Learning How to Play: Imposter Syndrome, Privilege and Self-Care.

I feel like the universe has been sending me signs that it’s finally time to write this post. 

Or you know, I finally really want to write this post and I’m interpreting everything as a sign. Potato, Po-tah-to.

It’s a running joke in my family that I am the more expensive child. 

For those of you who know me in real life and read this blog, you probably know that I have an older brother. But for everyone else out there, I have an older brother and he is almost eleven years older than me.

Inflation being what it is, I was obviously the more expensive child. But aside from that, soon after I was born, my family began moving around. Four people were often in four entirely different locations and somehow, I always managed to live in the most expensive one. 

That’s not to say it was inflation and purchasing power parity that took up all the blame. I am frequently a little ‘princess’-y. My mother has to date never understood how, with unerring instinct, I managed to pick up the one thing in a clothing store that wasn’t on sale, even if it was something that was mistakenly placed in the clearance rack. My father laughs about the fact that, even when I ignore the prices, I pick the most expensive item on the menu when we go out.

My parents indulged me and still do. My dad still loves to take me shopping. My mom enjoys buying me gifts. There’s no question that, as with many younger siblings, I am a little spoilt and since the age gap between the brother and me is a little larger than average, he was gentler with me as I grew up than the most siblings I’ve heard are apt to be (seriously, I’ve heard horror stories.)
But something about the jokes, as a child, rubbed me the wrong way.

I never felt like I really deserved all this indulgence. And more than the indulgence itself, I felt undeserving of the privilege that was accorded to me. The privilege didn’t mean only the restaurants we went to or the shoes I wore, but sometimes extended itself to the right to be able to eat those foods at all or own shoes. As a ten year old sitting in class one day, I realized that I wasn’t sure, had I not already been taught how to read and write and love it, if I would have fought to learn or bothered my head about it. And the fact that I didn’t have that deep-rooted passion within me (or so I thought) apparently made me undeserving to have those privileges at all.

I’ve talked a little bit about imposter syndrome and privilege in one of my previous blog posts, but I wanted to write about it a bit more and delve into the topic by devoting one post to it.

Imposter syndrome is frequently described as people shrugging off their achievements and attributing their successes to luck or privilege. My fear never even let me get to that point, because I was so afraid of my own privilege, I rarely took advantage of it. Knowing that, with a roof over my head and no food worries and able to go to a doctor when I felt like it, etcetera etcetera, made me fearful of asking for more out of life, such as guitar lessons or summer camp. I’d go on a binge once a year by accident (back to school shopping, y’all) and feel guilty for the next nine months. In my head, I was on-track to be the “equally expensive” (cost-effective?) child.

I still went out with friends, we had parties, I drank the occasional Starbucks coffee, but there were times I’d look around and think ‘I don’t deserve this.’ I didn’t deserve to have this happiness that was out-of-reach for so many people, because I hadn’t fought for it. I was living off the fruits of other people’s labor. So I retreated farther into my cocoon and tried to cause as little trouble as possible.

Then, in the latter half of ninth grade, I watched ‘Clueless’ and ‘Aisha’, one after the other.

Both are adaptations of Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ and it was like something had unlocked in my brain. I had read Austen’s “Emma” as a child of course and while I loved her (and also never really understood why nobody liked her), I was more drawn to “Persuasion” ‘ s Anne Elliott. I really could not tell you why. 

Emma (and Cher and Aisha) is the protagonist of her own book. Unlike “Pride and Prejudice” or “Mansfield Park”, Emma’s book is clearly about Emma and her story. The book begins with her full name and continues from her point of view. It’s the story of a 21- year old (or in Clueless’ case, a 16-year old), “handsome, clever, and rich”, who comes to see and acknowledge her place in the world. She grows from being slightly self-centered and snobbish to understanding her place in the microcosm that is society and its needs for a whole range of personalities. 

But what really struck me about Emma/Cher/Aisha is that even at the lowest of the low, when she questioned herself and her values, she never questioned her right to be happy and the things that made her truly happy. It was something that other, more “deserving” characters in the book certainly did, from love interest George Knightley to Emma’s more traditionally talented counterpart, Jane Fairfax. Her modern counterparts, Cher and Aisha, are much the same. Cher donates to charities and helps with disaster relief efforts, but she also takes an interest in art and skateboarding and continues to shop with her best friends. Aisha continues to love art and takes up a job in the art world, even as she knows that it’s not the utterly serious and traditional work that her friends who work in corporate houses are doing. In the midst of this, we still see her going out and enjoying herself and pursuing her old hobbies and interests. 

This picture has nothing to do with anything. I just really like flowers.

This picture has nothing to do with anything. I just really like flowers.

(of course, this is not a full analysis of the book or the movies, which would involve me holding you hostage as I point out the complex social structures, the movement of consumerism and also fangirling over one of my favorite romance tropes, the snarky-best-friend-turned-romantic-partner.)

There have been other characters I have fallen in love with, who have similar characteristics, usually female. Scarlett O’ Hara, Buffy Summers, Cordelia Chase, Amy Curtis March Laurence. People who don’t seek happiness because they’ve gone through a trial by fire, but just because they want to be happy, because it’s human nature to want to be happy and to try new things and enjoy oneself.

