February 9, 2011 11:41 AM   Subscribe

I'm a bit lazy, and a bit irresponsible. But most of all, I'm scared. Hope me.

I always get the feeling that I fool people into believing I'm awesome, and that they are eventually going to see my true, horrible colors. I think this is affecting my work and social life.

Since I can remember, I've been a master at great first impressions. I'm like a professional Mr. Wickham. People love me, friends, teachers, coworkers, bosses, and I get to fool them for a period of time, but eventually there's disappointment and a horrible feeling of “much ado about nothing” about myself.

All my childhood I was told that I was "hateable", and it marked me. I say it to myself sometimes, and I mostly feel like I'm a hopeless loser in disguise. People are confused by my behavior, and I've been called shy and extroverted in equal measures.

Anyway, these feelings paralyze me. At work, I sometimes let phone messages accumulate without checking them because I think most of them are to tell me how much I suck. If somebody gives me criticism, I take it to heart and think everyone hates me. I am not fulfilling my potential at all; I’m simply putting out fires and too busy quivering in shame and fear, most of the time. People who know me would never guess that I feel this way.

Sometimes, when things aren’t going well(most of the time), I simply run away and hide at home (boring). I don’t get out and stay alone (no friends), cooking (overweight) and hiding (crazy). I realize that when I feel in control, I put in more hours at work and do extra stuff, go out, see new places and think about taking awesome lessons, but that’s only when everything is perfectly perfect perfection.

Does anybody feel this way? I feel this fear of failure or dislike really destroys a potentially beautiful life. I could be doing interesting things, and a good job at work, but I can’t bring myself to TRY. How can I deal with this?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 88 users marked this as a favorite
you're too anxious about what other people are thinking of you and overanalyzing everything. you can't change in a day, you might not change in years, so stop deriving your sense of self worth from day to day behaviors. Don't worry about things like social life, weight, etc. That comes with time and if it makes sense to you to go out more or start eating better at a different period in your life then you'll do it.

Don't let the work messages accumulate. That's the important stuff. Figure out the desperate minimum layer of important stuff (rent!) and get a handle on that. Life is long. You deserve to feel better. Learn to be comfortable with yourself as you are.
posted by the mad poster! at 11:49 AM on February 9, 2011

This comes up frequently on Metafilter. Talk to a therapist about the "impostor syndrome." You might also just want to talk generally about anxiety issues and avoidance. You don't have to live this way; get some help.

I'm not a doctor/therapist.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:49 AM on February 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

External behavior is a projection of internal-conflict/confusion. The only way to effectively solve this problem is to solve the inner turmoil you are struggling with. (and by doing so, you'll cease sending people mixed signals).

Judging by past experience on MeFi.. I'm guessing quite a few responses to this question will recommend finding a therapist. That's not necessarily wrong advice, it may genuinely work for you if you find a therapist that is compatible with you, and actually do the hard introspective work of creating a new mindset and confident image of yourself.

There are of course a wide variety of alternative approaches that don't involve a therapy/therapist,.. such as: a good exercise program, meditation, or getting some kind of "life coach" or "personality trainer". How easy is it to find these things (or how effective they are for your situation) is going to vary depending on a lot of factors unique to you (location, age, how much effort you're willing to invest).

For me personally, I totally identify with the mixed internal emotions you're describing,. .I felt almost exactly like that for most of my teens and twenties. It wasn't until I got into my 30's (I'm now 37) that I finally got really comfortable with myself and the way I come across to people. I credit most of that to finding/practicing Buddhism (the breathing, the meditation, the calm introspection, the practice of things like patience and simplicity),... but I'm strongly hesitant to recommend religion to anyone because I think that's a very personal choice and not always the best solution to a non-religious problem.
posted by jmnugent at 11:56 AM on February 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I feel this way and could have written your post word for word, down to being told I was "hateable" as a kid (WTF is that about, really? who says that and thinks it's okay?) and letting emails/voicemails pile up out of fear they will confirm that I suck. In fact, I have been avoiding two emails from a client for the past week week purely for that reason-- and I just now opened them and found they didn't say anything of the sort. So now on top of being paranoid about my suckiness, I also feel like a fool for having this paranoia.

