Effortlessly Perfect

I think, you become an adult the moment you realize that most of the time NOBODY knows what they’re doing. Practically no one is an expert in anything except for pretending to be an expert at something and making it seem like they’ve got it all together. Keeping up appearances and “faking it” could be a full-time job. I guess there’s a turning point, it’s a paradox really, where once you realize how much you know (about your field, life, “the real world”) you realize how much you actually don’t know. The objective then becomes, “how can I convince as many people as possible I belong here and I’m as knowledgeable as they expect me to be?”

When that objective impedes the functioning of your life and begins to dictate your decisions that’s called Impostor Syndrome. It’s defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence (Caltech Counseling Center, 2015).

Impostor Syndrome is common among, although not exclusive to, academics and high achieving women. It’s been discussed in academic literature since 1978 when Clance and Imes coined the “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women”. They explain that “Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persists in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample object evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief. ” Alrighty, enough literature…

Impostor Syndrome is real and by reducing it to “humility” and ignoring its consequences we’re perpetuating the silence around mental health and the pressure and culture of perfectionism.

For me, Impostor Syndrome started invading my thoughts when I decided to apply to Brown. Then more persistently, when I struggled through my personal statement for my graduate school applications. And, most viciously when I got accepted to Brown and decided to come. In many regards, I’m “over it”. I know, and I’m confident that, I’m “intellectual enough” to be in graduate school but still, sometimes, it creeps up on me unexpectedly.  On a bad day, if I let it win, Impostor Syndrome prescribes me to stay in bed. It convinces me I shouldn’t even try because I’m simply not good enough. In my work Impostor Syndrome sounds like me telling myself “I can’t believe they’re letting/trusting me to do this task” – regardless of the rigor or importance. Then I spend hours scrutinizing over the smallest details to be sure to impress or meet their “delusional” expectations.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Impostor Syndrome as it relates to social media and the necessity to present as perfect and simultaneously have every accomplishment appear effortless. I’m sure many of us can relate to abruptly halting our lived experiences to snap the perfect photo (and another and another) and then later stressing about crafting the pithy caption to capture the moment that was already ruined once we decided to take a photo. Right? The anxiety social media perpetuates in terms of what/how/why we share about our successes and good news (and how we perceive others will respond) makes this compelling to explore.

Why is it that when someone posts about their successes on social media it’s always accompanied by a slight, yet extremely important, attribution to luck or “the amazing opportunity”? Yes, humility is important and often we aren’t doing it all on our own but, can you recall the last time you shared an accomplishment without being concerned someone would think you’re being conceited or think you’re only sharing it to boost your self-esteem and receive their praise? Why should you be nervous to call a friend or post online and share something exciting?

There’s this pervasive notion that you can’t actually be proud of what you’ve done.102615bucks-carl-sketch-master675 You have to be #blessed or #lucky to parade positivity online (listen to #blessed – Stuff Mom Never Told You for more on this – it’s spot on) because calling attention to your successes outright is, apparently, social media taboo. WHY? Why do women feel the need to downplay their success or appear effortlessly perfect?

There’s even an app now that helps women stop saying “just” and “sorry” in emails so they stop “inadvertently discredit[ing] their own opinions”. It’s troubling though because nobody is talking about the societal and institutional parameters that perpetuate these minimizing behaviors and render them acceptable. Why do women feel more comfortable making themselves small? In some ways, I think, it’s an attempt to build themselves up. We’re not talking about the protective features those asides provide to make women feel like it’s okay to share about their exciting news or even simply their opinion. These small, but important, choices we make assure we’re not experienced as “bossy” or “boasting”. We do it even when we know we’re right!

The New York Times, discusses this culture of appearing perfect and saving face well in one of their most popular articles from 2015: Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection. They detail a phenomenon where students talked about how “They could say what they’d accomplished, but they couldn’t necessarily say who they were”. Such mind games! But it’s true and, it’s practically unbelievable that intelligent people can stare at their resumes and acceptance letters to Ivy League institutions (which if you “look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment…what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation”) and see right past all the evidence that indicates they are deserving. They can easily convince themselves otherwise and may not even recognize themselves beyond the list of “things they’ve done”. Suddenly, their accomplishments stand in as the default measure that indicates who they are, their worth, and beyond the impressive list they’ve compiled they feel lost and misguided. It happens without consent and it’s positively crippling once it captures your mind.

