Tag Archives: imposter syndrome

The Weight of Expectations

By Serena Puang, DC ’22. Serena is majoring in Linguistics.

After Dorothy went back to Kansas, the land of Oz descended into madness, and I was powerless to stop it. The apple trees decided that they didn’t want to give up their fruit anymore, so they started stretching their branches over the main roads in an act of self-protection and gutted transportation infrastructure in Oz.

A wise man once told me that experience is the only thing that brings knowledge; I guess I’m “experiencing” right now, but I don’t feel wiser. I traded my ratty green sweater for a classy three-piece suit, I’m running meetings I could have only dreamed of sitting in on a couple of months ago, but on the inside, I still feel like the same Scarecrow who spent years fighting to keep the crows from pecking at my hat, the one who watched in silence as thousands of passersby debated each other, wishing I had a brain too.

Not many people are given the opportunity to rule Oz, and I just want to do it well. No more tricks or optical illusions, I want to do right by the citizens of Oz:  to truly see them and make each person feel valued, to create an environment where everyone can succeed–the wizard certainly didn’t.

“Scarecrow, there are a few individuals requesting an audience with you,” Tinman says.

“Just a minute,” I reply, “I want to read the briefing from yesterday before I jump into more meetings.”

“You misunderstand, they’re presently in the throne room.” he says.

As a little scarebaby, I marveled at pictures of the Oz throne room. The long curtains that trailed down from the high ceilings lent an air of mystery, and the gold siding sparkled in a way that made anyone standing in the room glow. I remember thinking if only I could belong here, then nothing else would matter. But now, the whole room is technically mine, and the too-nice chairs in the too-nice grand hall bring out the accent colors in the too-nice wall decor. I’m almost scared to go in because it feels like I would ruin it.

I take a deep breath and entered through a side door anyway. Five Munchkins, two flying monkeys, and seventeen bunnies are crowding  around the main entrance. When they see me, they suddenly charge at the throne, pushing and shoving to get to the front. I didn’t even know bunnies lived in Oz.

Three hours later, the monkeys are still screeching over each other about unemployment in light of the Wicked Witch of the West’s…recent change of state. The room lost its illustrious glow about two hours ago, and the sheer amount of green that permeates every crevice of the room is about to drive me crazy. The bunnies left after I agreed to let them sell more carrots to make up for the lost apples, but the Munchkins and I are still talking in circles, trying to figure out what to do about the trees.

“We just need to cut them back,” repeats Illad, self-appointed leader of the group, “Nothing’s going to get done if they’re on the roads”

I sigh. If the fighting trees are anything like the apple trees around my field at home, it might not make sense to cut them back. They’ll just get angrier and put down stronger roots. But they must have considered that, right? Surely I’m not the only one who’s had this thought…maybe it’s just so obvious that it goes without saying.

“You need to do something!” another Munchkin reiterates, “What’s your plan of action?”

“I need to have a talk with the trees before we move forward–don’t you think?” I say.

There is so much chaos in the room, I can’t even remember a time people weren’t demanding things from me. Over everything, I hear my heart racing. It’s like something is pushing against the sides of my brain, trying desperately to get out. I wanted to do the best job I possibly could, which is why I instituted an open door policy for citizens to voice their concerns, but the amount of need is overwhelming. Maybe it would be better if I weren’t the one doing the job at all.

“I thought you were on our side!” Illad exclaims, “Why can’t you just make your own decisions? Don’t you have a brain in that thick head of yours?”

“Of course I do!” I scream, “I’m trying my best! It’s not my fault that you’re all being unreasonable!”

“So much for a ruler that listens and is always on our side,” Illad snorts, “Let’s go.”

Guilt washes over me as everyone else filed out of the room with their things. Why did I snap like that? Tinman comes in with Lion and a list of agenda items.

“How are you doing?” he asks.

I respond, “Completely overwhelmed and out of my depth,” except for some reason it comes out “Fine. You?”

He brushes off the question like it was a stray piece of straw I trailed on the ground, “Did you take the time to glance over the briefing I sent you?”

“I haven’t had time yet.” I reply apologetically.

“No worries, there isn’t anything that pressing. As long as you didn’t agree to allow the bunnies sell more carrots. That would be a disaster.” He pauses to look at me.“Is something troubling you?” he asks.

“I just…I guess I’m stressed about the whole tree situation. ” I say, tiptoeing around the carrot issue,   “I don’t want to make the wrong decision”

Lion piped up, “Oh! I understand completely! I get stressed all the time. You know, like is my mane losing its shine? Do I do bows or no bows? All you need is to take a ME-day–it’s self care. Have you tried clearing your mind of all your worries?”

