Imposter syndrome on a massive scale
November 2, 2014 2:54 PM   Subscribe

I'll be turning 25 in two months' time. For a variety of reasons, some of which can be teased out with a thorough reading of my ask history ( chief among them the fall-out of a cerebral palsy diagnosis, namely a llifelong sense of otherness and a lack of familiarity with what it means to be the author of one's own life), I feel like there's a huge discrepancy between that number and the ccoping skills, initative, emotional balance and vision for the future that I have to show for it ( a lack thereof, in my case). How do I adult when I feel so stunted? Vaguely Freudian wall of snowflakes inside.

My parents were there to push me and guide my hand, sometimes stubbornly so, for most of my early life. At around the time I turned 12 or 13, they pulled back, almost overnight, in rather drastic fashion. What I now know to be their own depression left me feeling abandoned. My brother turned out fine ( if emotionally semi-closed off) but I was left flailing.
Whenever what I did or failed to do clashed with their Eastern European/baby-boomer sensibilities and definitions of success. They always knew when to tell me I was wrong, rather vocally so, but became helpless and distant the moment I asked for concrete help. They had made me dependent ( maybe moreso than they realized), and then, because after years of trying, they hadn't succeeded in making me headline news on Good Morning America for getting a full ride to Harvard or climbing Mt. Everest in spite of my challenges, they"gave up" an were prepared to let me wallow in what they saw as a resignation to mediocrity and "wasting the gifts God gave me". My dad has said as much, repeatedly.
This emotional abandonment ( again, relative to what had come before) bred a deep resentment that I still have trouble with to this day. The issue came to a head after I finished ( just barely, and with much drama) college and was told I needed to look for a job. I have no idea what it means to work, feel unprepared psychologically for the idea of a job, let alone the actual search and interview process everyone seems to have at least somewhat of a handle on by graduation. This is to say nothing of the fact that I have no idea what I'm about or what I want to do. I've never really "experienced" life- really it's just been an exercise in getting by. That my dad lectures me on the urgency of finding a job in one breath and tells me I'll never do anything in another doesn't help. I feel llike a child in the worst way.
Socially too, I still have a very underdeveloped, mathematical understanding of what it means to build a friendship. I only have one friend ( a female) with whom I consider myself to have connected to organically. Everyone else ( mostly attractive guys) is there for emotional validation ( I'm bisexual- I think). I'm good at interview style small talk and excessively emotional, deep conversation. Nothing in between. This creates distance and invariably becomes a turn-off eventually.
Apologies for the rambling wall of text. I guess the TL;DR version would be: How do I stop feeling infantilized and helpless and like I need to have my hand held for every little thing at my age, when that isn't an option as far as either social norms or circumstances are concerned? How do I develop individuality and the internal sense of safety and "it'll-be-okay"ness necessary to move past these anxieties?

PS: I *know* full well that no one ever actually has it figured out, no matter their age. I know we're all just scared little children in big bodies. I get that. But this is different. It's paralyzing, and it's killing me.
PPS: Already in therapy and on medication for depression.

What do you think, hivemind?
posted by marsbar77 to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I know this sounds like a platitude but (for the most part) it's still true: hang in there, don't give up, it does get easier. Lots of us have been through variations of hell. For those of us who found our way back we all have our survival tactics. My personal one is reading and the genre that kept me sane in the bad time is science fiction. I also find things that take me out of my own head: plants, art, keeping busy. There could be a million suggestions but I think the best place to start is with something you haven't tried before. Doesn't matter if it doesn't work. If you feel the things you are doing now aren't quite enough then step outside the box and do something else. Keep doing the things that do work out, keep trying new things until you get another to add to the portfolio, and hang in there, don't give up, it does get easier.
posted by Julanna at 3:21 PM on November 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: How do I stop feeling infantilized and helpless and like I need to have my hand held for every little thing at my age, when that isn't an option as far as either social norms or circumstances are concerned? How do I develop individuality and the internal sense of safety and "it'll-be-okay"ness necessary to move past these anxieties?

You are uncomfortable being who you are, a 25 year old who has things yet to learn and who sometimes needs the help of others. You think that feeling vulnerable is something to conquer and replace with a sense of safety. You think that it is shameful to want help and support so you turn on yourself and yell "grow up, already!" and feel even worse.

