Of Course You Are an Imposter!

impostor syndrome

Photo Credit: Elnur (Bigstock)

Several months ago, I recorded a promotional video for Loveable.

It was a solo project. I spent hours scripting it, rehearsing it, and then finally setting up sound and video in my therapy office. Finally, I spent several hours recording it.

I wanted it to look just right. After all, Loveable is written in a fatherly voice, so in the video I wanted to emphasize my expertise as a professional—you know, balance out all that touchy-feely stuff. When I finished filming the final lines, I dismantled all the equipment, put it away, and patted myself on the back. Until I looked down. And discovered my zipper was down.

Through the entire shoot, in every scene, my zipper was down.

The whole point of the video was to assure everyone I have it all together, and I couldn’t even remember one of the most basic elements of putting oneself together. I scrambled to review the video and, thankfully, you cannot tell in the video that the proverbial barn door was open.

But that’s actually my point.

We go around pretending like we have it all together, and the problem isn’t that we fail to do so; the problem is that most of the time we succeed.

In the well-produced video we call life, for the most part we look like our zipper is up. But it’s not. It’s never up. We never have it all together. We’re all making it up as we go. As my friend and business partner says, “There are no grown-ups.” And as one wise blog reader says, “We’re all a bunch of stooges.”

I’m a stooge.

You’re a stooge.

We’re all a bunch of stooges.

So why are we trying so hard to pretend otherwise? Because pretending has become a way of life. Indeed, for many of us, it’s become the purpose of life. Much of contemporary culture and our most cutting-edge technology—from Facebook to Instagram filters—is designed to make us look like we’ve got it all together. And the better we get at pretending, the more it feels like the norm.

Then, we pretend even harder.

Meanwhile, everyone is walking around feeling like an imposter. Why? Because I’m the only person who gets to spend all day with me, the only person who is truly on the inside of the public persona. So, I’m the only person I know for sure is pretending. Everyone else just looks like they’re drinking a latte.

So, we go around wondering if we look like an imposter and fearing we might actually be an imposter, when the truth is, of course you’re an impostor! We’re all making it up as we go. We’re all stooges. Everyone is walking around with their proverbial zipper down.

You just can’t see it in the video.

Several weeks ago—two months after the video and the barn door—I was on The Dear Daughters Podcast with Susie Davis and, in the middle of the interview, Susie told me I seemed calm and wise and she’d like to spend some time around me.

That’s tempting.

It’s tempting to say thank you to that and to leave it at that. It’s tempting to maintain the illusion that I’ve got it all together. But I refuse to give in to that temptation. I refuse to contribute to the charade. I refuse to reinforce the myth that some of us have it all figured out and the rest of you need to spend the rest of your life figuring out why you don’t.

So, I told her that five minutes before the interview my son had freaked out when a spider crossed his leg and the screaming had threatened to overlap with the beginning of the call. In response, I was neither calm nor wise.

And you know how it felt to admit it?

Freeing. No more pressure. No more pretending. No more proving. No more perfection. When you confess something like that, you discover the biggest burden in life isn’t feeling like a stooge, but thinking you’re the only one.

The biggest burden isn’t feeling like a mess; the biggest burden is feeling alone in your mess.

So, can we please unburden ourselves a little? Can I please just say it?

Do you sometimes feel like your zipper is down?

Me, too.

In fact, given my track record, it might actually be.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Loveable is available in paperback, digital, and audio and can be purchased wherever books are sold, so you can also purchase it at your favorite bookseller.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Mike Gates

    Happy Wednesday, Kelly.
    Our oldest is graduating high school this week and were getting ready to attend a parent’s breakfast. I’ll try to make sure my zipper is up and I don’t have any boogers hanging out.
    I remember a morning a number of years ago: I had a job where I had to get up very early and I’d done so that morning. I don’t remember why I was dressed up that day, but I remember as I was getting ready thinking “Man, you look really good today. You’ve got it together.” I finished my 1 1/2 hour commute and as I got into the elevator I glanced down and noticed that I was wearing 1 green shoe and 1 gray shoe. Looking good, indeed.

    Stooge on,

    Mike

    • Hey Stooge, you truly made me LOL! What an awesome story. Congratulations to you and your oldest, what a milestone. If they served blueberries at the breakfast, I hope you checked your teeth immediately afterward, or you risk pulling an Alfred E. Newman all day. 😉 The opportunities for stoogishness are everywhere. Stooge on!

    • Christine

      I’ve accidentally worn different colours shoes to work too! Only realised at the end of the day.

    • Brian Shimer

      Man Mike. That’s the best story, but the WHOLE DAY with those two shoes? Seriously, that was an abrupt thing to notice for certain. Thanks for your honesty!

  • Zakyia Kyia Watkins Artist

    I love this! So needed it today as I sit here at my day job battling the need to stay here versus the need to pursue a career in the arts that has already been successful, but I’m scared because maybe I don’t have it altogether and I’m definitely an imposter!

