Monday, February 2, 2015

The Impostor

I don't know if you were in the "popular" crowd in high school, but I really wasn't. I was on the pom squad, which was sort of a "popular" group, but I was the happy nerd on the pom squad. I was the one who was granted the "Albert Einstein Award" at the year-end pom banquet, and my 4.67 grade-point-average seemed to be my claim to fame on the squad. Through and through, I was really an Honors kid and I belonged with the Honors crowd, but I also spent time with the pom girls because I could do a switch-leap and a triple pirouette. While I had good friends on the squad and am still good friends with some of those ladies today, my true place of comfort was with the Honors kids. In that sense, I never really had a place with the popular crowd to which most of the pom girls belonged. It sort of felt like 'us' and 'them.' Not 'us' versus 'them,' because there was no animosity from either side. It was just that there was us, and then there was them.

Recently I have become acquainted with the idea of the "impostor syndrome."   Basically, the idea of the impostor syndrome is that a person finds it impossible to internalize their own success and believe that they could actually be responsible for it. Instead, they attribute their success to luck or some other outside factor. Though they may appear confident on the outside, when they look around they do so with a fear that somehow their incompetence will be exposed for all to see, and suddenly everyone will realize that they don't really know what they're doing. Research indicates that most people, 70 percent actually, feel like an impostor at one point or another in their lives. I know that when many of my colleagues and I were doing our pre-doctoral internships, we often felt like impostor therapists--that we were acting like therapists with real clients, but with no real knowledge of what we were doing and a real insecurity that we were unintentionally ripping people off. Our clients thought they were coming to see therapists, but what they were really getting was just us! The truth was, we actually did know what we were doing, but we were just scared shitless. Statistics pretty much indicate that at every work place, at least one person walking around feels like they don't deserve to be there and that their colleagues are infinitely more qualified than they are. They probably also think they are the only ones that feel this way, but in fact many of their colleagues feel the same way that they do.

While I have briefly felt like an impostor in both my career and in parenthood (you should have seen me freaking out on the drive home from the hospital with newborn Silas! "What if we accidentally kill him? Don't they know that we don't know what we're doing?!?!"), the main place in life where I feel like an impostor is in my running. As you likely well know, I sign up frequently for races, and at every race I feel like it's me and them. They're the real runners, and I'm the joker who has no idea what she has gotten herself into. I find myself at starting lines waiting for the gun and scanning the runners around me, wondering which ones will beat me and if there are any that I think I can finish in front of. The latter group is much smaller comparably, at least in my mind. The judgments that I make are generally based on foolish nonsense, such as how nice their shoes are, what their postures are, and how close they position themselves to the starting line. If they have nice gear or awesome legs or a water bottle strapped to their backs, I think, "Oh, crap on a stick." Anxiety kicks in and I often begin questioning myself; I think, 'These people are real runners, and I'm still just not cutting it." I may look the part, but my true folly will be exposed once the gun sounds. I've told myself things like "When I can run a 5K in 30 minutes," or "When I can run four miles," then I'll call myself a runner. Then I'll really be one of them.

It's perfectly ridiculous when I say it aloud and type it out. Of course I'm one of 'them.' As I've grown over the last six months and become a stronger and faster runner, I have cheated myself out of a really cool identity, one that I earned the first moment I ever decided to strap on my shoes.

I cheated myself out of letting myself think I was a runner.

What I've learned in only the past two weeks is the ridiculously simple truth that you're a runner when you run. Get this: when you run at all--even a little bit--you're a runner. You don't have to earn membership into that crowd with prescribed times, distances, or training. Most of those runners never thought I didn't belong. If they thought of me at all, they probably saw me as a fellow runner. What I've even learned is that probably many of them looked around at the rest of us with the same sense of anxiety as I did, feeling like an impostor at the race.

Recently I have hit a lot of those prescribed marks that I burdened myself with as an entry into the supposedly-elite class of runners: now I can run a 5K in 30 minutes. Now I can run four miles. Now I consistently finish in the top half of all racers and in the top quarter of all females in my age group. I'm a stronger runner than I was when I first started, but I'm no more of a runner now than I was then. I still want my goals just as badly, and I still get side stitches sometimes trying to get to them. Why in the world did I ever think I had to earn my way in? I already belonged.

Here's what I say. You run well on the elliptical? Great! You're a runner. You like the treadmill better, or the outside hills, or the trail, or the neighborhood sidewalks? Fantastic! You're a runner! You run in cotton t-shirts instead of techy gear? Awesome. You're a runner. You run half a mile each time you go out? Yup, you're a runner. Sign up for a 5K, and ask me to run with you, and I will join you. Why? Because we're both runners, and that's what runners do. There is no "us" and "them." When you strap on your shoes (which I really shouldn't say because some people run barefoot and we can't exclude them!) and start putting one foot in front of the other, there is only "us."

That's totally you and me, happy because we're runners!

Yup, we kicked butt, because we're runners!


  1. Clicked over to your blog after reading your comment about the angel gowns program! Your boys are seriously precious, and I totally relate this post. I think many parents feel like an imposter when they first bring their babies home. I've grown so much in authority over the last 2.5 years. I've run a marathon, and I still feel weird calling myself a runner, ha!

    1. Lillian, thank you! I'm very honored! I started following your blog after your Breastfeeding and the Eucharist post, and I check in about once a week to see updates. It's nice to connect! Congrats on the marathon. You're mos def a runner. =)