Anyway, I don't really have advice to cure you but wanted you to know you're not alone. Sometimes my coping mechanism is to prove to myself that I'm wrong about my impressions of how others see me, like with those emails I just opened and found they were actually not full of hate and disappointment. Sometimes I find that I was right and people are disappointed in me, and I just have to find a way to not care. In those cases I will ask myself "what is the worst thing that could come of this person not liking me?" and usually it's not the end of the world.
posted by joan_holloway at 12:01 PM on February 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

yeah letting emails voicemails etc from people clients pile up is exactly what I did too when I was in OP's shoes. When you don't have a handle on things the add-on pounding from external actors just seems best to ignore temporarily. But it's never temporary and the behavior starts asserting itself as a pattern. And to co-sign joan_holloway, it's rarely *that* serious. Figure out what it is the other person is saying. Drop a quick assertion or reply and be honest about what you'll do about it and when. Then move on. It can be that easy.

Also, I've learned that "no reply" seems much much worse to the person who's contacting you than "here's the situation I'll handle it by then." They're like.. what happened? Is dude even there? Why is he ignoring me? Has he left the job? Has he scammed me? WTF do I do now? etc.

Even with personal emails, I never replied cause I didn't reply earlier and now they're emailing again and I feel I owe them a longer email and I can't get it done, etc.. etc.. don't do that. Send a short quick message. Avoidance doesn't help you or the person you're interacting with and just creates a lot of imaginary "god what's his deal?" on both sides.
posted by the mad poster! at 12:10 PM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Talk to a therapist about the "impostor syndrome."

Agreed. What you describe is definitely Imposter Syndrome, also called Fraud Syndrome. Since you feel it's beyond your ability to control, therapy is something you should look into.
posted by scalefree at 12:16 PM on February 9, 2011

You're not the only one. This paralysis is life-sucking. I can't tell you what the foolproof cure is, but your post could have been my post not too long ago.

Whenever you have these thoughts (even if it's all the time):

1) Take a deep breath. Really, don't forget to breathe. I spent a lot of my life holding my breath -- without even realising it.
2) Remind yourself that the paralysis is going to lead you right down the path to failure. You can do better than frakkin' out. Visualize some kick-ass things you've accomplished that demonstrate how damn much you own things.
3) Force yourself to do something. Take action.
a) If you're afraid to do something social (for example, say hello to your doorman), challenge yourself to do it. Exercise your willpower! Reward yourself mentally. It really is a great thing to do. Think about how you've probably brightened that person's day and possibly even have improved their opinion of you.
b) If you're stuck on a challenging task (Ijustcan'tdothisIdontevenknowwheretostartthissucksIsuck)
b1) Set a timer and work on 'dauntingtask' for five minutes.
b2) Make a barebones but fully-broken-down list of what you need to do. then gradually elaborate on each step. When finished, start with something easy for a confidence boost.
b3) Note where you have questions. Find the appropriate authority and ask them instead of turning them over in your mind endlessly. Asking questions does not make you weak or stupid. It makes you thorough and thoughtful.

Let me recommend two books that have helped and continue to help me:
100 Ways to Motivate Yourself (truly a little bit of magic - buy yourself a copy so that you can refer back to it when you feel yourself slipping into panicky perfectionistic despair and demotivation)
When Panic Attacks (not a book about panic attacks, but about anxiety in general)

Good luck. You're really not alone. And you can do it.
posted by xiaolongbao at 12:30 PM on February 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

Imposter syndrome? Sounds like low self esteem- see a therapist, please, and don't worry so much about what other people think of you.
posted by TheBones at 12:30 PM on February 9, 2011

Calling a person, especially a child, hate-able is really awful. Some kids are more difficult than others, but every difficult kid I've spent time with has redeeming qualities, which may have been hidden because no one ever looked.

For me, some of these actions are because I get overwhelmed and then the world gets scary. Meds have helped me a lot. A good therapist is worth finding. Good luck.
posted by theora55 at 12:37 PM on February 9, 2011

OP, please MeMail me or get in touch with one of the mods about adding a throwaway email address to your post. You are not alone.
posted by arianell at 12:43 PM on February 9, 2011

I occasionally have to do "reality checks". That is, if I'm convinced someone or a group of someones has determined that I suck/did/something stupid/am an ass, but suspect that my brain may be messing with my perceptions, eventually I will straight up ask. It's scary as Hell, but hitting that soul-sucking whirlpool of anxiety right at its heart often disrupts it.

