It’s helpful to have some arrogance with paranoia. If we were all paranoia, we’d never leave the house. If we were all arrogance, no one would want us to leave the house.’ Chris Martin
Greetings my Darlings,
An energetic woman is in the fitting room clawing at the neckline of her dress like it is a rash. To compensate for her short-waistedness, we have had to take up the shoulders about three and a half inches. Now she feels like she is being choked. Two angry red flares are showing in her cheeks and her eyes are flashing glassy with held-back tears as she glares at the dress in the mirror. She turns to me suddenly and says, “I hate this dress but I need it to be perfect. I shouldn’t even be going to this wedding. I don’t belong.” I understand her perfectly. I can lower that neckline by an inch by tomorrow so that she can breathe. Sometimes breathing itself is a tall order when we feel we don’t Belong.
Meanwhile, a fabulous young man has started working with us in the shop. His life goal is to join our little Seamster’s Union. When I ask him if he would like to be mentioned in this blog, he claps his hands and says, “Oh, Yes! Only I want to portrayed as a Middle-aged White Woman who doesn’t really need this job.” We all laugh. She brings in samples of her work and we ooh and ahh over her sense of texture, color, style. This kid is really creative, for a Middle-aged white woman who doesn’t need this job. She whips up things like “Sandy” had for Bette Middler’s character “Barbara” to wear in the 80’s movie “Ruthless People.” Bold, imaginative, with strong lines and colors--it’s incredible stuff. She taught herself all she knows, which is so impressive. Unfortunately, she did not teach herself how to shank a button, how to alter clothing (only how to make it from scratch, which is a completely different ball of wax, or whacks, as the case may be…), and she has never used a blind hemmer or a serger or any of the other specialty machines we have in the shop. Now she is stuck hemming jeans and struggling with patching faded jackets that really should be put out of their misery and up-cycled into tea cozies. It isn’t long before I find this poor, Middle-aged White Woman slumped over the blind hemmer, trying to rethread it for the fourth time, mumbling in despair, “I thought I could sew… I feel like I can’t sew… This is just awful…I can’t do anything…”
“Chin up, honey,” I say, “Seamsters are Tough. Seamsters don’t cry. You can do this! You are doing fine. We’ve ALL Been There!” And it’s true. We have. But she continues to shrink—the shame waves billowing off her are palpable as she submerges herself in despair. She cares SO much. It’s so important that she be Perfect. Immediately. Without Practice. Without Instruction. Magically Perfect. It’s adorable, how innocently arrogant she is, to think she ought to be as good as those who have been doing this for more than thirty years already… Skill is dearly bought. Muscle memory takes thousands of repetitions. Learning takes failing. I want to hug her and smack her and “fix” her all at the same time. Instead, I turn away and let her feel what she is feeling. This is a powerful “Ego-in-the-woodchipper” moment for her. Who am I to deprive her of it? I know enough about Ego-in-the-woodchipper moments to know the blessings they bring.
Imposter Syndrome is all about lurching or sashaying between arrogance and paranoia, and bumping up against our ignorance or lack of experience in the middle. Anything worth doing well is worth doing badly but it takes some arrogance to want to do it in the first place. Then we have to live with all the growing pains.
Some of us feel the yearning in our hearts to do things or Be things and we attempt them despite the steep climb ahead of us because we know that to ignore this Call, this Gift, this Invitation is to abort a part of ourselves we could never be otherwise. I grew up in a community that talked a lot about Vocations, but when it came right down to it, the options were few and did not seem to involve sewing machines or sheep dung. While it was clear very early that my talents veered towards music, art, and stories, I was consistently told by Those Who Knew Better, that I needed to do remedial math courses instead. It was like telling a fish to ride a bicycle. A conversation that NEVER happened (but was clearly Understood as though it had) went something like this:
Me: “But God would not have given me both these gifts and the yearning to use them if I wasn’t supposed to Use them for His Glory!”
Those Who Knew Better: “Well God has no idea what the current labor market is for storytellers and folk-musicians. He clearly wasn’t thinking straight. You need to learn how to do Calculus this semester so that you can be a Specialist-who-needed-Calculus-to-get-Certified. If you don’t have a piece of paper saying you can Do Something, your life will be a Colossal Failure and you will wind up in mis-matched socks, smelling vaguely of cheap gin on the road to perdition.”
