older sister, a newly christened yoga teacher. I am not very “good,” per se, at yoga — my handstand is nonexistent; my headstand must be assisted by the wall and still usually results in bruised knees; I am routinely astonished by the inflexibility of my hips. But as I’m walking around New Haven these days, I am often overcome by the urge to stretch my arms to the sky, and when I allow my gaze to follow my fingertips, I can see that the sky is vast and I can appreciate — relish, even — that I am both infinitesimally small and shockingly powerful. And when my arms make their way back down to my sides, I can wrap them around myself, each shoulder blade held by the opposite hand, and I can feel triumphant over impostor syndrome.

I have been repeating a mantra in my head over the past several months, one I first heard from a yoga teacher in Charlotte, N.C., my hometown. As I lay on the ground, trying to breathe through the anxiety of the day, she reminded the class, “You do enough. You have enough. You are enough.”

So yes, on some days, I am scared to tell people what activities fill my planner. But I can tell them this: Each and every day that I can look up over the tops of the trees, see a sky that refuses to be quantified and be grateful that I am loved and I am healthy and I am happy. It is enough.

 

Gabriela Reed is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at gabriela.reed@yale.edu.

Comments