Then I slink back to my cave and consider whether I *believe* the responses I got to my inquiries. I try to factor in the believability of the person in general while I assess the authenticity of their reply.

At the end of the day, though: Actions speak louder than words. If I think a person doesn't want to spend time with me, and I ask them about it and they say, that, Oh no, everything's cool, I LOVE spending time with me --and yet we still never end up spending time together? I'll take what they do over what they say as the grounding point for my sanity.
posted by Ys at 12:49 PM on February 9, 2011

This sounds a lot like what my girlfriend has described as her dominant mode of existence before she went to a therapist, was diagnosed with depression, and started taking medication. So if you haven't seen a professional about this, I suggest that you do so immediately - wouldn't it be great if this wasn't something you had to live with any more?
posted by Ragged Richard at 1:05 PM on February 9, 2011

I don't have much to add, other than responding to "Does anybody feel this way?" Yes. Absolutely. I know I do, mostly due to a spectacularly awful and self-esteem-shattering high school experience. Also, I've met quite a few other people who feel the same way. You are definitely not alone.
posted by brundlefly at 1:21 PM on February 9, 2011

Like many of the other commenters, I see a lot of myself in your question, OP. For me it's a combination of wanting to please everyone and having no idea how to handle mistakes. If I mess up, I'm terrified I'll get punished for it somehow, so I ignore it - which always backfires in the end. It's gotten better in recent years but I'm still working on it.

One observation that helped me a lot, especially at work, was noticing that other people messed up too. Unlike me, however, they didn't apologize for it every time. When other people didn't return calls immediately or made a mistake, I was like "well, that's just the way they are," but when I didn't, it was some sort of personal failure. You're most certainly holding yourself to a far higher standard than you hold those around you.

A good exercise is to do the one task that scares you the most when you arrive at work. Confronting something head-on is always less scary once you start.

Therapy and/or medication are options here; I recommend them frequently because they helped me so much. You'll get out of this!
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:37 PM on February 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

thanks for the question ... i'm dealing with some of this too (you're not alone). i'm not really plagued with insecurity, but have been the family asshole my entire life. my shrink was the first person to even suggest i might not be. it's helpful to have someone like that to get input from, especially if because i'm super honest and wiling to accept that sometimes i AM an asshole.

a while ago, i learned to like myself. what i don't like, i work really hard to change. a good therapist is invaluable. it's not the easy way out, but it takes much less effort in the long run.

if you're overweight, stop eating in a way that will harm yourself today. if you're hiding, find a place to volunteer this weekend. it helps you, helps others. these are two very small things to help you get in the right direction. little steps can make a big impact and are much more likely to lead to success.

you are going to be living with yourself for a very very long time - you might as well get to the liking yourself part as soon as you can. the rest of the time is wasted and you'll be sorry you didn't do it sooner.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 1:57 PM on February 9, 2011

Oh man, I totally know where you're coming from. I spent years of my life feeling bad about myself for unclear reasons. I am still kind of anxious and prone to feeling like a disaster, but I'm so much better that I consider myself essentially cured.

The big key to this, for me, was to do two things:

1) Look at situations I was in with an outsider's eye. Did I ACTUALLY do something terrible? If someone else behaved the way I behaved, would I consider that person worse than a Nazi? No? Then maybe I can cut myself some slack- we're all people trying to get along, man. Also, revelation, sometimes this process makes you realize that other people are being dicks to you and making you feel crummy on purpose, and then you can get righteously mad at them (in your head) which is also a shame-killer.

2) Talk about my anxiety.

Let me give an example. You know how you get anxious about retrieving voicemails? I totally used to have that. But then I realized that a big component of that anxiety was feeling ashamed of having it to begin with ("Clearly, if I were a better person, I would not feel anxiety about something stupid like retrieving my voicemail. Ergo, I am awful and should be fired!")

The fix - perhaps unbelievably at first - is to be a person who just says "Oh man. Do you ever get that thing where you get too anxious to listen to your voicemails?" and either the person you're talking to will say "YES, totally!" or they will say "Uh, no." and then you can practice saying "I know... it's so totally ridiculous! Sigh." and make fun of yourself.

