Punching above your weight (reflections on impostor syndrome)

I recently completed a dissertation at masters level. I recently made an art and music, film odyssey that has received great feedback from nearly everyone who’s seen it.

Interestingly both of these projects dealt with a lot personal experience loop of impostor syndrome: the feeling of never being good enough, whatever one has achieved isn’t through faculties one possesses, but through some one off.

As much as these projects dealt with many skeletons in the closet, the one they most had to come to terms with was the one holding my body up. Maybe I was wanting their audience to accept that I was an artist and writer by fluke, and would they let me crawl back into the shadows. Or maybe it would force me to look at myself and accept that the things I’ve done are good because I am good enough.

Now, as the feeling of being inferior slowly seeps back in (as I knew it would), I can’t crawl into the shadows, because there’s nowhere to hide, I have to face my reflection.

I tell myself that once I get a better job, and my clothes look tidier and I can pay to go to a gym, or once I find a way of living independently, and I can write and create in my own space, I will feel better about myself.

But at some point I have internalised a feeling that I’m not really as good as other people. Whatever I achieve it’s because I’m obsessive and driven, and this can momentarily compensate for my inferiority.

I was a poor performer at school. I much preferred day-dreaming about anything that wasn’t in relation to the present, always revolving around a happy ending. Once the happy ending came, I’d no longer have to prove myself in competitive world where I wasn’t good enough, I could sit back and some unidentifiable other would accept my inferior but ‘good’ self.

As I began to develop my own skills, I carried this sense that any recognition I had achieved was because I’ve been punching above my weight. You see, I was never ‘cultured’ enough growing up — never snook out at night to gigs, never wore cool clothes, never smoked weed listening to singer-songwriters — I was just a kid in an Umbro sweater, waiting to self-realise in adulthood.

I told myself,I was merely pulling out all the stops to gain things others could do with far less effort. And it’s factually true that I am far far from being a great, technically gifted artist; sometimes I can’t play a single chord on a guitar, and sometimes it takes me a week to read a page in a book.

Yet I’ve made art, music, writing, and now film, that people say are really good. But even now I’m never able to shift the feeling that once I stop it becomes clear I was just punching above my weight.

The closest things that have come to describe this feeling are Mark Fisher’s essay Good For Nothing, and David Smail’s The Origins of unhappiness. From a class-based perspective they look at how power is imbued into us from birth onwards, and how such affirming nurturing develops our confidence to achieve in life, whilst those who are from lower class upbringings always feel they can’t achieve, or an utter fraud if they do.

Although I can’t help but agree, as I look at the current bumbling, self-important, privately educated people currently governing this country, I think it’s unlikely there was much class-based difference between those I felt in unwanted competition with as a young child. Additionally, although this competitive culture certainly has political implications, I have already spent a long time making the mistake of using these books and essays as proof of my predicament rather than as motivation to accept myself. What I mean is that whilst I accept all this to be true, and we should be rightly angry, only I can stop myself feeling like an imposter.

I now accept this. But my word, it’s not easy trying to rectify this issue.

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