Ah, the two questions that have plagued me for as long as I can remember. Two simple questions with seemingly perpetually illusive answers. They have everything to do with how I show up in my career, how I dream and plan for the future, how I see myself when I look in the mirror, and what I feel in my body when I let myself be still.
For nearly 32 years, most of my days have begun without clear intention or a sense of purpose. I get started without knowing where I’m going and without any real expectation for the journey along the way. Sometimes I come out the other side with a sense of clarity and pride. Sometimes I get lost in the detail and emotion of it all and feel completely overcome with uncertainty, purposelessness and fear.
In either case, there’s a real feeling of being asleep at the wheel. You know that moment when your eyelids flutter and you realise you’re not really sure where you are or how you got there — if it’s a dream or happening in real time? You are powerless and yet, strangely at peace. Disconnected, as if what comes next is someone else’s responsibility. It’s that — the simultaneous lack of control and false sense of calm — that often leaves me wondering where trust that it will all work out becomes complacency and apathy.
I wasn’t the kind of kid that started each day with a sense of who and what they wanted to be. I put one foot in front of the other and reinvented myself as often I needed to to keep myself engaged in life, face my peers with at least some degree of courage, and stay somewhat relevant in the middle of shifting social circles. It wasn’t with a long-term view or broader set of carefully constructed goals in mind. I certainly wasn’t thinking about my future academic or professional career. It was just what I did to get by. One day at a time.
Perhaps it should make me feel better to know that after all this time a rather fluid approach to life, seriously lacking in forward planning, has gotten me where I am today. But is it an endorsement of my strategy or just the result of luck and good timing? Because, to me, most of my reality feels like an anomaly. Like I skipped a few steps, cheated the system and managed to convince all the right people along the way that I deserved to be there. A real life ‘fake it till you make it’ success story! Someone so gifted at illusion that she even managed to fool herself into believing she deserved her place at the table… I’m writing this fully aware that it has all the hallmarks of imposter syndrome and even still, the thought of someone calling my bluff remains one of my deepest fears.
Insecurity is not new to me. From a very early age my low self-esteem manifested itself as body dysmorphia and a deeply rooted belief that I wasn’t good enough. And for most of my life, it stayed that way — centred on my physical body until, at the age of 26, I uprooted my entire life to move to London and start my master’s.
My time at the London School of Economics set in motion some of the happiest and darkest moments of my life. I was simultaneously living my wildest dreams and privately drowning in an environment where I felt utterly out of my depth. I thought if I could just make it through year, things would improve. But it didn’t stop once I graduated. And for the past five years, I have continued to suffer from a profound mistrust of my intellect and a crippling sense that I’m not smart enough. It is the mental equivalent of body dysmorphia. When you look in the mirror and see yourself with what you believe is absolute clarity and yet is apparently completely out of sync with everyone else’s experience of you. It’s disorienting and debilitating.
When my therapist asks me to think of a time when I was at my best, I go to the coffee shop where I wrote my application to the LSE. I can still feel my energy, my excitement at the prospect of going abroad, the hope and conviction that that moment — my life to that point — was just the beginning. It was the most certain of myself I have ever felt. Peak clarity and self-belief.
In the past I’ve wondered whether the LSE made some kind of administration error that led to my offer, so I’ve reread my application a handful of times just to double check. It is without a doubt the best work I’ve ever produced. But I struggle to connect with the woman who once wrote those words. She feels distant — evidence of a past life I hardly recognise.
I don’t know what changed or how it could have all shifted so drastically in the midst of chasing my future. But here I am. And I find myself asking why, why if this was all part of the plan I’ve worked so hard to achieve do I feel so bloody inadequate? Was it luck or did I earn this? Has it all been building up to this or have I fooled my way into a degree and career I don’t deserve?
Am I even asking the right questions? Do the answers to them even matter? Would they do anything to change the fact that the person I am in my head isn’t who I want to be and yet, I don’t know how to break free of her?
I’m proud of who and where I am. But I’m exhausted. This state of being is exhausting.
Therapy has helped me understand the role anxiety and depression play in all this. And I feel less alone and ashamed having spent the past few years finding words to articulate what goes on in my head in the safety of my therapist’s office. But I want to let you in too. Because I know I am not the only one who feels as though they don’t recognise themselves, who lives in fear of being found a fraud or thought of as incompetent, inadequate, insufficient. Out of place.
But it’s always some combination of factors isn’t it? Intention, luck, hard work… And most of us, if we’re honest about it, probably oscillate between feeling entirely in control and on the verge of spinning out week to week, month to month.
So maybe today just being here, right where I am is evidence enough itself that I belong?