Me: “But what if, as God’s Child, He just wants me to be Happy and he gave me these things so that I could be very, Very happy serving his Other Children?”
Those Who Knew Better: “That’s Ridiculous. God does not work like that. Money may be the root of all Evil but you’re still going to need plenty of it and you can’t make money being “happy.” Besides, we aren’t supposed to be happy. You are here to Suffer. All of life is Suffering. (Hence Calculus).”
Me: “Wait…I thought this was a Catholic School…Are we Buddhists now?”
And thirty years later, I didn’t ever manage to pass Calculus and my life has been…well… the life of the Perpetual Imposter. I wasn’t “supposed to be” who I am. I was supposed to be Something Else but I could not pass Calculus. And I must confess I’ve had a hell of a lot of fun on the detour! I’ve been a mother, a seamster, a teacher, a cook, a gardener, a farmer, and a dabbler in all sorts of things that defy labels. I’ve also wasted monumental amounts of time in sweat-drenching, colon-twisting anxiety about What Others Might Think and feeling like I don’t Belong. This has led to an untellable amount of heartbreak and disaster.
What I have learned is that if your heart gets broken, that turns out to be a Jolly Useful Thing. It just means you have pieces you can share now, like cuttings from a house plant, that you can give to others whose hearts need healing as they Dare to be Themselves. Those heart cuttings, properly tended, can grow new roots and flourish in gorgeous new ways when others lose heart, lose sight, and think they are imposing or Imposters.
One of the things I enjoy most is telling stories. The only way I can do that is to Write and tell stories. So I do. Hence this 4:am blog. Sometimes it’s excruciatingly raw and embarrassing. I don’t know how to do the basics—the equivalents of shanking a button, or using the machinery. (Mere Children have to show me again and again how to post on Instagram.) Sometimes I hit “publish” and feel nausea. Sometimes I see my threads of thought get tangled or unraveled but I have left myself no time to edit, or rewrite. I vascillate between triumph and despair so often and so much that when a “Professional Writer” for prestigious publications mentions that he might read an entry, I go into a shame spiral the likes of which make the Middle Aged White Woman slumped over the blind hemmer look like she just had a mild menstrual cramp. I instantly “un-friend” him and block his phone number for days. I just don’t want to look this Stupid.
Nevertheless, I persist….
My darling Scottish Nephew, whom I adore, comes to visit for the weekend. He is handsome, wise and kind and, at only twenty years of age, the very pinnacle of physical perfection. He dances for the Royal Ballet in London and they have just been on tour in Japan and L.A. I ask him how it feels to be in those big shows, on those massive stages, traveling around the world. “Do you ever feel like you don’t belong, like an Imposter?” He smiles sheepishly, “Of course! All the time. It helps me focus and work harder. But My worst days of all are when I think, ‘what’s this all about anyway? What am I doing with my life but striving to entertain or distract wealthy people…’ That’s when I have to think seriously about the nature of Art and why it’s worth doing. Why anything is worth doing…” His answers take us trudging up a nearby mountain, through dinner, and deep into an evening around a campfire. When we do things for the sheer Love of them, without thought to audience or paycheck—when we get to experience that sensation of a soul in flight, in pure Flow—Nothing is Frivolous. Nothing is not worth doing.
Who are we to look at our gifts, our calls, our talents, and say that our God/s had no idea what S/he was doing? That we don’t have Enough? Who’s to say that the mere Wanting to fulfill a dream is not Reason enough to do it? Are these calls not also Divine micro-vocations? (from Vocare: Latin for “call.” ) All I can say for sure is that Not Answering is far more dangerous than looking like a total arse in front of other humans who are secretly terrified by the idea that they look like arses too. As I used to say of my housekeeping habits “I am here to make you all feel Wonderful: The Slackers can see they are not alone and the Achievers can enjoy an enhanced self-satisfaction that they can do better than this. Everybody wins!”
Erma Bombeck said, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me'. For some of you, that is going to take some doing! You have SO many talents. And to anyone contemplating the Vulnerability of risking your True Self in public, I say, let’s Do It. Hold my clammy little, calloused hand. Let’s JUMP! Let’s make a big fun mess and learn as we go. I’ll lower our necklines, if necessary, so we can breathe easier.
Thanks, dear Friends, for the Good Work you do—especially if it takes Courage, especially if you are an Imposter filling in for an “expert” who has yet to show up.