I am an academic-in the Humanities, no less-so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I sometimes act irrationally. Hell, seeking an academic career in itself is pretty much an irrational act, yet many of us are stubborn or committed or devil-may-care enough to do it anyway. By and large, I’ve embraced my propensity for seemingly irrational behavior. Getting lots of tattoos over the last 25 years? CUSTOM PAINT JOB. Writing right-handed but eating left-handed? HOW I ROLL. Espresso at 8 PM? SURE! Rooting for the Cleveland Indians? YES. Reading poststructural theory for fun? PART OF MY CHARM.
Far less easy to laugh off is the seemingly irrational stuff that creeps out of the dark corners and rents space in my head on a regular basis. Call it Impostor Syndrome, call it self-sabotage, call it basic anxiety and fear. But I call it persistent. Since I was an undergraduate student, I’ve had a nasty habit of undermining myself and making my goals exponentially harder to achieve. Part of the problem, at least then, was that I couldn’t handle adversity well. I wasn’t used to it. I’m a white heterosexual male, with all the unwritten and implicit privileges that accompanied those categories. I had a comfortable upbringing. I was far from spoiled, and I don’t think I acted like a brat. But things generally came easy to me in school, and I thought that college would be more of the same. It wasn’t. And I didn’t handle those first setbacks well. I developed a severe case of the fuck-its, and drifted academically and socially for the better part of three years, majoring in partying with a minor in avoidance. So getting into grad school became a much more difficult proposition once I rededicated to academics and charted that course. And in graduate school, again, the easy way never became the option. Transferring programs after the M.A., more questionable lifestyle choices, and a continuing inability to efficiently allocate time was a tough tide for me to swim against. But I made it through, dissertated and all, and was ready to try my fortune on the job market.
There are two ways for me to see my story. One is overcoming adversity and rising to the challenge in a demanding field, ultimately finding success. The other is an acknowledgement that said adversity was largely the result of my own choices and dissolution, and that I succeeded in spite of rather than because of my actions. The former is what I told others. The latter is what I told myself.
So when I landed in my first tenure-track position, an accomplishment with similar odds to winning the lottery, I had presented myself as the hard-working scholar/teacher on the rise, but had internalized the notion that the entire damn story was built on a foundation of sand. In retrospect, the whole thing seems more like an out-of-body experience than anything else. A potent mix of poisonous departmental politics and my own questionable decision-making produced a series of events that, while I knew they were happening to me, felt like they were being inflicted upon someone else. There was a curious detachment on my part. Oh, look; senior colleague thinks what I just said was too assertive–why does he think junior faculty shouldn’t speak in senate meetings? Hmmm; no one wants to go to lunch with me anymore. What? No one told me my annual review portfolio was due this week. That seems…odd. Maybe I should work on it. Nah, I’ll do it tomorrow; let’s get some beers. Huh? I didn’t know those two had an affair back in the day. Is that why they both seem to not like me? Why didn’t y’all tell me about the department meeting? Oh, hey-an eleven page single-spaced document you sent to the Dean saying I’ll never be an effective colleague, scholar, or teacher and that my appointment won’t be renewed. That seems…excessive? And just like that, I watched myself–seemingly from outside myself–as my career imploded.
Now, maybe I would never have succeeded in that place; in retrospect, I doubt it would have ended well regardless of what decisions I made. And the displacement I engaged in was my subconscious realization of that, perhaps. But self-sabotage accelerated what was otherwise a slow-motion train wreck. Maybe I never really took that job seriously because I didn’t think I should have been taken seriously. I mean, what kind of place would hire me, especially given the amount of qualified candidates out there in the pool? To paraphrase Groucho Marx, why would I want to join any club that would have me as a member? All through graduate school, I felt like I had never read enough, or knew enough about my content, or had written enough, or written it well enough. And now I was supposed to go out and act like I had done all of those things in spades? Part of this, I think, is a general grad-school sense of inadequacy prompted by a serious encounter with one’s field, in all its vastness, for the first time. But I had it more than that; enough, in fact, to bring about a recurrence of the fuck-its.
If I wasn’t going to be good enough, why be good at all?
Yes, I know this is an amazingly absurd and irrational set of beliefs. Yes, I know it’s infuriating that I at least helped to piss away what should have been a golden opportunity. But I also know that I am far from the only one who’s wrestled with Impostor Syndrome. I know that for scholars on the margins, for women, for people of color, there are even more environmental factors to bring it on with an intensity that I can’t even comprehend. But I can speak from experience in naming this thing as an insidious, debilitating, and remarkably persistent system of thinking. And, for me, it’s rooted in fear. What if I’m really not good enough? What if my scholarship isn’t very original? What if people think I’m wrong? Or dumb? Or just crazy?
What if they found out how afraid I was?
If I was truly good enough, if my scholarship and teaching were truly wonderful and worthy of employment, then I wouldn’t be afraid of any of this. But since I was afraid, then I clearly wasn’t good enough. Q.E.D. And I could–and did–preempt your telling me I wasn’t good enough by proving it for you first. Self-sabotage as defense mechanism.
Somehow, swimming in the middle of all this, I went back on the market and got lucky again. I moved into another job (spoiler: I still have it), but I was damaged goods. I came in with my weapons up, ready to prevent anyone from finding out just how bad things had gotten before, and prevent them from seeing what I really did until I could get my shit together. I drank too much, talked too much, but only followed through sporadically. If I never finished anything, no one could ever tell me how bad it was. Fear masquerading as insouciance.
It took a long time, and the assistance of a lot of people who really didn’t have to provide it yet did anyway, to pull out of that spiral. I had been functional enough that all was not lost, and things could be repaired. I started that process, and in significant ways am continuing it still. I’ve had a lot of successes since then. Tenure, promotion, publications, awards, security. Cue the credits, play the triumphant score. Everything is ending happily ever after.
Except it isn’t. Fear still visits; sometimes it’s fleeting, sometimes it leases mental space and opens up shop. I’m lucky enough to be engaged in two writing projects that I’m excited about, and editors are excited enough about to give me contracts. But when I look at my writing schedule–for projects I proposed and plotted out!–my first reaction is cold, sweaty fear. Who the hell allowed me to do this? When will the adults show up and take over? Doesn’t anyone know that a terrible mistake has been made? And then, my old familiar friend the fuck-its shows up. No one will know you’re faking it if you never finish. Can’t criticize what ain’t there.
But I know what this is, now. I can name it, and thus assume power over it–when I choose to do so. Fear shrinks when it’s not abstract. When it’s tangible, it evaporates. If I know I’m freaking out from an irrational place–no matter how familiar and seemingly true that irrational place appears–then the freaking out is temporary, and I can get back to the work that I get to do–not have to do, get to do. Swallow hard, make coffee, ass in chair, open Google Doc, GO.
I know the enemy now, and if it’s your enemy, too, I get it. I also know, however, that there are plenty of really smart and helpful words out there that help me find mine when the fear prevents me from seeing them. This recent essay by John Scalzi, is good medicine, and this meditation by Kelly Baker is beautiful. Colleagues at my university, and on Twitter, inspire and motivate; there are times when I need to find my people. In the end, though, it’s naming the fear: putting it on the table, examining it carefully, feeling it and studying it, then naming it. Only then can I give it permission to leave.
This wasn’t the post I meant to write.
I going to make a few “you should be writing” jokes and..well, I can’t remember what I was going to do, actually.I looked at those writing schedules and everything changed. I’m a goddamn tenured full professor and here I am having palpitations like I did years ago, I worried. So I had to name my fear, own it, and write it. This is my therapy.Thanks for riding along.