“I’m not sure this is the same–”

“Perhaps your mind is too occupied,” Tinman adds. “Frequent rest is key to a productive and efficient mind. If you simply set the problem down and return to it at a later time with a clear head, you’ll likely find that the solution was there the whole time.”

“Yeah! Sometimes the answer is inside you all along!” says Lion.

“I guess you could be right,” I say weakly.

I know they’re trying to help, but they don’t get it. They seem to be fitting right into their new roles, and even if Lion is a little dramatic, they haven’t messed up like I have. They haven’t failed Oz.

I’m so lost in thought, I almost don’t notice the man wearing a sleeveless green button-up with matching green pants who has entered and is tapping his foot, waiting for me to address him–yet another failure of the day.

“Can I help you?” I say in the most professional tone I can muster.

“The ruler of Oz needs a consistent and reliable public face. It’s key to public relations and stability as you can probably imagine. As you learned during your audience with him, the Wizard before you used this machine to create that projection,” the man says, gesturing to the contraption, hidden behind one of the curtains, which creates the formidable floating head I’m used to associating with the Wizard, complete with voice modulation. “Now, since you, Tinman, and Lion are co-rulers, you all need to learn to use the projection. It’s a fundamental part of the job.”

Without pause, the man launches into a long explanation of each of the dials, knobs, switches, and levers that control the projection. I try to listen, but I’m not convinced that we actually need a projection at all. He says it’s for public relations, but it feels like deception. When I saw behind the curtain and found out the Wizard was just an ordinary man from Kansas, I felt betrayed. I don’t know if I want to or should do that to someone else, but maybe this is what it takes to be a good ruler. Maybe, if I nail this, I’ll finally feel like the legitimate leader of Oz everyone expects me to. Maybe this is all worth it.

He demonstrates and I try to imitate him exactly, but my feet don’t glide over the pedals like his do. When he does the projection, it looks like the formidable wizard I’ve admired for my entire life, but when I do it, the smoke comes out in awkward puffs like an asthmatic choo choo train and I can never get the voice quite right. Despite everything, the man seems to still believe I can do it. Each failure is met with a “Just try again, you’ll get it,” or “You’re obviously capable of this.” I know that’s supposed to be encouraging, but each one feels like a weight being stacked on my shoulders, a pressure to live up to everything this title entails. I start to think that he’s just saying these things. I may never get this. What made me think I could ever be better than the wizard? How can I be a good ruler if I can’t even use the projection?

I try again, and the projection looks like it’s being operated by a gang of blindfolded flying monkeys–a lot of moving parts and zero coordination. After what feels like my fiftieth failed attempt, just looking at the contraption to think about trying again fills me with a pang of anxiety. I turn back and realize that Tinman is still there, patiently waiting so he can have a turn. I step down and let him try, and of course, he gets it effortlessly on the first time. I don’t know why I’m surprised, but I feel my cheeks burn in embarrassment anyway. The task was easy. I’m the problem. I shouldn’t be here. Tinman doesn’t say anything, but I know what he’s thinking: I can’t believe this brainless fool is in charge.

I want to melt into the walls or better yet, return to the fields I came from. At least there, longing for a brain felt hopeful. Even as a distant dream, it was something to cling to. Now I have everything I thought I wanted, but I’ve never been so unhappy. Before I know what I’m doing, I start running–even though I know I won’t get far. I keep going even when I feel my legs go numb and see the trail of straw I’m leaving behind me. That is, until I stumble and fall. I look up, face to face with the apple tree whose roots I just tripped over.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there.”

“No one does,” the tree replies gruffly. “It’s like we’re completely invisible.”

“Um…well it’s kind of hard to miss you. You’re in the middle of the road,” I say.

“That’s not what I mean,” he says slowly. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me,” I say.

“Everyone in Oz is constantly telling us what our problem is, but the problem was never really apples. It’s the fact that no one ever comes to see us unless they want something. Don’t get me wrong, we want to do our jobs, we just don’t want that to be the only thing that gives us value.”

I pause for a moment, unsure of what to say.

“Told you, you don’t understand,” he sighs.

“Well, maybe if we all met together we could talk it out,” I suggest, but it feels hollow.

He gives me this incredulous look, and suddenly I regret saying anything at all. I want to say the right thing to make this all better, but I don’t think that exists.

“We won’t stop,” he says matter of factly. “You won’t convince me that anything will change.”

I could take him at his word and act accordingly; I could go in Monday morning and issue a formal decree recognizing the trees for their contributions to Oz–no projections, no games, just a legitimate, maybe feeble attempt to extend an olive branch to a group that is often overlooked. But that would counter what everyone else is telling me we have to do: cut them back. There’s no guarantee that the trees will do anything in response to us reaching out, and if it fails, even more of Oz will be mad at me. Despite everything, I think reaching out to them is right. It’s what we should do, so despite every fiber of my being that’s screaming at me to wait or to consult Tinman or to let someone more qualified take over, I issue the decree right when I get home.