You want to develop individuality but you're already an individual but not the kind you think you should be. What you must do is decide that it's OK to feel the way you do and need the things you need. And while you're learning to do that, you have to also decide that it's OK to fail at feeling it's OK for a while until you get better at it.

Once you know it's OK to be you, you'll still feel vulnerable and still need help but much of your anxiety will go away.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:30 PM on November 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Not to threadsit, but just to clarify: Needing help is, I think, only part of the issue. I rarely feel "safe" enough to initiate anything. At all.
posted by marsbar77 at 4:36 PM on November 2, 2014

Probably because you expect criticism and aren't allowed to be wrong, or even have a different opinion.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:08 PM on November 2, 2014

Best answer: You need to get put of your own comfort zone and out of the echo chamber in your head. Nothing grows one up like a taste of a harder version of reality. Americorps or some other social service job/internship, maybe even military service. Minimally start tutoring kids or something.

You write well., whatever your collegiate experience. You have something to start from and something to give back.

But what you need to move forward is purpose, a cause, a calling, a project, an affiliation, an identity as a man. If your own family doesn't provide that for you -- and that's not uncommon, and no one's really does -- you have to seek it out, whether your ambition is to have your own family or see the world or solve a problem.

At a certain point introspection is your enemy. There is no right way to do your own future and it doesn't exist somewhere waiting for you to find it. You make it.
posted by spitbull at 5:19 PM on November 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Good news: You know are self aware. 95-98.8% of people are not aware that they are struggling with anything. Good news: Everyone is dealing with something -- said another way, you are not alone.

Help is out there. Keep working on stuff in therapy. Bring in what you wrote down and read it to your therapist.

You, like me, are very future or past focused. It is a killer. I am the same way. I am 35 years old. I have a job that I like, sometimes I love it, but I like it. I think that is pretty decent for right now. I am constantly evolving. Do I have it all figured out? No. But do any of us? No. We all know this.

Try and stay in the moment. stay focused on right here and now. Your next step, not your next steps. Break things down into small manageable pieces. Looking for a job? Read some job listings. Look for paid internships. I took a paid internship upon graduating from college. I am now in that field, doing that work because I found it interesting and rewarding. Wanna take it a step further? Call some people in your alumni network, or write/reach out to people in industries that you are interested in that may be nearby. Informational interviews will inform your decision about what it is you want to do with your work life. You are a great writer, as a previous responder wrote. Going into higher education, libraries, marketing, etc. where it will play to your strength with the written word may be something that you may want to explore.

Yes, have some hobbies and things that make you feel competent in your life. I play tennis because I have for my entire life.

Oh yeah, everyone has a fucked up family or something that went wonky with them while they were growing up. If they say otherwise, they are lying. I was born with cleft lip and palate, mental health, and stomach issues. Not enjoyable. My father would blow up for no reason. My mother is a wonderful mother, gets things done, cooks, works hard, but is not really emotional. She pushes anything emotional aside. It is tough, but I just roll with it. People are not capable of what they are not capable of doing. For instance, if you have never seen a basketball would you know what to do with it? Well, that is how my mom is with emotions? She has seen them, but she doesn't know what to do with them. The same may be true with some of what you describe with your father or mother. This all said, you have to keep going. Accept that they just aren't going to get it and keep going, keep living.

Check out Acceptance Commitment Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy will help with Interpersonal Skills. There is a whole section on that, mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotional regulation. This will help you in all areas. Again, that is dialectical behavior therapy.

I hope this is helpful. If you need to, please email me on this site.
posted by Jewel98 at 6:35 PM on November 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I don't know how to say this in a more positive way: everything in life has a penalty. You sound self-aware, and the penalty of that is some level of pain. Good things in life have a penalty too.

The only thing I can suggest is to be kind to yourself. Always. We forget to do that very easily. We get lost and even consumed by our suffering and shortcomings, whatever is going on the inside. Sometimes I try to shift that focus to the extrinsic. Be observant of surroundings. Of people. Of their behavior, longings, dreams, failures, anxieties, pain. I haven't tried this yet but I intend to soon- think of yourself as an actor. You can't be an imposter when you are an Oscar-winning actor. You will yourself to be who you want to be, you practice, and with enough practice, you will be what you want to be whenever you wish without feeling like an imposter.

I hope this makes sense.

We are all screwed up. Some of us are doing our best without being aware and some are just painfully aware. You know that, right?

