Impostor Syndrome Almost Killed Me
In my last post here, I talked about how I overcame one of the scariest bouts of depression I've had since I started working on it with my therapist. I was hopeful. I was through it. I had the tools I needed. I had something else: false confidence.
Last week, I woke up on Monday, and just got progressively worse. It was happening all over again. I was ready to cry at the drop of a hat. I felt fragile and unstable and it snowballed all day long. I pushed really hard to just survive the day and was dreading everything because there it was all over again. The same feelings from the prior incident, just less strong. Thank God.
I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on psychology, but yet again I was scared. This was happening with increasing regularity and I felt like my therapy work was focusing very hard on the symptoms and not the root. My therapist was going a great job helping me manage these deluges of negative feelings, but the hard part is I had no indication as to what was causing them directly.
Last Thursday, while talking to my therapist I broke down. That's a regular occurence. I start out okay, and the deeper the conversation gets the more unstable I get until it all floods out and I cry like someone ripped the head off a kitten in front of me. Then I'm fine. It's cathartic, but simultaneously it's super frustrating. But something else happened... In my talking about it all, I finally hit "it." The thing I was searching for. The thing that cut right to the root of the problem and showed me what was wrong as if a light was being blasted on it.
My therapist just asked me "When was the last time you were happy?" I had to think about it hard, but I had to go all the way back to December when I was in LA. Sitting at lunch with my friends after being on Jason Stapleton's podcast, I felt like I was on top of the world, but when I really thought about it all that trip changed everything for me. In fact, I came home feeling like everything was a lie.
Jason, who has been a massive inspiration to me and a motivator in my life (to the point where I call him my mentor) told me I inspire him. I inspire him. I can't even say that without getting choked up because it's so ridiculous to me that someone that important to me is also inspired by me, but he said those words. It's in the video I linked above. I should have been touched by that, and instead I was mortified. I was cracking. It started slowly, and just kept piling on.
Jason was talking about my year, and on balance, it was a hell of a year. I finished 6 weeks of chemo and radiation, had an esophagectomy, did a few months of chemo, started a business, built a new position for myself at work, and ran a 5k. There is no way to look at 2019 as anything but a ridiculous against-the-odds success. So why was I cracking? Why was the spiral starting?
Why when Jordan Peterson's family talked about his struggles recently did I take it so poorly, to the point where I got into an argument with a friend of mine over his treatment? Was it because I saw just a little bit of what I saw in myself in him?
The answer came as I was talking to my therapist, and I started using words like phony, fraud, and fake. I felt like a liar. Like I was putting on a show life I wasn't living. I wasn't worthy of praise because I couldn't fix my own messes. I got so much praise for my strength and yet here I was breaking down on a nearly daily basis. I got so much praise for my fitness and what I accomplished and yet here I was without even the will to get out of bed in the morning. I got so much praise for starting a business in the midst of my turmoil and yet I hadn't sold much of anything since the beginning December. I was breaking down because I felt like a liar. Like a fraud. Like a phony. And I was losing my mind and on the verge of yelling when I blurted out "I'm a fraud because I can't draw on all this effing strength everyone keeps telling me I have and it's killing me and I can't take it anymore."
My therapist stopped me. "You have to recognize that you are a complete person and that struggling doesn't make you less of a person or less strong or take away the accomplishments you had last year."
"I'm an effing impostor," I said. "I have the worst case of impostor syndrome ever. I feel like I'm not worthy of the praise. I didn't do anything to earn it except not die, and I can't apply all this stupid strength I'm supposed to have to stop myself from feeling like at any moment, I could just quit everything and hide."
She was quiet.
"I hate this so much."
She chimed in, "You're way too hard on yourself."
I shook my head. "I'm not. I'm a fraud. Everyone sees this side of me where I'm taking everything the world gives me with a smile on my face, and meanwhile I'm struggling just to find the motivation to live every damned day."
"You know strong people struggle, right?"
Now it was my turn to be quiet. "Your issue is that you conflate struggling with weakness. They're not the same thing. You feel like an impostor because you're not living a perfect life and thinking that not living a perfect life makes you weak. Meanwhile, in the pit of all this and at your worst, you still get up every day. You go to work every day. You run your business every day. You do your podcast every week. You beat cancer. You ran a 5k. You're growing in every way, and when you needed help you sought help, and you think you're an impostor because you're not 'strong' when, in reality, your strength is showing every time you do any of that."
"You really do have impostor syndrome and that negative voice in your head is negating all of your accomplishments is lying to you. You're not an impostor, but your negative internal voice is telling you you are, and you're believing it." "The c*ntvoice." "The what?" she said. "The c*ntvoice. My friend and I have a name for it." She thought that was funny but she pointed out that my depression trigger, the thing I couldn't put my finger on, was exactly that. I was being told by my negative internal voice that if I didn't live up to the perception of others, I was a failure, even though I'm not even close to one. I was a success, and what I accomplished last year is remarkable. I have every right to be proud of it, but my internal negative voice made sure I didn't indulge in any pride for what I achieved. Essentially, I was talking myself into depression on a constant basis.
Now I was at the root of it. Finally. After almost two months of work, I knew what to look for and how to beat it. I ended my therapy session on Thursday with a new purpose. A sharpness. The fire was back. The spark was back. I was back. And now? I know what it's going to take for me to beat this dragon once and for all.
"When you're fighting a dragon, you go to the dragon and kill it otherwise it'll come to your village and burn everything down."
I'm going after that dragon now. I know what it is and what I need to watch for. I finally feel like I have the tools I need. I've strung together 4 good days since my last session. I will beat this, and this time I'm not just saying it but doing nothing and hoping the good feelings stick around.
My mind has been torturing me for months. I'm not going to let it do that to me any more.
I'm going to slay this dragon.
Struggling is not weakness. Quitting is. And I don't quit.