When Your Guilt Is Actually Imposter Syndrome

So I was thinking about my first post on feeling guilty about the life you’ve built for yourself, and I hopped over to artist Lucy Bellwood’s Twitter (@lubellwoo) to see if she’d written anything about that recently—since Lucy describes herself as a “Curious Empathy Machine” and is extraordinarily emotionally intelligent—and I noticed one of her tweets was about imposter syndrome, and I was all wait, is that what I’m actually trying to describe here?

Because, as you noted in yesterday’s comments, it’s odd to feel guilty about your own success, even in my re-definition of the word “guilt” as “I made choices in support of my goals and values but I still feel bad.

But that feeling runs fairly close to Google’s definition of imposter syndrome, specifically “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.”

(I always get imposter syndrome confused with “feeling like you’ll get kicked out of your job because you don’t think you really belong there.”)

I can definitely believe that my success has been legitimately achieved—I was there for the past seven years, putting in the work, moving from the roommate situation where I slept on the floor (because my room wasn’t large enough for a bed) to the apartment where I washed my dishes in a bus tub and dumped the dishwater into the toilet (because my studio wasn’t large enough for a kitchen). I got myself into $14K of credit card debt because I wasn’t making enough money, and then I got out of debt when I was.

But whether I deserve my current life is another question. That might be the feeling we’re all poking at here.

I don’t know about you, but I think part of the “do I deserve this” question derives from the decade-plus I spent after college living on so much less. I used to be a telemarketer. I used to be on food stamps. I used to live in an apartment where, as noted above, I literally had to dump my dishwater into the toilet. If I’d always had my current level of agency and comfort, not to mention financial stability, I might not worry about it as much. It might seem “normal.”

The other part of the “do I deserve this” question is “how can I use what I have to help other people?” I’ve tried to frame this question in the context of becoming an active part of my community; I’m currently on the board of an arts organization, I try to shop locally and tip well, I donate to local causes, etc. etc. etc. I’m going to help fund a scholarship for local musicians. That kind of thing.

I mean, when I think about it I’m all “I want to become one of those eccentric older women who lives in a modest but comfortable home and bikes everywhere and knows everyone and always shows up to the annual symphony donor gala and the opera fundraiser and helps break ground for the new school and all the rest of it.”

And really, I’m at least 10 percent of the way there now. (I already have the bike!) Yes, I’m choosing to focus on the problems I can help solve today—e.g. can I help a specific individual get a specific educational opportunity—instead of going after the bigger systemic stuff, and maybe that’ll change in the future, but maybe it’s fine to keep the majority of my giving back within my community.

But that brings me back around to is it okay to work towards the life you want?

Obviously, it seems it should be.

But enough of us feel impostery or guilty or unclear about what we should do when we get the life we want that it has to be addressed, you know?

Especially if our lives are different from what they were before, or different from what society/culture says they should be.

(Even though in my case, “quirky single woman who helps fund local organizations and scholarships” is very much the societal stereotype. There’s already a place in this world for people like me.)

Soooooooo that’s where I am with all of that. What about you? ❤️

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