You’ve got it all figured out. How you’re supposed to look, sound, dress. What are the acceptable hobbies and opinions. How smart to appear so you don’t threaten anyone. When to tell a joke and when to keep your mouth shut. You can do this. You’re perfect.
Yep, you’re perfect all right. A perfect imposter.
I remember when all I wanted was to be accepted by the popular kids. I studied how they looked and sounded so I could copy them. The clothes, the laugh, the nonchalant attitude. I had to get it all down.
I was driven by a deep conviction of my own inadequacy. If I could have put into words how I felt (which I couldn’t), I would have said: “If only they accept me, then I will be acceptable.”
It’s funny how hard it is to fool people. All my efforts to be cool and popular did not work.
Looking back, I’m pretty sure I know why. Because despite all the things I did, my body posture and voice tone were giving off the message: “I feel inadequate, please like me.”
So about the title of this article: I don’t actually know how to be a perfect imposter. I’ve always failed.
Here’s what I do know: Trying to be perfectly the same as some ideal is a soul killer.
And that’s true if the ideal you’re trying to be perfect at is a slicked down business person in a suit or an ultra-cool hip person with tats and piercings.
You might be better at being an imposter than I was. But I’m pretty sure you are no happier about it.
The problem with being an imposter is that you know you are. So you’re always afraid you’re going to be found out. And you never get what you really want — which is to be loved for yourself.
Avoiding the Deeper Problem
Just as with an addiction, the urge to be a perfect imposter is driven by a deeper pain. “I am inadequate” is an extremely painful feeling, and we try to not feel it. We would do anything to not feel it.
But here’s the thing: Running from this painful inadequacy and trying to cover it up doesn’t make it go away. And that way, it will never change.
The feeling of being inadequate can be changed. It is a wound that can be healed. But most of us would-be imposters don’t know that.
It feels like we’re in a no-win situation. Like one of those nightmare games where “you lose” is behind every door.
Either I am myself, and I will not be loved and accepted. (I will be rejected and mocked, in fact.) Or I try to be like someone I’m not… and, well, I don’t feel accepted that way either.
So clearly this comes from past times (maybe a long time ago) when you were yourself, and you were rejected, mocked, beat up, ignored, judged, pinched, locked in a closet, looked at funny, etc. etc. What happened next was that a survival-oriented part of you said: “OK, then I won’t be myself.” That’s how the search for Perfect Impostership began.
And once you’re trying to be what you’re not, it is a never-ending trap, because you have to keep up the pretense, and it’s exhausting. Plus, there’s the constant danger that you will be found out, the real “you” will be unmasked, to general horror all around. Very very stressful and not really sustainable.
Is there a way out? Oh, yes.
How to Be Perfectly Imperfect
It all starts with an uneasy feeling.
This is the uneasy feeling you start to feel if you allow yourself to pause and feel something. When things are quiet, when you have a few minutes to yourself, just breathe and feel. (Maybe “uneasy” is not the word for it… maybe it’s painful or uncomfortable or panicky. You’ll find out.)
When you just feel, and you don’t fight with or run from how you feel, you’ve crossed over a huge barrier. The struggle to not feel is so exhausting! It comes from an old belief that if you allow yourself to feel what you feel, your feelings will take you over and you’ll be overwhelmed. They won’t, and you won’t. The next step will help.
Now try out these words: “Something in me feels I am not enough just as I am.” Do the words fit? Are they true? If not, let the words change until they fit. But keep the phrase “something in me.” That’s how you know this is a part of you and not all of you… and makes it much less likely that the feelings will overwhelm you.
Your sentence might be: “Something in me believes I have to hide my flaws in order to survive.”
Or: “Something in me feels deeply unacceptable.”
When you find the sentence that matches your uneasy feeling, you’ll feel a tiny sense of relief. No matter how bad it is, it is a relief to say it.
You’ve identified something in you that has these feelings. And you can probably see that you’ve often been driven to wiggle and twist, to cover up and avoid these very feelings… because there is pain here. But right now you can also feel that this is not unbearable pain. You can bear it. You can be here.
I have one more piece of advice for you: Say Hello to this something in you that has these feelings. Say to it, “I know you are here.” Say: “I am here with you now.” And find out how that feels now. You are forming a relationship with the hurting part of you. A relationship of compassion and self-caring.
This is not an overnight cure… but it is a long-lasting one. I’d suggest you do it for 5–10 minutes every day. I predict that each time you’ll feel a bigger and bigger shift. Over time, the things you’ve been doing to cover up and hide the pain will begin to fade away. Your own sense of calm and strength will grow.
In my life, I’ve done so many twisted things to not feel my feelings of being inadequate. Trying to be a perfect imposter was only one of them. I also spent years drinking too much.
I don’t do any of those things any more. I am happy to be imperfect, human, and myself. I’m not like anyone else. And I like it that way.
This article was first published on Medium.com on January 12, 2018.