In a previous career, I studied closely the annals of the Personal Branding Gurus. I walked among them, and I read their sacred texts.
I have also learned at the feet of the motivational speakers of YouTube, having binge-watched countless talks in preparation for a speech evaluation contest.
The template is often, but not always, as follows:
- I used to be hot garbage (like you).
- But then I finally accomplished/realized/discovered This Thing.
- And now I am transformed by This Thing. Won’t you join me?
A more elaborate version includes caveats:
- I still have to remind myself every day that I am not hot garbage (anymore)
- You can join me for This Other Thing, too, where we’ll remind each other of our worth. My worth is a little higher, though, which is why you should let me teach you to brand yourself correctly.
I find this deeply unmotivating, and in my lower moments, I am tempted to internalize Fact 1: My Hot Garbage Self. And I’ve joined some of the Personally Branded Things, only to realize I was being pandered to.
Like many Internet denizens, I occasionally suffer from impostor syndrome, the condition first labeled in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. It’s the sensation of feeling like we are not actually as qualified or competent as people perceive us to be, and that we could be unmasked at any moment.
Not sure if this describes you? Well, I mean, I don’t know that much about it, but here’s a quiz you can take that might be worthwhile. (AUGH, did it again. I am actually quite confident that the link I just created does, indeed, go to a quiz.)
The phrase “negative self-talk” was forever ruined for me by Mustache Larry at girls’ camp, who was always happy to ease the tension of self-doubt with an unsolicited shoulder rub and the 1989 version of Life Hack lectures. He was probably right that we were too hard on ourselves, ranting about how we’d surely failed the AP Exams whose scores awaited us at home and that we’d never master the art of teasing our bangs for maximum height. But there is, at times, a deliciousness in mutual self-deprecation, and I knew that Larry didn’t understand what we actually felt: we knew that our hair was mostly fine; we expected our test scores would be passable; we absolutely never wanted shoulder rubs.
Thirty years later, I’m more familiar with the intricacies of self-doubt, partly thanks to the challenges of repeatedly leaving and rejoining the full-time workforce due to family commitments. I would venture to say that many in the gig economy feel uncertain at times. Any creative endeavor is an opportunity to stretch oneself and to worry that everyone can tell that one is not so flexible, after all.
I try to think about this in terms of what I would say to a student. Because I have taught writing, speaking, and mathematics, I have been afforded the opportunity to see how children begin to convince themselves in their early teens that they simply don’t have the aptitude for a given subject. These subjects all require a similar resiliency in terms of willingness to repeatedly improve upon a solution. They also seem to be the subjects that students decide they “aren’t good at” instead of “aren’t interested in.” Helping students to see that they are not impostors and that they will benefit from a creative approach to these situations is a deeply rewarding aspect of teaching.
And then, of course, there are the occasions when I hear my friends mention feeling a bit at sea, particularly those who have left the workforce to take care of their children. I’ve had moments myself when I thought, “I don’t even know why I am doing this (insert enriching endeavor); the time for that has passed and I’ve forgotten most of what I learned in school.” But when I hear a friend speak of herself this way, I am always astonished. “YOU ARE ELASTIGIRL!” cried Edna Mode to Helen Parr, a role I try to embody in reassuring my friends.
None of us is hot — or even lukewarm — garbage. Our inherent worth does not stem from our accomplishments, our credentials, or our lack thereof at this point in time. Now that I have realized This Thing, I’m going to tell you some other Things that help me when I am feeling like an impostor.
- Make some small improvement in your surroundings. Collect and dispose of a bag of actual garbage, fix a minor broken annoyance, find some task that will let you feel like you have made progress from your original state.
- Create something–say, a short article about how you overcome impostor syndrome, or a home-cooked meal, or anything where you are making something new.
- Actually practice your craft, whatever it is, instead of emailing people to ask if they still think you are any good whatsoever at your craft or are maybe tired of your craft at this point. (It is possible that this is not a step I myself have implemented.)
- Do a check to see if you are running low on healthy food, adequate sleep, and Our Friend Sunshine, and remind yourself that these essentials can greatly affect your mood. If you realize you haven’t met these basic needs very well lately, acknowledge that your feelings of anxiety and self-doubt are probably being increased by your physiological state.
- Imagine the worst thing your perceived nemesis (The Impostor Unmasker) could say to you. Imagine your friend standing there when it happens, and what your friend would say in your defense. Listen to your friend.
- Ask yourself, “How much longer do I want to be anxious about this?” It’s kind of a ridiculous question, but for whatever reason it tends to help me. Perhaps it’s the acknowledgment that at some future point, this current worry will be a thing of the past, and I may have some ability to determine how soon that point will come.
- Acknowledge that you may not have the same background as others in your field, then ask what experiences you’ve had in the meantime that give you a different perspective or help you empathize with a wider variety of people. For me, this has gotten easier as I have gotten older.
Well! I’m certainly feeling better now that I got that out of my system. Are you ready to TAKE YOUR NON-GARBAGENESS TO THE NEXT LEVEL? WHO’S WITH ME?!