The NY Times article also explains that “female students felt pressure to be “effortlessly perfect”: smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, all without visible effort.” These internal narratives are consistently challenged by loved ones’ encouragements, “you belong with those people”and “you’re meant to do this”. Where the words, “those people” throb like a pounding headache because they feels so separate, so elite, so much more than they could achieve; they  hear “you’re meant to do this” as “you tricked them yet again” rather than the support these phrases are intended to provide. So their foundation must be rebuilt often due to the wrath – expressions of support and encouragement – of what seems like never ending wrecking balls whose only obligation is to create cracks in their concrete with their terms of endearment. They go through the motions working themselves into fits of sleeplessness and mind boggling anxiety trying to prove they can do this – it becomes their sole obligation. At the same time, they’re consumed by maintaining an online presence of apparent effortlessness and success – but not too successful of course.

Don’t be fooled. Underneath the encouragement from friends and family and the pristine social media presence, their mind is unraveling. It tells a story which is comprised of lists of achievementsour-deepest-fear that amount to nothing special – cloaked in phrases like “it’s mediocre” or “just a thing I’ve done” – even when they’re spectacular! The list is glistening with expectations still to be met. We call these unmet items potential and as their list of accomplishments grows longer so too does the list of expectations. Somehow, as they become  more “qualified”, and subsequently feel less qualified, little by little the consideration of the associated hard work they’ve done to reach these numerous accolades dissipates. At some point, perfection becomes a burdensome, heavy expectation that weighs them down and occupies their mind. Soon, the means by with they achieve are less important and to the outside world it looks like they can do it all – and so they do and then some – whatever the cost. The conceptions that they work hard and overcome challenges or adversity are not entertained.  The final product becomes the only objective – nobody is concerned about the process or the progress. It’s a dangerous, slippery slope that ends in fear and pent up, insidious, persistent feelings of inadequacy which are kept separate from the persona they put on each day to face the world. It feels like they must make it seem absolutely effortless because otherwise, they’d have to actually recognize THEMSELVES rather than their resume. They end up feeling defeated simultaneously wondering how they can maintain the facade and how it was created in the first place. They experience all this utter nonsense, instead of owning their successes and being proud. Social media only makes it worse. It’s never ending and mostly they want it to stop – even if just for a moment – so they can gain some perspective.

A Letter to “Health” Magazine

Dear Health Magazine,

We’re past “the top 10 foods that are secretly making you fat” and “11 ways to stop overeating after a workout”. We’re past “Superfoods that help you stay super slim”. We’ve FINALLY arrived at “all bodies are beautiful” and we call that the body positive movement. We’re reclaiming words like “fat” and “plus size” as descriptors of people rather than critiques. We’re not really into “no offense but that makes you look big” anymore. We’re definitely over mistaking “thin” for healthy and we’re tired of seeing only slim fitting, toned bodies as ideal bodies or how we should aspire to look if we want to be perceived as healthy. Nearly 50% of women in the U.S. wear a size 14 and even with this reality knocking down the fragile notions of the garment and retail industries countless headlines are STILL encouraging us to make more changes, swaps, or restrictions. Change your food, your home, your friends, and your workout. THEN you’ll be better – you’ll be healthy. And yes, some changes sometimes are warranted but, why can’t you tell me I should be happy with who I am or proud of doing enough? Is that too much to ask for? Honestly, we’ve moved beyond the misconceptions about women that fund your initiatives and fuel your subscriptions. Well, we’re trying! You keep shoving it down our throats with promotional orders we didn’t ask for and by flooding the internet with ways I didn’t even know I should be disappointed about my lifestyle and my body.

Here’s an example, last week this article was posted: Here’s How Far You Actually Need to Run to Reap the Health Benefits. As an avid runner I clicked on the link and initially this article met my expectations. Running has a number of associated health benefits which were mentioned in the post. I felt good about my weekly mileage and exercise accomplishments. I thought I was doing enough! What made me cringe, and I’m still thinking about it today, was the end of the article, “But of course, if you’re running to lose weight, the same logic still applies: More steps means more calories burned”. So basically as I’m reading along I’m thinking I’m liking this, I’m liking this and then BAM I’m not liking this anymore. To conflate “here are the health benefits” with “oh yea and you can also lose weight if you do MORE than this” is a BIG problem. Women who read this may start out feeling great about their lifestyle and exercise habits (maybe even encouraged to pursue running) only to feel ultimately defeated to know that if they want to lose weight (which apparently every woman should want to do) then they need to do more.