I start with the history of the partnership between Oz and the trees. With careful attention, I describe the work they do every day, how Oz wouldn’t function without them, how grateful we should all be to them. It seems futile. The trees probably won’t even care.

The next morning, everyone is buzzing around the throne room before I get there, and once I enter, a chorus of congratulations greets me.

“Good job!” Lion says enthusiastically, “I knew you already had the solution.”

“I have to admit, that was really smart of you. I’m sorry I misjudged you yesterday,” says Illad.

I bury the words that want to leap out of my mouth next. I didn’t think of anything— I just happened to be at the right place at the right time, and that was only because I was completely incompetent at projecting. I did what anyone would have done.

That night, everyone goes out to dinner to celebrate, and I try to match the enthusiasm everyone else seems to have, but it’s hollow. Everything around me is happening, and I’m just there. I know I still don’t really belong here. Everyone thinks I’m great now because I “did something smart”, but I didn’t. Anyone could have done this, anyone should have done this.  I’m so mad at myself because this is technically what I wanted, but it still feels like I’m pretending. When the conversation lulls, I get up and say I have to get home.

“I shall keep you company,” says Tinman, and we walk out together. “I believe personal congratulations are in order.”

“I’d really appreciate it if we just didn’t talk about that.”

“Why is that?” he asks.

“Don’t you see? I stumbled upon that solution. I didn’t know it would work. It’s not like I was actually smart or actually thought anything through. It’s not like I really have a brain; I was just there.”

“I was under the impression that the wizard…”

“He gave me a piece of paper and a title. That didn’t make me smarter.”

“I thought you were adept enough to realize that this fixation you have on attaining brain severely misses the point. It’s not a superpower” he says.

“Yeah…I guess. But you do have a brain,” I shoot back.

He shouldn’t get to tell me that it’s not a big deal. It is a big deal that everyone else can do something I can’t. Growing up, I couldn’t stand being the dumbest person in the room, but what’s worse is the pressure to pretend that you’re not.

“Why is having a brain so important to you?” he asks.

“How else am I going to do my job well?”

“I believe you already have.”

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.

The Promise of Greatness

By Raquel Sequeira, TD ’21. Raquel is majoring in Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry.

I do not have imposter syndrome. When faced with a peer’s superior achievement or quicker intellect, a simpering voice in my mind rises to displace the stirring jealousy. “Remember,” it always whispers, “you are special.” It doesn’t tell me why I am special or what special internal quality transcends my external mediocrity. Still, whenever I examine the roots of motivations and my self-worth, I find this vague notion of a unique destiny that sets me apart. My deepest desire is to achieve that destiny, the greatness I feel sure I was born to achieve. My deepest fear, barely silenced by the whispering voice within, is that I really am not special at all.

I suspect that mine is not a universal response to feelings of inadequacy. Nevertheless, many of us, perhaps especially when we feel inadequate, harbor a longing for “greatness” in some area we are passionate about. “Greatness” is the goal, the distant mountain peak that we strive for, and which we are capable of reaching because of some “greatness” already within us–or so we hope. The greatness we desire, the peak we pursue, may be admirable. A scientist wants to believe that her research will eventually contribute to medical advancements that will save countless lives. A student agonizes over choosing a major that will prepare him to “make a difference in the world”. We want the significance of our lives to extend beyond ourselves—a seemingly selfless desire that nevertheless creates self-conscious anxiety.

Many of my friends and I worry to the point of obsession about what we will do after we graduate. We look on our four years at Yale as a precious chance to find a niche in this enormous world where we can maximize our skills and passions. As it happens, resource optimization is a Christian virtue as much as a capitalist one: through a story often called “The Parable of the Talents” (a fittingly-named ancient currency), Jesus illustrated the duty to actively invest one’s economic and human capital to get a return (Matthew 25, Luke 19). However, the desire to maximize the investments made in me—by my parents, by society, by God—becomes a crippling anxiety when I acknowledge the hugeness of that investment. The thought of my Yale tuition alone makes me feel guilty for the time I spend on courses and extracurriculars I know I will never excel in. Whether or not I am destined for greatness, I owe it.

But is that greatness inherent inside of me, like a sculpture latent in a stone, or is it a goal for me to reach, like scaling a mountain? In myself, I see both. My passions and talents drive me towards a “better world” that only I can bring about, and that vision of the future drives me towards full self-realization. But if the desire to make a difference in the world becomes a means to this end of self-realization, then my striving is ultimately selfish. It is for the sake of my own legacy rather than the good I can do.

