The First is Always the Hardest; A Reflection on Impostor Syndrome and Why I Haven’t Been Writing

I am on synthetic grass, and there is a scattering of black rubber grains from the turf sticking to my forearms.

I am breathing heavily after finishing a sprint. Sweat glimmering on my arms.  My hands rest on my hips, momentarily, and I bend over forward slightly. I lock my eyes on the ball. This is a difficult task consider the large crowd. The coach’s yells. The chants. My teammate’s shouts. My own heart beat racing. I lunge forward to start running. I am still out of breath. But everyone is watching so I force my body to run. My focus on the ball quivers, replaced by slight blurs. I feel my control slipping. It is happening again. I continue to breathe heavy, and my heart beats accelerate. I am no longer seeing, but watching. My body goes on automatic as my inner consciousness braces itself for the flurry of emotion. I breathe through gasps for air, and feel as if I will reach a point where I will no longer be able to breathe. But that never comes. What does come is the sea of worried and puzzled faces on my teammates and coaches. Like a burst pipe, shame floods my body. The pressure of every body’s eyes weighs on me. I motion for a substitute. I walk off, head bowed. Looking down at my shaky hands, which held the excitement I had to be playing in such a big game, now beaten and weary.

In my junior year of high school, my first year on the varsity team, I could not play to the best of my ability because I was plagued by series of panic attacks that stemmed from internal pressures and unresolved emotions. Those pressures and emotions have continued to resurface at various points in my life, and I doubt they will ever see an end.

For many months now, I have been experiencing a kind of paralysis.

For starters, I have been in creative paralysis. I have scantly been able to write, and share my work. I have not performed any of my poetry. This comes after having published two poems in a well-recognized online magazine called Circulo Poesía, having established a relationship with a great poetry professor and mentor, performed numerous times at different events at my school, and gaining support from my peers and family. No, it is not writers block. Writers Block means not having any ideas, or it means that I crash into brick walls every time I try writing. That is not what I have been feeling. Because in the moments I have managed to write, like finally listening to a good song, I dance. The pen moves graciously on the page, the words make my heart go “mhmmm”, my body awakens with sensation reaching all my edges, and I smile at the page for minutes (or cry sometimes). What I have been feeling is tantamount to being on a stage, the curtains having just opened, the blinding stage lights hitting my eyes, expectant gazes paying full attention to me. I have been stuck in that inaudible “oh shit” moment. When a second splits into an eternity, and rather than coming out with the flair and ease you imagined and others expected, you are rendered immobile. I have been living in that split second, and yes it is lasting an eternity. If any notion of time has passed it is because I have, in my mind, traveled to the thoughts of everyone in the room, exploring each and giving it due weight. So Stage Fright? You may be asking. I will say yes, but there’s more.

In that split second, I have re-winded through many years in my life, skipping some, pausing on others trying to make sense of this moment I am living. There must be something in my life I missed, I thought. Something that must explain why I am here now and what I am supposed to do. I paused at, ironically, another moment where I found myself in a kind of paralysis. Sprinting and panting. Sweat slipping off my forearms. Eyes focused. I was back in the blue and white uniforms of the San Dieguito Mustangs in high school. It was my senior year. Everyone had high expectations of me. At least that’s what I thought. This was my fourth year in the soccer program; my second on the varsity team. I was part of the starting eleven squad, and now well known in my high school and team. I had ascended the ranks of soccer since I started playing the recreational leagues, and was looking at the possibility of playing college soccer. I had things going for me. The pressure was on. Even if there had been no audience in any game, I would have still felt the pressure. Because what happened was I had imagined myself being on a stage, but stopped at the split second of the “oh shit” moment.

It is like dreaming so much about something that it becomes your moon. The light guiding you on a journey. The dream demands you to live on the edge, and follow the ambitions in your heart. But when you wake up one day and find yourself on the moon, living your dream, if you hadn’t ever believed you were actually going to make it, like me, you find yourself in the “oh shit” moment. You see, what is never said about “faking it till you make it” is that some of us have faked it for so long, that we got comfortable in the fictions we imagined, and the sensational dreams we conjured as motivation. So when reality stands in front of you like a giant audience of people whose eyes are all on you, you say “oh shit, this is actually happening”. And although you know in your heart what to do on this stage, for that split second, all you can do is search desperately within you for the signs that you missed—the signs foretelling that you were destined to do great things—the signs that would explain why you are now in this position where you can be great and live your dreams.

I am talking about impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome is constantly being unable to accept your successes, and give yourself credit, because deep down you believe you are a fraud. It is starting a successful business, landing a job at a top company, getting your PhD, attending an elite college, winning a writing contest, finally beginning to practice self-love, a whole myriad of things, and still believing like you don’t deserve any of it, or that at some point people will find out you do not really belong in those spaces. Deep down you have internalized a fear that you are truly incapable of accomplishing your goals and being the role model that you have always sought or aspired to be. For me, impostor syndrome means gaining support as a writer, being accepted into a prestigious fellowship, and traveling to South Africa, almost all paid for by my school and fellowship, just to name a few, and feeling undeserving of it all to the point that I almost wish I could sabotage everything so that there would be no more expectations. Also, when I say great I don’t refer to the standard, masculinized, monolithic form of greatness. I mean great as in your best self. The You that brings a rush of excitement through you, and feels strong in your sense of self. The You that you couldn’t imagine you were, but that (although you will never admit this) you know yourself to be deep inside. That kind of greatness.

Impostor syndrome, regardless of how wide-spread its fame, is not given enough attention. And few people realize impostor syndrome when it hits. They dismiss it as laziness, an inability to stick with something for too long, a lack of focus, not having motivation, not deserving it, a myriad of things. This past couple of weeks I have been dismissing it as “it’s just not the time yet” or “I just don’t know what to say.” And while those are perfectly valid things to say in certain moments, for me, in my particular time and place of mind, I now understand them as dismissing a real-issue. Because what I hadn’t realized I meant when I thought “I just don’t know what to say,” is “I don’t know that I have anything to offer.” I was in an academic program in Cape Town, South Africa the past week and a half, and there were many things I wish I could have said. But deep inside, I had been paralyzed by that split second realization that I was living my dreams, and it could not be real. It could not be me in that skin. It could not be me sitting next to these bright individuals. It couldn’t.

Impostor syndrome is paralyzing. It is living in that second of unending uncertainty and fright. It is being on your stage and struggling to accept that you no longer have to fake it till you make it, because you have just now realized that you are it. And you have always been it.

This piece goes go out to those friends who have said something, done something, or acted in such a way that has made me feel like I am that which I have dreamt. When one is going through a difficult bout of impostor syndrome, if there is no friend or support group to unsettle and clarify that view, one can crack. Each crack comes from a different emotional pain sustained, a shout restrained, ending in fissures of one’s soul. I have been enjoyed the privilege (and I mean this in the full sense of the word) of meeting people that believe in me. I ask myself why they do every day. I am definitely cracking in many places. But anything can be undone or it can be built on if someone can help you pick up the pieces. Or maybe the cracking is a way of breaking through a shell. I am still figuring this out.

Thank you to all those friends who constantly help me pick up the pieces. I hope to give to you as much as you have given me.

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2 thoughts on “The First is Always the Hardest; A Reflection on Impostor Syndrome and Why I Haven’t Been Writing

  1. “It is like dreaming so much about something that it becomes your moon.” Wow. Honestly this whole post is amazing. Thank you so much for sharing this with the world. You will always have your friends to hold your back and when ever you need to be reminded that you do belong, we will be here for you, like you are for us.

    Like

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