Remember Al Franken's Stuart Smalley character on SNL in the early 90's? "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me." It was funny because it was true. Franken's self-help guru was suffering from the disorder most of us know only too well--Imposter Syndrome.
This disorder is in no medical journal, doctors don't treat for it, but it is one of the most debilitating ailments known to wo/man. There is no genetic marker to warn us it's coming, no vaccine to ward off its effects, and no easy way to heal it once it's well and truly become part of us.
(The term "imposter syndrome" is, itself, suffering from the same disorder--it is sometimes defined as a "term" or a "phrase" or, most grandly, a "concept"--but never, exactly, a real "syndrome." And certainly not a "disorder." But please allow me the artistic license to call it a disorder--none of the other nouns truly resonate, and it *is* my blog, after all. The poor thing can't even decide if it wants to be spelled with an "er" or an "or", so I'm going with "er.")
None of us is born with Imposter Syndrome. Our youngest, most pure selves knew who we were and what we needed. Food. Water. Love. As we grew, each of us had a core sense of self. Everything was ours: all the toys, all the love, all the everything. We were selfish as young children must be and our parents taught us to share the world as adults must do. And still, we retained that tiny voice inside our tiny bodies that told us who we were, how important we were, how talented and special and one-of-a-kind we were.
And then. When did it happen? I'm of the mind it was middle school--junior high as we called it then. But perhaps it began even earlier. We started looking for love in all the wrong places (Jonny Lee song, that). We tried to please the teachers, our friends, the cool kids at the park or in the classroom. Our parents seemed to require ever increasing proof of our worthiness in exchange for the love we once got for free--not true, certainly, but so it felt. The tiny voice of self grew quieter, drowned out finally by the booming roar of the world.
By the time we reached college, got jobs, moved out on our own (any or all of the above), we'd forgotten that the tiny voice had ever existed. The world was so loud. The demands of everyone around us, the need to work to earn to be enough, made us forget who we were at our core, our most pure selves.
And sometimes that rare moment occurred when someone else's pure self recognized our pure self and said: "You know? You're pretty amazing. What you do, who you are? That's remarkable." And we were left with a sense that it was all wrong. We were all wrong. We didn't deserve the acclaim, the compliment, the recognition. We became imposters in our own lives.
Is there a cure for this disorder? Some miracle medicine we can dose to dispel the dreaded Imposter Syndrome? Mr. Franken's mirror mantra never seemed to help Stuart Smalley, so let's cross that one off the list right off.
Perhaps the Imposter Syndrome doesn't ever go away. Perhaps we always need some, shall we say, humility. But I'd like to think that the ill effects of the disorder become less bothersome as we age, as we begin to care less what we believe others expect of us. When we no longer do to satisfy or ingratiate ourselves to others, but rather do for the joy of doing regardless of the outcome.
And when we reach over to pull another along with us, to mentor or aid or support a fellow sufferer, our tiny voices grow louder, find a space in the noise of the world, and sing.