I have no idea why it took me until last semester to discover the words for this condition—the feeling that, despite obvious achievements, you are, in reality, a fraud. Ironically, my discovery of this concept came from a colleague and friend who, by admitting to imposter syndrome, ended up, inadvertently, further entrenching my own suspicions of inadequacy. How could any true grad student be unfamiliar with this term?!
These misgivings crop up in the most expected and unexpected places. In classes outside my field…and in classes within my field—how could anyone claim to be a Modernist without having read Eliot’s Four Quartets or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? In foreign language conversation groups—how could I have forgotten how those pronouns work? Can I really claim to be a mediocre Italian speaker anymore? In writing an abstract—shouldn’t I know how to craft one of these by now? In note taking, which I have been practicing since elementary school—why have my classmates written nothing down, while I’ve already filled up two pages, is the lecture pointless or should I already be familiar with what the professor is saying? Heck, even my midwestern university campus suffers from feelings of inferiority: once upon a time, squirrels were imported to give it an East coast college feel. (Note: I learned that anecdote in Italian class, so take it with a grain of salt.)
On the other hand, I’ve heard that imposter syndrome is a sign of greatness, and that if you suffer from this anxiety, then you’re probably doing a better job than you think. In fact, my friend affirms this—we’ve discovered that we each think the other smarter than she gives herself credit for. Moreover, whenever my colleagues admit to feeling unsure of themselves, I’m always a bit surprised because they’re brilliant and insightful.
Still, I don’t think imposter syndrome is all a lie because I’m not who I should be. I let emails go unanswered and friendships slip through the cracks. I try to identify—and then judge—the sorority girls based on their shoes. A few weeks ago, Campustown’s resident homeless man was riding the bus, and I could smell him from three feet away. I’m ashamed to admit that I couldn’t get the image of the hose down treatment—you know, the one they used to use in mental asylums—out of my head. I judge people by the presidential candidates they’re advocating for on Facebook. I’m sick over the poisoned water in Flint, the segregation in Champaign, and the huddled masses with no home to return to—but what have I done about any of it, really? And, of course, I’m guilty of ten thousand other things that I’m not willing to fess up to on this public platform.
Lent is when we discover that we are worse off than we thought we were, my rector said, before smearing my forehead with ashes a few weeks ago. Lent is when our best masks are peeled away, when we have to face the fact that we are frauds in terms of love, patience, faithfulness, bravery, and goodness. But, my rector continued, we also discover that we are far more loved than we could ever dream of being.
We aren’t who we should be, and that’s not ok. And try as we do, we can’t fix our ugliness. But that doesn’t mean we’re not loved, and it doesn’t mean we’re alone.
Sabrina Lee majored in English and French and graduated from Calvin College in 2013. After a couple of gap years, she’s back in school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pursuing a MA/PhD in English.You can usually find her reading and drinking tea—and, once in a while, ballroom dancing.