Also, remember the baby elephant story. Took me a long while to learn that some of the limitations I picked up in childhood were really limitations in my mind and can be shaken off any time. I love that story!
posted by xm at 7:11 PM on November 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Hi everyone. Thanks for the kind words so far. I know self-confidence is most likely at the heart of the matter. I guess what I'm after is a concrete plan of action for getting myself to be intrinsically motivated enough by my own road map, whatever that may hold, to surpass the threshold set by my anxieties and my need to be in a convenient little "pen" of existential security before I can act. I need to act. Like, yesterday.
posted by marsbar77 at 7:28 PM on November 2, 2014

Best answer: I'll just address the job-having part of this question, since it seems like that's your most urgent problem...

Maybe it'll help you to know that I had no idea how to job hunt, in spite of a decent family. Not their fault, they also did not know how to job hunt in the modern world. And I had a barely existent resume. And..well, I found a good job.

But I also didn't completely go it alone. I read a lot of AskMe about job hunting. I used resources from my university (remember they have an investment in getting you a job--the more people they can report have a job in their field n months after graduation, the more attractive they are to incoming students). I asked relative strangers embarrasingly personal questions when it seemed like they might have something relevant to tell me (and they generally enjoyed it, people love to over-share, go figure)...

And, truly, having a job helped. Watching people around me go around and do the same things I was doing and generally be the same as me and be OK helped. Having money helps a lot with feeling like an adult. Stepping back and thinking, "What would AskMe do?" and then carefully guiding myself through those steps helped.
posted by anaelith at 7:56 PM on November 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think something you should work on in therapy is addressing your sense of learned helplessness and whether setting more concrete goals for yourself might help.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 10:21 PM on November 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Having been in the same position myself with my parents I think its important to see the double bind that your parents have put you in.

The fact that your father has such high expectations but then castigates you for not reaching them is not your problem but his.

Its hard for you as his son to see and to recognize this but this man has little interest in your welfare or love for you as much as seeing you as an emotional punching bag.

That he chooses to use you, his own disabled child in this way, makes him not a father but a monster.

None of this is your fault or your problem, but what is your problem is that his behavior is abusive and is having a massive effect on your self esteem and will likely have an even greater effect on your future.

Getting a handle on this behavior and understanding it as not love, or best interest but abuse will not make it any less hurtful will at least put it in context for you and enable you to file it away correctly in your mind.

In this position I would attempt to do everything I could to get away and put as much physical and emotional distance between you as you can, and work to build your own life on your own terms away from this "family."

Gaining independence is hard, but its almost impossible when faced with such abuse, and while it won't feel like this at the moment getting away from this situation and the constant negative backchatter will make everything else easier and more manageable in the long run.

As long as you're doing everything you can for you, that's cool and that's enough, living your life isn't about pleasing anyone else or living up to anyone else's standards but your own.

As an independent person you can then have the relationships you want on your own terms and choose to include / exclude your parents to the degree you choose, and never deal with them again if you want to!

You have power in this situation!
posted by Middlemarch at 2:04 AM on November 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is how you get there. The same way everybody does.
posted by trinity8-director at 3:07 PM on November 3, 2014

Best answer: Aww jeez, your dad is not a "monster," by your own description, and that comment is over the top. I don't know many men who do not struggle with a legacy of paternal expectations, except those much less lucky who don't have a father in their life at all.
posted by spitbull at 12:05 AM on November 4, 2014

Best answer: Hey marsbar77
I'm a bit late here (lots of helpful advice that has resonated with me), but I wanted to add this:
Buried under all of that self-doubt is something virtuous and inherently worthy. The work it takes in believing that is harder for some than others. Take each day to get to know yourself (recognizing both the possibilities and limitations of your personal narrative): if you end up developing a meditation practice, notice and label those thoughts swimming in your head--don't believe all your thoughts. Sometimes we can lack basic compassion for ourselves, which is such a tragedy: we lose out individually, and the people around you lose out.

My own experience has been pretty rocky (much of your earlier years as described found me relating) and I think as Jewel put it, your awareness is going to be a definite boon, though it may be unbearable at times. Take each day at a time, and work on one small, tiny thing. It might be remembering moments when we are grateful, doing something very mundane like flossing, but those small increments become sedimented over time. It's all part of that process of unwrapping that worthiness we have (sub)consciously veiled from ourselves.

I strongly recommend taking a look at Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön as a companion to your journey.

Rooting for you.
posted by wallawallasweet at 6:07 AM on November 6, 2014

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