In the past week alone, the headlines on this site reminded me why we can’t let ourselves be consumed by what mainstream media articulates as the standard for healthy women. It also made me wonder why we think we can “tell” if someone is healthy just by looking at their body and judging their actions. [Side note: BMI is a messed up measure too! – because apparently I’m obese but can run a 10K!?!?] Furthermore, assuming every woman who reads Health Magazine is trying to lose weight is dangerous and insensitive. We’re beyond exclusively equating “health” with weight.

So, based on the unsettling conclusion of the article above, I did some investigating and found more disappointing headlines from that same week! Here are some that are entirely focused on weight loss and food: “12 Foods That Control Your Appetite” and “10 Types of Hunger and How to Control Them”. These articles tell you the “scientifically proven” ways to “reach your weight loss goals” and “say goodbye to unneeded calories”. Why not just put up a sign that says “you only matter if you are thin so you should probably start starving yourself now?” I won’t get into triggers and eating disorders too deeply right now but, for some women, this is where disordered eating habits and body image challenges begin. We’re inundated with new ways to fear food and reasons why we shouldn’t quench our hunger or respond to our body’s natural indication that it needs something – like food! So, we’re being encouraged to listen to our body but, what that really means, what the subtext is saying, is decide if you’re really hungry so you don’t eat for no reason and waste calories. Because calories are evil, food is evil and even your go-to foods should be changed so you can shed more pounds. In fact, we fear “fat” so violently that it’s encroaching on every aspect of our livelihoods.Red apple and tape measure. Image shot 02/2008. Exact date unknown.

Here’s another example: “10 Signs Your House Is Making You Fat”.  Now in your pursuit for “health” you can be averse to your own home too! Probably a deserted island with limited resources is the only safe place. Really, did you know that having stocked cabinets is putting you at risk for being “fat”? This statement is so problematic I don’t even know where to start! Oh also, “family style serving” is another no-no. First and foremost, I just want to scream “check your privilege!” What I’m reading here is a complete inattention to what this article is actually saying which is “your privilege, access, and food security is making you fat” and that’s horrible. Am I supposed to be sorry for your privilege or just ignore it like your editors did when I read this article?

These perspectives, these pseuo-bibles to living “correctly”, are dispelling a version of womanhood that requires us to expect that healthy living can only be achieved if it initially comes from a place of immense, intense dissatisfaction with our bodies and ourselves. These publications encourage constant criticism, crafting a narrative that misconstrues womanhood, and more specifically what/who is a “healthy woman”, to be a compilation of never ending changes and improvements based on overwhelming proportions of articles that tell you how severely you’re doing everything wrong and that you’re doomed to be “fat”. THE HORROR! Kidding. But really, where’s the “you’re doing it right” or “you’ve done enough” article? That’s an article I’d like to read.


Someone who’s trying to do enough (Me)

Insights and Frustrations

A few weeks ago I wrote about what I payed attention to in class other than class. I’m still grappling what I was writing about then (more on this below) but the other day I gained some insight that helped me adjust my perspective. I’m taking a great elective course (outside my program) called Gender, Liberalism, and Postcolonial Theory. Almost always the course content and discussions each week feel over my head and leave me asking more and more questions. Recently the text Cruel Optimism  by L. Berlant came up in conversation (confession: I  haven’t read this piece). A common critique of this piece is that this white, female, western author did not do much to address and attend to race or African American scholarship in the context of her work. My professor’s response to this comment seemed just so correct. She asked, “how could we expect her to? Those authors and experiences are not what informed her subjectivity and influenced her world view. And in fact, I bet if she did cite African American scholarship she would have been criticized for “trying too hard””.  This left me distraught thinking “there’s no way to win!” Basically, someone’s always going to have a critique. That realization was both unbelievably frustrating and reassuring. However, it felt like it could only be reassuring if you had a certain threshold of self-confidence already.

