21 October 2021 -- Imposter Syndrome and Becoming "Post-Cool"

Like many people I know, I have had my struggles with imposter syndrome. There are, I suppose, educated and accomplished people who have never suffered with self-doubts and feelings of incompetence, but I have no idea who these people are. Even now, at my ever-advancing age, in my 30th year as a university professor, I still have moments when I feel like a fraud, like I have somehow faked my way this far, and eventually someone is going to figure it out and it will all come crashing down around me. 

For a long while, both before and after I earned tenure, I had a recurring dream that went like this: 

I am sitting at my desk in my office in the English Department here at Virginia Tech, when I hear a knock at the door. A stranger steps in and asks “Dr. Heilker?” “Yes,” I say, “Can I help you?”  The stranger says, “We've just learned that you didn’t pass your 10th grade gym class.”  “Really?  Wow, that’s funny.”  “I don’t think you understand,” he says. “That means that your high school diploma — and thus all your other diplomas — are null and void. Here’s a box to clean out your office. You have 15 minutes. We've called security.” 

Where do such punishing self-doubts come from?  How do they start? I can definitely point to one source in my history, when my family moved from North Bellmore a mere two miles away to our new house in Wantagh when I was in 3rd grade. But that two miles might as well have been a trip to the far side of the moon!  In Bellmore, we were doing long addition in math; the 3rd graders in Wantagh, however, had already memorized the times tables through 12 X 12!  I was immediately struck by how very, very far behind I was, how completely out of step I was. It was terrifying and overwhelming. I had no idea how I would ever catch up, and I sometimes hid in the bathroom during math lessons to nurse the pain in my gut and avoid that day’s shame and embarrassment. Truth be told, my relationship with math never really recovered, which is one of the reasons I went into English instead some branch of science. 

And some of my cutting self-criticism surely comes from the inevitable crap that every adolescent has to live through. As I have already mentioned more than once on this blog, I was keenly aware of how very uncool I was in middle school and high school, of how desperately I tried — and failed — to somehow become cool, efforts which eventually moved me off the track team and into smoking cigarettes, drinking harder and harder, and doing whatever drugs I could get my hands on. 

Today, thank goodness, I feel less of an imposter, and there are some clear reasons for this improvement. For instance, in recovery circles I ran into some smart and snarky and tough-loving friends who had some very useful tools for cutting through this shit. One of them referred to those self-negating voices in her head as her IBSC — her “Itty Bitty Shitty Committee.”  I *love* that, and I share it with all of my students, especially those super-driven, hyper-self-critical souls I work with in the Honors College. Referring to those unfair but crippling doubts as my Itty Bitty Shitty Committee takes away all their power, helps me see just how silly and foolish the whole operation is. 

But what really has helped me with my imposter syndrome is not advancing in my career -- not my teaching awards, not my publications, not my titles, not my salary -- but writing songs. Artists have to look imposter syndrome in the face every time they sit down to create something. Jeff Tweedy notes that his inner voices regularly talk to him, saying things like "Who do you think you are?” and “Are you kidding me with this bullshit?”  And at the top of Twyla Tharp's list of creative fears is "People will laugh at me." 

Writing and sharing songs requires me to embrace myself and my talents (however limited or sporadic they are) exactly the way I am and they are. I can't hide in the bathroom anymore or wish I was somehow cooler. I hope other people like what I do, of course, but it's perfectly OK if they don't. [To be clear, I hope YOU like what I do, but it's perfectly OK if you don't.]  Every song I write and share is a victory over those diseased and still recovering parts of my psyche that suggest I am not quite ready yet, not quite there, not quite enough, that I should somehow be more than I am. I'm tired of wanting to be other than what I am, and I am quite tired of trying. 

I have come to think of myself, then, as "post-cool."  I am definitely not cool now, and looking back, it is clear that I was never really even close. Every song I make and share, though, is an overt and undeniable sign of my increasing liberation.

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