Sure enough, when I examine my heart, I know that I don’t just want to be the best I can be. I want to be the best at something. And I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something I was made to do, a niche only I can fill. But then a week comes when the failures hit too fast and too hard for me to rally the conviction that somehow, by some metric, I am exceptional. A semester comes when I feel like I’ve gone too far down a path that will not allow me to make the most of my life. The statue within is cracked, and mediocrity hits me in the face like a truck. I am a jack of all trades and a master of none, and I am headed nowhere.

Yet somehow, even when I am fully convinced of my own mediocrity and non-exceptionality, my sense of destiny stubbornly persists. My existential anxiety is worse because I still feel some external purpose drawing me. The mountain I seek is no less real and beautiful just because I feel like I can never reach it. And I’m right–I can’t. None of us can. Even if we find our fields of comparative advantage–the niches we are sculpted to fill–we are left with one job: to keep increasing our productivity until we die. Our society sees specialization as the way to reach the peak of greatness; in reality, it is a never-ending climb. I will never reach the top, but I will always fear falling. Yet though the peak is unreachable, my desire to reach it–indeed, my belief that I am meant to–is strangely unwavering and must be reckoned with.

It may be that my desire for greatness is merely a biological drive: my sense of destiny a trick of the brain to propel me forward in the struggle for survival and dominance. Or, my desire might mean something true about reality and myself.[1] There might be a different kind of greatness. To believe this requires an act of faith; but the alternative, that my desire is random and leads nowhere, I can only accept as absurd or tragic then be paralyzed by pointlessness. Embracing meaning (and rejecting absurdity) is the only way to move with the hope of a destination. What if my innate desires for destiny and greatness–the sculpture and the mountain peak, as I imagine them–are a promise from one who knows exactly who I am and where I am headed?

If a God exists who knows every aspect of the self I am trying to maximize–not only my limits but also greatness in dimensions that I never contemplated–then the way forward is by a commandment so simple and so difficult that it never made it onto a stone tablet: “Follow me.” If I believe God’s promise that my destiny will be fulfilled, then I should relinquish the illusion of control over that destiny, and with it my near-sighted striving. Relinquishing control over our lives can feel impossible; yet I believe that this is the way not only to true greatness, but to deep, abiding rest and freedom from the anxiety of legacy and self-maximization. Moreover, it is ultimately a joyful task because it is based on relationship and trust, not individualism and competition.

There is no objectively complete proof that faith in my desire as a  promise is well-founded, that the mountain and the sculpture I envision are real. Nevertheless, I have personally found compelling evidence in literature, in art, and in my role-models. It seems to me that lives of true greatness—of self-maximization, external impact, and sometimes even lasting legacy—are lives of sacrifice. I don’t mean that greatness is in the sacrifice itself; I mean that greatness requires relinquishing our desire for the destiny we envision, sacrificing our will in obedience, in order to pursue and receive a greater destiny than we could have imagined. Just as every destiny is unique, the act of relinquishing that is asked of each person will be different. And paradoxically, by serving others above oneself, one’s longed-for destiny is ultimately realized in unexpected ways.[2] We may find that investments of our time and resources that seem to be taking us in the wrong direction–extracurriculars or classes that don’t add to our resume, time carved out from study hours to grieve or laugh with a friend—will shape us in ways we don’t expect.

“The one who pursues righteousness and love finds life, bounty, and honor” (Prov. 21:22, ESV). I believe that God will fulfill the promise; God took on flesh to fulfill it. We will reach the mountain on this earth because it is our home. The sculpture will take beautiful, recognizable shape (at least in part) “here in this life,” as Kierkegaard writes. However, our greatness will not be defined by a life-saving innovation or discovery, a paradigm-shifting model, or a transformative work of art. Even if we achieve such things, they will only be refractions of greater truth, greater beauty, greater love. Our true, unearned yet destined greatness, achieved by relinquishing control and embracing faith, will be a unique and unconditional identity, an overflowing return on the investment of our talents for others, and an unimaginably abundant life. I desire that greatness more than anything.

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,

    to the house of the God of Jacob,

that He may teach us His ways

    and that we may walk in His paths.”

Isaiah 2:3

[1] In her novel Lila, Marilynne Robinson’s title character asks a preacher, “What do you ever tell people in a sermon except that things that happen mean something?” Belief in meaning itself is at the heart of Christianity.

[2] The power of stories is that they expand our “moral imagination” to recognize the promises fulfilled. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard’s Johannes de Silentio tells how Abraham expected God to provide a lamb to sacrifice in place of Isaac, but God sent a ram; in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, a king expects to see a statue of his wife as she was when she died, but finds that the “statue” has aged as he has. Each must have the eyes to see that this really is the miracle he has been waiting for.

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.