I understood my professor’s question to mean two things. First, was she saying that eventually we will encounter a time when white people can’t participate in conversations about race? Second, is she suggesting we give a bit of leeway based on her life experiences yet also recognize she still has something to offer to the conversation? So here can we privilege the intentional action of meeting people where they’re at and understanding them based on who they are rather than who they are not? This might look like, “you’re right she can’t speak for the Black experience but her perspective is still valuable for the conversation because of these other reasons” rather than quickly dismissing their opinions because they are void of “lived experience”.

In a way, I am finding myself situated directly between these two extremes as if they were a continuum. Whatever my conclusion is (I’ll keep you posted) this helped me think critically about this internal struggle I’ve been having about my position in academia and specifically in the urban education reform movement.  In some ways, I’m inclined to “excuse” my classmates’ aggravating, dismissive behaviors because I am able to contrast these conflicting viewpoints and reconcile that my peers, too, are in a place of privilege and may be blinded by their privilege in terms of recognizing the experiences of others.  So, because of their positionality and lived experience they feel justified to speak loudly about certain topics. We should make space for their voices but we should also directly acknowledge that the nature of them being at Brown University in some ways makes them too no longer genuinely representative of the minority groups they are so pressed to speak on behalf of. Further, they too are simply individuals who are a compilation of the experiences they have been subjected to. Therefore, we cannot contend that their word view or experience is representative either because each person’s subjectivity is different. THEN if we trouble this a bit further and ask ourselves “what/who is representative” and “who is being represented” and ask “are they simply (or not so simply) “re-presenting” what they perceive to be their minority role in this space/field/conversation/world/etc.?” then how really do we interpret their contributions? I’m getting a bit lost here…  #Overthinking 😛

Just for fun, I want to offer another perspective too that makes me want to swallow up and take back everything I just suggested in terms of searching for understanding and collaborative learning spaces. Here’s a scenario from today:

The professor asks our class how they would build relationships and trust in a district  where they are called upon as Brown University education policy “experts” to consult on a project.  A male in the class immediately offers “I’d assert myself and explain my educational background and my credentials and essentially say WHY they should listen to me”. Four men speak after him and then the conversation quickly dissipates. After a few moments of silence, I share my observation that only men spoke up to answer this question and I ask how gender might play into this scenario. I suggest that asserting my “power” or “credentials” may make me seem like a “bossy” woman and an inamicable colleague. Same action. Very different response. Later (outside of class), my classmate counters my contribution. He explains that since he used a woman in his example my critique was unwarranted and I had no place to undermine him. Basically, “[I] could have made my point without challenging him or calling him out”.  

What did I do in the heat of this moment as I’m being told that humility is a characteristic of the privileged and the elite and that I know nothing of his life or perspectives [imagine a whack-a-mole being hit repeatedly, made to appear smaller and smaller until it disappears into the hole]?  I did what any socialized female would do… I APOLOGIZED! I AM SO MAD! I CAN’T BELIEVE I DID THAT. I LET HIM MAKE ME FEEL LIKE I WAS WRONG. I LET HIM WIN. I APOLOGIZED EVEN THOUGH I KNEW I WASN’T WRONG.  And then I felt small again. 

What’s challenging me about all of this, is the cyclical nature of my experiences. I start out feeling great and usually (after I talk myself into it) I’m confident about what I’m going to say in class. BUT the minute I speak and especially the instant I’m met with hostile, seemingly unwarranted, opposition I feel absolutely crushed. [side note: this is different from me not wanting to be corrected and this is different from me not appreciating a challenging conversation across differences] I feel inadequate. I want to take it back. I wish I’d never said it. I apologize often (like before and after I participate) and it’s come to my attention that maybe I’m apologizing to myself for YET AGAIN putting myself in this difficult place. Impostor syndrome overwhelms me daily and I the rhetoric of “I’m not deserving, qualified, or intelligent enough for this opportunity” screams in my head. I can’t silence it.

I am tired of feeling small. I’m tired of second guessing myself. I’m tired of concluding every day by definitively stating “I want to quit.”

And I’m just so confused and defeated trying relentlessly to reconcile these new insights and keep an open mind when I’m bombarded with these constant, upsetting experiences.

*deep breath* – I’m exhausted by this. I don’t have words or energy to keep writing…