Slowly, I began opening up. I made purchases on a whim and refused to feel guilty about them. I tried to spend more time with my mother without worrying if I was the perfect child. I asked for help when I realized I was struggling in a subject at school and I didn’t stop myself from adding another extracurricular in the form of a Writer’s Club in high school, which apparently wouldn’t even look good on college apps, just because it made me happy. I really was teaching myself to make small decisions and stick by them and sometimes ask for more. It’s not the traditional version of self-care, but it was slowly bringing up the building blocks, that I deserved to invest in myself.

It’s still something I struggle with, especially in graduate school. In university, I refused to try out for the basketball team or the editorial board, because I was so sure everybody would be so much more talented than me. While I continued to journal in private and did push myself to join the editorial board in my junior year, my basketball skills eventually became so rusty that I really became as bad as I had feared I was.

Sometimes, people facing imposter syndrome also tend to swing to the other side of the spectrum altogether, by immersing themselves in too many activities, as a way of proving to themselves that they do deserve to be wherever they are. In some ways, I was (and still am!) guilty of this. I love creating and managing, but part of my fuel in undergrad was that I felt that I needed to ‘catch up’ to people around me in university, who were all so much better than I was. In senior year of undergrad, when I could no longer be involved in multiple activities, I remembered my idea of investing in myself and bought a ukulele, since I’d wanted to learn an instrument since I was a little girl and had never given myself the opportunity. It feels ridiculous sometimes, to begin at twenty what so many begin at the age of three, and at a much more basic level, but I really do love learning and feeding that desire is also a form of self care. This blog allows me to write, something I don’t do when I fall back within my trap of ‘there are too many talented people and great books in the world, nobody needs a pseudo-writer.’ But honestly, it’s not about what they need, it’s just about what makes me happy. 

Labels are an interesting phenomenon that way. The idea of ‘branding’ yourself is so deeply embedded in our culture. Being a “real” or “fake” baker/photographer/ethnicity/race, deals so much in absolutes that it simultaneously erects and lowers barriers of entry. Someone may not feel like a “real” photographer unless they have an expensive camera and/or make money off their work. On the other hand, someone else who attends yoga class once a week for thirty minutes may identify themselves as a yogi. Neither of these is bad or less than the other. The difference between them merely lies in thought processes and the way one’s identity shapes oneself and one’s time. 

In the middle of this has come the side hustle to, as they say, separate the wheat from the chaff. You often become a “real” *insert word here* when someone validates your love with their money and perhaps fame. And of course, this has usually been true in history. Authors, even those who have a day job, are authors when paid for their labor. A Victorian woman devoting a few hours of the day on short stories or even her own book, even to the detriment of her social activities, would probably not have been considered a real writer, as the world had not had the opportunity to consume her work.

It’s a trap that limits us and that continues to limit me, because I know I’m never going to be a professional/“real” basketball player/musician/any other interest I pick up, so there is little point in exploring that side of me. But I think self-care is built on that idea of play (or is play built on self-care? I need to get my thoughts straight on this one), the idea that we deserve to look out for our own happiness, even if that happiness doesn’t serve a greater purpose. Face masks and bubble baths are built on that premise, that we all deserve nice things and we don’t need to push them off all the time because we haven’t reached that stage of ‘deserving it’ yet. We get room to make mistakes and try again.

Graduate school is very different from undergraduate school in that it’s very focussed. I can’t have my fingers in so many pies anymore (which is a shame, because pie is delicious). It forces me to prioritize and look to myself to see what I want to do. When I first arrived, I remember feeling so small, because everybody I saw had years of work experience. I wished I had more experience. Then I was introduced to a student who had graduated my Master’s program at the age of 20 and I felt small again, because I was clearly not as smart as he was. I simultaneously wanted to be younger and older! Comparison makes no sense.

I faced this in several other aspects. I felt smaller than people who spent their weekends at home doing serious reading, but also than those who always seemed to be partying it up. Imposter syndrome is the feeling of never being quite comfortable with people who effortlessly achieve, because that’s not what you do, but simultaneously feeling out of place with those who work hard, because clearly you haven’t worked as hard as them. 

I tried to begin reframing graduate school as a learning process. Being 20 when I entered, I now have a little more room to explore what I really want out of graduate school, without worrying about a household. At the same time, I am now old enough to drink, a necessity at this stage.

(Dad, if you’re reading this, I am obviously kidding.) 

I’m trying out this approach in other areas as well. Sure, I don’t spend every day reading heavy texts, but I do spend some of that time in meditation, which calms me down and gives me another type of benefit. I’m figuring out the balance that work for me and thereby investing in myself and giving myself the right to be happy the way I want to be happy, rather than how I see other people being happy with themselves or me, growing from the mentality I had as a high schooler and university grad. I’m not perfect yet, I don’t think I ever will be. But I can try to make myself happy and take small steps towards that.

The opportunity to play and learn and grow is definitely a privilege. But isn’t it our own responsibility that led us to a stage where we kept learning and kept growing and are therefore where we are now? We can lean into our privilege without forgetting it entirely and that’s something I hope I can achieve someday.

Fun Links:

Anna Akana is one of my favorite artists ever and she talks very well about a variety of topics, ranging from depression to dating advice. She also talks quite a bit about imposter syndrome and play in the videos below. And I’m definitely a fan, so I want everyone to know about her.

Be a Jack of All Trades

not being creative can kill you

She also has a concert coming up on July 24th, in Los Angeles, so for anyone reading this, if you’re in the area, buy tickets and attend!