“Being afraid to love and being paralyzed at the keyboard both involve a fear of being known, a fear of making mistakes, a fear of being found lacking” – Don Miller
It’s at the moment when you’re most vulnerable that all your doubts come crashing in around you. The paralyzing fear exhibited by that pesky voice inside your head criticizes your every move, whispering questions and making brazen statements like…
Who gave you permission to do that?
Do you have a license to be an artist?
Are you really a writer?
Who said you could turn your journaling into a memoir to submit for publication? Why would anyone read that or care about your life?
What makes you think anyone will like that fiction series you can never seem to actually sit your ass down and write?
You’re not good looking enough.
Your personality is boring.
You have no chance with her, at all, ever.
Two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, gave this fear a name back in 1978. They called it “The Impostor Syndrome” and described it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” While these people “are highly motivated to achieve,” they also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”
Or perhaps more simply put, they lack self-confidence. My natural sense of humility about my work and my life can easily cross the line into paralyzing fear.
A few nights ago I found myself sitting across from someone I’ve admired for years but hadn’t until that night met. In a quiet, dimly lit bar in Manhattan’s East Village, we sat over New York sours and caught up on each other’s life. The conversation quickly moved toward the area of both our struggles: relationships.
“I friend zone myself and kill all sexual tension,” I said.
“And why do you think you do that?” she asked.
“To protect myself,” I replied, “Fearing I’m not good enough.”
“But you’re an awesome person. You do tons of cool things and have an amazing life and heart. Don’t you believe that dating you would be the ultimate adventure?” she asked.
“Well, of course!” I said, knowing that when I date, which although hadn’t happened often in my life, I’m all in; wielding the power to romance into oblivion.
She stared into my pupils, leaned in, clutched my arm and asked, “But do you really believe that?”
The piercing question tore through the Impostor Syndrome.
“I think inside I do,” I stuttered.
She went on to talk about two levers. The first is attraction, and that lever goes down automatically and can’t necessarily be controlled. The second is effort, and that lever has to go down slowly as it’s earned. Therein lies my problem, I thought. In relationships, I throw the effort lever down almost immediately, and pour my existence into my relationship.
Several months ago, during a trying time in my past, now failed relationship, my 90-year-old great-grandmother sensed a hurt in me. One night while I was taking care of her and helping her into bed, she held my hand.
“Leave some mystery,” she whispered.
In retrospect, I realized how in my past relationship I completely relinquished my own self respect and self love out of a fear of losing the person I was with. In doing so, my smothering grip did exactly that. Smothered.
“Are you noticing a pattern?” she asked.
“Of course,” I replied.
“And what’s that?”
“All of my relationships end in abandonment.”
“Why does that happen?”
“I don’t know,” I said, shifting my gaze toward the window, watching the bustle of yellow cabs and bundled passerby’s move through the night.
With a raised eyebrow, my friend cocked her head and gave me another piercing glare.
“I am why,” I said at last through a wave of defeat and revelation, my eyes downcast as I spoke the reality.
12 months ago I staggered into an uncertain 2016, quickly facing my life’s greatest heartache, and then watching as God remade my circumstances and began a beautiful refining process of building something far greater out of brokenness. Never had I learned more in my life, and as I sat there that night, it dawned on me just how far I’d come. It had been a year of hurting so bad but living so good, making friends out of strangers, making strangers out of friends, and learning to focus on warm energy.
“What if you woke up every day with the mindset that today is a good day, that life is working for you, despite any and all circumstances, good or bad, thrown your way,” she said. “How would that change the way you lived?”
It was true that choosing joy led to courage. That believing God had something for me going forward in whatever circumstances I happened to find myself in, whether good or bad, in prosperity or ruin, that He saw the outcome even when I couldn’t, and that I ought to trust Him regardless of what happened. The year was teaching me that every single bit of my being, God was using for my good and for my story.
“You saw how your whole life was turned around in your work and career, and everything else,” she said, “What makes you think the same can’t happen in relationships?”
I needed to stop letting the past rob me of my present joy. I needed to stop allowing people to have the power to make me feel less about myself. I needed to approach talking to some pretty girl at a bar with an attitude of open-minded possibility, not fear of rejection. I needed to believe the only one missing out was her, not me. I needed to be reminded of who I am. A son of the King. As one friend recently wrote, it was “time to adjust the crown and get to loving on some more people and making the world a better place.” And perhaps that started with simply loving me.
“I am confident. Say it!” she said. “Go on, say it. Say, ‘I know I’m the shit.’ And I don’t mean in a cocky way, but say it just knowing and feeling good about who you are and what you bring to the table. Live as if someone would be crazy not to want to be with you.”
Years ago I planned on meeting up with this friend in her home city of Austin, but the timing must not have been right. Back then she wasn’t equipped with the words or wisdom I’d need to hear that cold night in New York from the experiences she’d yet to have.
Was it possible that relationships could be triumphs and not struggles? Could they actually be fun, where I could hold all the cards? It had to start with me. Surely bravery was a skill that could be learned, strengthened and mastered with practice. My friend sitting across from me was living proof, her confidence radiating across the darkened room.
“Do something every day that makes you uncomfortable,” she said, encouraging me to embrace ambiguity. “You’ll be amazed at what will happen.”
For the first time in a long time, the weekend was more about being with people rather than getting things done, and that made all the difference. As I looked back on the year, it was evident I was a transformed man. That everything was working for my good.
“I am confident,” I said, realizing I was in the midst of bravery training.
Seeking comfort and avoiding danger and conflict was no safer in the long run that outright exposure. Life was either a daring adventure, or nothing. I decided the time had come to correct impostor syndrome’s internal pestilent voice.
I give you permission to do that.
You have a license to be an artist.
You really are a writer.
Your life experiences will be valuable for someone else to read. Turn those journals into a memoir and submit for publication.
People are seriously going to love that fiction series you’re finally finding the time to flesh out and write.
You’re really not that bad looking.
Your quirky and fascinating personality has rare depth.
What are you waiting for? You have every chance in the world with her.