I have a deep need for people to praise me. And I desperately need folks to adore my work — even though this praise and adoration make me feel embarrassed at the same time.
Because no matter who I become and no matter what excellent work I might do, I am terrified that people will suddenly realize I’m a fraud.
I’ve suffered this secret fear since I was a child. For many years, I thought I was the only one who felt this way. When I was a kid, people praised me for being “so intelligent.” They used superlatives such as “genius” and “once-in-a-lifetime talent,” but I knew better.
On the inside, I was just me. I didn’t feel smart. I didn’t feel talented. I just felt like someone struggling to make it through a confusing childhood. I assumed I was “normal” and I was simply surrounded by idiots. I was certain someone would come along any day and expose the obvious fact that I’d been wrongly praised for years.
I expected that day to come — and I knew it would crush me when it did.
I eventually learned that other people felt this way, too, and that it was called “imposter syndrome,” but that didn’t make me feel any better. I felt tortured by the desperate need for people to praise me and tell me I was great — because I needed to prop up my fragile ego by believing the things they told me — but the praise also shamed me, because the more they believed good things, the more certain I was that they were wrong.
When I started my first newspaper job as a freshman in college, I was a lowly part-time reporter/photographer. The publisher was an important man way above me. He worked in a fancy office and didn’t spend time with people like me. He left the people in the newsroom alone and he managed the business. I didn’t know he even paid attention to what we did.
But one afternoon soon after I started, I came in to find that publisher Shelton Prince had left a note on my desk, which I’d never known of him to do for others. It was brief, but he told me that a story I had done — which had run in that day’s newspaper — was “great.” Actually, he made that word all caps and used an exclamation point. He said it was “GREAT!”
I kept that note for years, but I’m not sure what finally happened to it.
I have two predictable reactions when I get such praise. First, I feel fantastic. I feel as though maybe I might have some talent after all. I feel as though maybe I can do the great things I want to do.
And then comes the downside. The doubts return. Then there’s the voice in my head which says I’ve merely fooled whoever praised me. Or maybe I’ve gotten lucky. Either way, I won’t be able to do something which will be praised that well again. And then I’m scared to do more work — because surely the next work will be terrible and everyone will be disappointed in me — because they’ll know I had just been lucky. They’ll know I was a fraud.
I’m been thinking about this again all week. Two things happened to bring it to mind.
After I posted a photo on several social media sites — a fairly routine picture of one of my cats or dog — a woman commented on it and said, “You are a very talented photographer! I was an art director in NYC for many years and I’d hire you.”
My heart did the old two-step. I was elated that someone with professional experience in the field thought I was good and it made me swell with pride. Then the defensive and fearful part of my brain kicked in. I deflated at the thought that I must have her fooled. Or maybe she just didn’t have great judgment. Either way, she would probably be disappointed if she saw more of my work. Right?
Early Friday morning, I got a message from an older woman who I met by chance late last year in a restaurant. We talked that night for a couple of hours and she told me a lot about her life and issues. It was a pleasant conversation and she found me on Facebook to become friends. Her message this morning was very thoughtful.
“Although most anyone we know would say that a chance meeting between a young man and an elderly great-grandmother was just that, pure chance, I now know it was part of my karmic evolution,” she wrote. “You are perhaps an Older Soul than I am. You have led me to avenues of growth I might have never found, except for you. Thank you for a friendship I know was freely given.”
She made me feel fantastic, although I thought she was giving me too much credit. But as good as it made me feel, I felt that old familiar embarrassment — the fear that she would think differently of me if she knew who I really was. I felt fear of being found lacking by not being who she thought I was.
My rational mind can tell me that my fears are probably groundless, but that fear takes such a powerful hold over part of me that it’s useless to argue.
Tonight, I spent a few minutes browsing my two Instagram accounts. As I looked through those pictures — mostly animals on one and mostly sunsets on the smaller one — I found myself thinking, “Hey, these are pretty good. Maybe I’m better than I fear sometimes.”
I’m terrified to believe in my own value, but a part of me sees the value anyway. Those opposing parts of my mind are at war with one another. I need the confident part to win. I need the fearful part to die, just as the man who created that part also died two months ago.
The confident part of my mind knows I’m smart and talented. That part knows I can do anything I attempt. That part knows I’m capable of great things. That part knows how much I have to offer to the world and to a family and to friends.
My imposter syndrome needs to die. I need to move on from a place where I was always waiting for someone to criticize me or give me back-handed compliments.
The fearful part of me doesn’t want to let me think this, much less allow me to say it, but I know I’m capable of great things — that I’m going to do great things — as soon as the fear can get out of the way.
Then I can finally become who I’ve always needed to be.