    • There may be many other good reasons to stay where you are, Zakyia, but waiting to have it all together is one of those moments for which you will wait forever. My best to you as you continue to discern what is, on the whole, best for you!

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    What a gift you have for metaphor, Kelly. You’ve once again put my own mess into happy company and refocused me on those tiny moments of gratitude when I can appear to have things running smoothly. I think we’re safe that I’m not fooling anyone half so well as you, but I’ll watch for moments I can out my mess for that freedom rush. 😉

    • Shel, as always, you add something lovely. I like the idea that those moments where the stars align and it feels like you have it altogether are moments for gratitude, rather than moments to celebrate that we’ve “arrived.” So helpful, thank you!

  • Anita Colanzi

    The more messy we are, the more childlike we are. To laugh at your messiness and keep moving forward…it’s the best we can do. Thanks for your words.

  • Eoin Brennan

    A friend told me a story about how one time when we were in college, he was so tired from working, training and going to classes that he got up one morning, grabbed his backpack, hopped on his bike and bolted out the door(late as always). He was halfway to the campus when he realised he’d forgotten to put any pants on. Cycling down the road in his Y-fronts and T-shirt, still half asleep………..Thing is he loves telling that story, he never tried to hide it or pretend it didnt happen.

    • Ha! I love that. Such moments always make good stories in hindsight; may we also live them in the moment for the good story they already are…

  • Thank you for your work Dr. Flanagan! Wednesday is my favorite day of the week because I am always looking forward to reading your post. I really needed to read this post as I am preparing for my second Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournament for this Saturday! Pretend has become an art form for me. As a millennial and person who is in the journey of career transition, I have learned the art of being an impostor for I am trying to find were I belong. I have wore multiple masks so I can fit in. It gets tiring. What I am now learning that my belonging is with God.

    • Anne, this is beautiful. You clearly have a thoughtful depth to you. If you are faithful to it, it will serve you well. In today’s Facebook Live, I talked about how my transition into greater authenticity was triggered by the fatigue of keeping up my persona. I totally get that. I’m attaching a link to the Facebook video below. Hope it works!

      https://www.facebook.com/drkellyflanagan/videos/1343481309092286/

  • Doreen M Vitullo-Matheny

    Thank you once again for your transparency this one made me smile and I needed this today. It’s my biggest rant that people try to act like they have it all together and make the rest of us who know we are stooges feel like something is wrong with us. We are not enough, we are too much, and on and on the self sabotage goes. Fired my therapist last week for that very reason and she had no response? I looked her right in the eye and asked “So what’s your brand of crazy”? …no answer and then proceeded to pour out mine only to get a very obvious look of judgement…seriously I am paying for this? In all honesty I run a business and have to maintain some form of composure even when my world is falling apart around me and I’m pretty sure I do it with grace just hoping that my fly is not “open” but if it is well hopefully it sends the message that I don’t have it all together and I will be the first to admit it. People like their masks because it allows them to hide their “open fly”. I say “let your freak flag fly” as the saying goes “The ones who matter don’t mind and the ones who mind don’t matter”

    • Doreen, I’m really sorry to hear about what happened in your therapy. I hope your therapy work doesn’t end there! And yes, let your freak flag fly. 🙂

      • Doreen M Vitullo-Matheny

        Thank you I believe I have found someone who can actually hear without judgement! I am not giving up I know it’s going to be a long road but we are all just walking eachother home…

  • Kitha J Cockrell

    Thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • A. Julie

    I’ve got my underwear on right side out! Today. Just sayin…

    Know what else? Leaders gain respect and trust by owning their imperfections and mistakes. That’s not just me talking, that’s a dozen books and articles on leadership.

    It’s nice to be flattered but nicer to laugh together. (That’s juts me talking.)

    (I’m having a work-stress-impeding-executive-function kind of day, so that’s all for now.)

  • Brian Shimer

    You rocked it brother! Thank you Kelly. I love how you unmask us and help us accept who we are! I had to go watch the loveable video! What a great story . I ‘m so thankful it worked and the barn door wasn’t visible! It was a great promotional. Has Powell’s called yet?? Love to you!

  • JC

    Laughing is a very weak point in my adult life. Particularly at myself. I need to get to a point where I appreciate the lightness of a smile and the joy of freedom from adult-like shame. One of my good friends from my youth was always an excellent story teller. His version of what we did together always sounded better because it was wrought full of mishaps and poking fun at vulnerabilities I would have avoided mentioning. He liked to refer to himself as the “brown-toed moony moocher,” meaning a dirty barefooted slob that thrived on moon-pies. I have had a serious tone and mature demeanor about me for too long in my adulthood. Moments when I “slip” and spout some kind of silliness always surprises people. The question I have is, what if the supposed “natural” way of freeing myself isn’t so natural to me anymore? Do I need to force it upon myself in an effort to realign with the inner child; like filming and posting myself with egg on my face and my zipper down until I get over myself? Or, is there a way to just let go and allow the fun to happen whenever it might happen?