Does that make sense? Refusing to hide your stupid shit and making fun of it instead totally defuses what's going on for your brain. I used to have so much of this kind of anxiety that it was practically incapacitating. But now I can do things I used to find terrifying, like pay library fines ("Hey! What's up? I have fines... I feel like a terrible person.") or interact with the DMV ("Hey! I'm here to pay my registration. I'm late paying it. Do you guys put late payers in the stocks or anything?") or check my email ("You guys, I have 400 unread emails!!!! Come stand next to me while I check this one, the anxiety is killing me.")

You just... make the subtext text. You talk about feeling anxious. The anxiety doesn't necessarily vanish, but the crippling shame that lives on top of the anxiety goes away. And you can function.

I have been where you are - memail if you need support!
posted by thehmsbeagle at 2:24 PM on February 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

"I always get the feeling that I fool people into believing I'm awesome, and that they are eventually going to see my true, horrible colors.
Does anybody feel this way?

Some possibly apropos song lyrics:

And I say well I'm lucky, cause I am like East Berlin
I had this wall and what I knew of the free world
Was that I could see their fireworks
And I could hear their radio
And I thought that if we met, I would only start confessing
And they'd know that I was scared
They'd would know that I was guessing
But the wall came down and there they stood before me
With their stumbling and their mumbling
And their calling out just like me
- Dar Williams, What Do You Hear In These Sounds

Basically, welcome to the human race - we're all just faking it the best we can.

As far as the paralysis goes, if you can bring yourself to realize that failing, making a fool of yourself, and falling on your face are not only an acceptable part of life, but are inevitable and sometimes necessary for growth, then it can take a lot of pressure off of you.
posted by tdismukes at 3:23 PM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I absolutely feel like you do and it's awful. It poisons my life. I have over 3000 unread messages in my personal inbox (accumulated over about 7 years, but still...) A friend once sat with me and helped me go through a bunch of them because I was so scared to do it alone. I've turned down everyone who has tried to befriend me in the past four years because I am so afraid of the shame and embarrassment I will feel in the moment when the person sitting across from me realizes how much of a pathetic loser I am and I see it in their eyes.

Bear with me here; I'm trying to help myself out in my attempt to answer your question, as it's my question too. I think there are at least three steps in overcoming this. First, you need to figure out what you are gaining by holding onto the belief or at least suspicion that you are an awful, hateable person and by engaging in this neurotic behavior. For those of us who are terribly insecure, it's parly the enjoyment inherent in self-absorption. And be willing to give that up, and take enjoyment instead from whatever is enjoyable for people who are not neurotic in this way. Next, figure out exactly what it is that you think is so horrible about you. Not just, "hateable", but exactly what it is that you are so afraid of others knowing about you. When you heard this as a child, you must have come up with a few ideas of what it was about you that could inspire hate (although you may not remember this clearly now). When you know what it is, you can look more closely at it to discover whether it's true or not (it won't be) and if you have your doubts about that, you can begin to disprove it to yourself. Finally, you can face the fears of interacting with people and checking messages: take the plunge again, and again, and again - until you are completely certain that no catastrophe will come about when you do. Actually, these things probably are best done all at once.

I hope this helps. God help me to follow my own advice :)
posted by kitcat at 11:12 PM on February 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I want to chime in here--I read your more recent post about the overeating, and just now read this previous post you linked to. Some of this may mean something to you, some of it may not. Regardless, you are not hateable, you are not worthless you are not a loser. These are beliefs that can and will change.

My life has been a similiar experience. And as I grew to understand that it was my own beliefs about myself that were creating my reality and thus my depression, it definitely opened up new possibilities. But that did not help me change. When those beliefs are deep down, it may not be that easy.

What has made the difference for me is looking at what I'm putting energy into. Am I gaining energy--emotional, spiritual, physical, mental--or am I losing energy? When you are doing things you believe in and truly being yourself, you feel energized. You obviously feel exhausted.

You have a mental idea of who you are that is not real. This is what is exhausting you. You see in your mind's eye this person is great at work, who goes out and has fun...and there is nothing wrong with those things. You do have that potential, absolutely. Only, those things happen of themselves--you said in moments when you feel more of your own power, you do these things naturally. Those things are wonderful things that a person gravitates towards naturally when they are experiencing life and themselves fully. When you are happy, you are productive and creative. When you are at peace, you are an adventurer in the world, you reach out and connect with other people just as you are. Let go of them as ideas, you don't need to make them happen--it's not working.

