“It was a little embarrassing to be reading a self-help writer and thinking, This guy gets me. But it was in this moment, lying in bed late at night, that I first realized that the voice in my head – the running commentary that had dominated my field of consciousness since I could remember – was kind of an asshole.”
— Dan Harris, from 10% Happier
The other day I had the great fun of spending time with an old friend. We first met in graduate school, and had been so simpatico that we decided “friends” was too tame a word for us. “Colleague” was too passionless, too professional. So, although we were in fact friends and colleagues, we took to calling each other “Comrades”. We were united in our…you know, whatever it was we felt so deeply about back in 1987.
Anyway, my comrade and I were not in touch for many years. Recently reconnected, it has been a joy to write (actually, to get mail because she is much better about sending things than me), to Facebook message, and now and then to be in one another’s presence. And I was finally able, last weekend, to visit her space: see her house and gardens, visit her favorite places in the college town she calls home. And to tour her office.
Now, you need to know that this friend of mine is kind of an overachiever. Ok, not really an overachiever – she is talented, brilliant, and capable of everything she has achieved. And she is a capital-A Achiever. In her office are photos of her with Presidents (yes, of the USA), members of the Cabinet and Administration (again, yes, of the USA); there are framed commendations, tons of awards, photos of her with many people whose lives she has touched through her work.
I was impressed. But not in the way one is sometimes impressed with celebrity or suffused with hero-worship for someone whose activism we admire. I was impressed by the natural feeling that these things were as they were meant to be – that my friend has simply inhabited the life that called to her. That sounds easy, like I’m suggesting that it came easily to her. Au contraire! Knowing what I know about this woman’s path, I understand that it took hurculean effort at times, that it took sacrifice and intention. I love that she was both proud and humble as I lingered over these mementos of her accomplishments.
As we left her office, I said, “I’m a little disappointed. Back in grad school we were all certain you’d DO something with your life.” Just a little humor cliche to help glide over a moment of genuine emotion.
Since returning to my daily life, I’ve been thinking about the ginormous job my friend has, and the grace with which, it seems to me, she skillfully weaves so many disparate threads. I think it is amazing and inspiring – but there’s also a voice in my head that won’t stop comparing me to her and ridiculing me for not being as capable. It tells me that any day now I’ll be found out in my own work as the incompetent, ineffectual, poseur I truly am.
As journalist Dan Harris says in the quote above, the voice in my head is kind of an asshole.
I’ve had a lot of experience with this voice – a lifetime of experience, in fact. It never shuts up. Sometimes, but not that often, it chatters benignly about strange or unrelated things: how much it would suck to be Ferris Bueller’s sister; why so many crappy books become bestsellers (yes, Fifty Shades of Gray, I’m talking about you); why do we itch? But mostly that always yammering voice is telling me I should be afraid, that I suck, that things may be good now but they’re about to change for the worse.
Since my childhood, I have known I was sensitive. More accurately, too sensitive. At least that is generally the language I heard from my family, from friends, from people who had just said something unkind or unfairly critical: “Oh, Jen, you’re too sensitive.” In order to combat that diagnosis, I’ve spent a lot of energy over the years pretending that I’m impervious. Acting nonchalant when I’ve felt hurt or fearful. Anything to avoid the appearance of being overly-sensitive.
But the voice in my head knows better. That voice knows I’m easily wounded, often frightened, sometimes paralyzed by self-doubt. Knowledge is power, so that voice uses what it knows and goes for the jugular. Especially when I contemplate taking risks or making life choices which involve new areas of endeavor.
It picks moments when I’ve relaxed a little to double-down. Admiring my “comrade” took me outside my own head in order to appreciate her accomplishments. So that voice came back harsher than ever, seizing that moment when I was vulnerable to comparison.
Luckily, I’ve got a greater understanding of how to respond than I once did. Natural health practitioner and author, Mely Brown writes:
Impostor syndrome isn’t exclusive to highly sensitive people. Many conscientious and high achieving people fall victim to this nagging fear. But the simmering discomfort about being found out is often constant for a sensitive person.
Why wouldn’t it be, considering you’ve spent a lifetime of feeling different from others and trying to fit in?… But even if you grew up displaying your sensitivity with pride, it’s unlikely you escaped the cultural pressure motivating you to disguise your real self to fit the norms.
…If you’re constantly thinking about who you should be but aren’t, and what you should be doing but can’t, understand that valuing your achievements and signature strengths allows you to show yourself as you truly are, more comfortably — even when you’re the odd one out.
Each of us has a voice that keeps a running commentary going in our heads – not just people who self-identify as sensitive. One thing we can do, as Ms. Brown so clearly states, is to value our own strengths. This means being willing to look for and admit our own strengths, rather than fearing that we’ll get too big for our britches if we identify and own them.
Another tactic I’ve learned to use is to question the veracity of that voice. The reality is, that just cuz the voice says it and it hurts doesn’t mean it is true. Lots of things that hurt us hurt because they aren’t true. And yes, sometimes the truth hurts, too. But you’ve got to spend some time questioning your inner tormenter, rather than accepting what it says whole cloth. I’ve discovered that if I stop and question a specific barb it hurls at me, mostly it melts away like an ineffectual schoolyard bully who’s been stood up to. Every now and then, I’ll even say to myself, “Stop talking to me like that. I don’t deserve it.”
Finally, and most efficiently, I’ve learned to not listen. Just because you can’t help hearing it (the voice IS inside your head, after all) doesn’t mean you have to listen to it. I am not a meditator or yogi, but I do appreciate the benefits of mindfulness: allowing the voice to run on, noticing it, but not putting energy towards it. Thinking of the stream of consciousness as just another babbling brook, providing background noise that you are in no way required to pay direct attention to is an awesome technique to master. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert yet, but I am getting better at it all the time. Often, I don’t notice how much I’m listening/giving credence to that inner mean girl until I’m feeling enough anxiety that a panic attack is imminent. But when I feel that heightened physiological affect, I usually catch on that I haven’t been practicing good mental hygiene/mindfulness.
For me, employing some of these proactive responses to that inner critic allows me to move forward rather than remain in stasis. It also allows me to enjoy others’ accomplishments without somehow feeling diminished myself. My comrade deserves to be appreciated and admired for her strengths and accomplishments. As do I. As do you. We are not impostors – we are human beings with gifts, talents, strengths and imperfections. We may be sensitive, but we don’t need to let that define or incapacitate us.