Any tiny pleasure you have when you, say, start a new job and introduce this "person" to your co-workers is not real joy. Maybe your mind thinks "this time I can do it, this time I can be this person I know I am". But there is no real power in it. You can't maintain it. Deep down with in you, it has no reality to it because it is not "true" for you. You feel you are faking for them because you are faking for yourself. It's nothing to feel guilty about. You've forgotten who you are. Instead, there is this emptiness--the "much ado about nothing" you talked about. You feel paralyzed, like you said. I've experienced this again and again, I start to feel a little better and everything gets hopeful, I think about taking those classes, but then its lost...its a cycle. Umaintainable. "Perfectly perfect perfection" (I love your phrase!) is impossible as an idea, it only happens by itself when things are clicking automatically inside. A flower doesn't try to be a flower. It's not a pinnacle of a pyramid, which you'll keep sliding off, it's more like the sweet air you breath when your soul is breathing freely.

Allow it. Listen to your words. If you were "paralyzed" physically as a medical condition, you would be in hospital for rest and recovery, the doctors would be looking at opportunities for healing. Luckily, conditions of the soul are always healable! Check yourself into an imaginary hospital inside yourself. You are not well. The symptoms that are distressing you are real, and your body and your self wants to attend to the hurt and the source of the problem. Allow that to happen.

Perhaps there are things that you do that you just have never questioned; or perhaps there are things you don't do and you have never questioned that. Question them. Let go of the idea of being "lazy". It's a meaningless word; if it's possible to describe anyone as "lazy" it would be someone who is happy doing nothing or very little, or someone who has energy but doesn't ever want to share it with others. But you are not happy. You do not have energy. Let yourself off the hook--it's really just a way to feel guilt and worthlessness; if you can't let go of them, allow yourself to feel that guilt and whatever emotions you have about it. Motivation comes from the soul, and you are not feeling that right now. Obey it.

You don't understand what is happening. Obey that, too. Be a person who doesn't understand, and open to answers (and obviously you are, as your posts on askmefi show), and something within you may awaken. Nurture it as you would a small child. You said you are scared of revealing your true, horrible colors. I have recently discovered something on my path that may or may not be meaningful to you, but recently I have been very embarassed to find that I am scared to be myself because I am scared of what I might find! You believe that you are worthless inside, and that fear seems to be keeping you from allowing your true self to come to the surface and shine--which it will. Again, listening to your words: "in disguise". That's very meaningful. Drop the idea that it's a loser behind it for now, and just look at the idea that came out while you were typing your question. Your soul is saying, "I feel disguised" (and it's coming out in a fear that people will see through it, because your feelings about yourself are coming out in the way you imagine people are seeing you). And disguises are meant to be removed.

Like madposter said, do the minimum that you need to do, get a handle on those things. Your body needs food. You probably need to do a decent job at work, so take those messages and decide to experience fully, openly whatever pain comes up if you receive criticism. Take simple, conservative exercise you enjoy. As jmnugent described, returning to simplicity while you take time to look inside yourself. Take actions if you want, get out of the house if you want, but don't do anything that takes you from that place.

I would say: If you are going back and forth between introverted & extroverted, do whatever is easiest and most natural for you. My guess is that if you give in to the introverted part, allowing yourself to be quiet, as you find yourself more the extroverted part of you will manifest. Don't push yourself. Life is not about pushing yourself. You have nothing to prove to others; they just want you to be yourself, and those who don't want you to be yourself are just struggling with similiar issues as you are--not being themselves, not accepting & loving themselves, fearful. That's okay.

It's okay to be "in hiding" in your home right now. Animals, when wounded or in pain, retreat to a safe place to heal. Inwardly, you want to return to a safe place. But maybe you haven't been feeling permission to do so, even while you do it. Maybe you can give yourself permission to. Out of that safe place can come everything else you want, in time. Right now, there's alot of fear that is likely the top layer of alot of emotions. I think giving yourself space to explore those feelings, whatever emotions you feel--anger, frustration, letting those feelings be heard!--will clear your eyes so you can see. You might be surprised at what you find there--I was! In a good way.

I'm not speaking as an analyst. I am not a doctor. This is something I have deeply experienced and am experiencing now, and of course only you can decide whether there is truth in it for you.

(Feel free to MeMail me if you need someone to talk to.)
posted by Thinkmontgolfier at 11:54 AM on March 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

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