The Imposter Under the Bed

Not only was I a finalist in a well respected wine competition, I won the writing prize. The entire competition was an incredible experience. I attended seminars by some of the most respected winemakers in the world, surrounded by Australia’s best and brightest sommeliers and wine buyers. The competition culminated in a magical night of celebration in the cellar of one of Australia’s iconic wineries; a night that left me buzzing with the excitement of the enormous potential of my future.

The next morning I had grand plans of writing on the plane, of beginning the next phase of my career as a wine communicator. But an overwhelming fatigue built on 4am starts and after-parties that drifted into the early hours, meant I could barely comprehend the in-flight magazine. As the days progressed into weeks and the weeks progressed into the pre-Christmas nightmare that only those working in retail, hospitality and wine-dealing can truly understand, the thought of writing even a shopping list led to heart palpitations. 

I promised myself ‘The Christmas public holidays, I shall write on the public holidays’. With family 1300km away, a partner that likes to nap away his days off, and only twee Christmas films on the telly, I would spend days wrapped in words and art, and the musings of those that inspire me. Until the thought of sitting before a keyboard or grappling with a pen and the expectant pages of a blank notebook drove me to Stan. Stan, the streaming service that sounds like it was named after a doughnut-guzzling janitor in an American sitcom. No one ever settles in for a night of ‘Stan and chill’. Still, Stan kept me company through multiple days of showerless, pyjama-clad ham eating – after the shopping list anxiety I had under-catered and was forced to work my way through my boss’ generous gift of a 5kg ham or starve – I chose ham. Stan and Ham. As I wore a ham-shaped groove in the mattress, a shadowy figure began to grow beneath it. Eventually the ham ran out, as did the ‘Lost Girl’ episodes, and I had to return to work. I decided that binge-watching a streaming service wasn’t for me, I withdrew from ham, I began to shower, get dressed, and even put on makeup again, but I didn’t lose the shadowy imposter. The truth is that he and I have a very long relationship. 

The Imposter Phenomenon, or as is more commonly referred to today as Imposter Syndrome was first described by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. It is associated with high achievers (a comforting thought). People who experience the imposter phenomenon often believe that any success they experience was due to luck or a mistake made during the selection process. They struggle to accept their success. This can lead to overworking, perfectionist behaviours, inauthentic people-pleasing tactics, or crippling self-doubt that results in avoiding challenges. 

The imposter has been my kryptonite.

The imposter and I had a fairly casual relationship as I was growing up. Resigned to the fact that I was unlikely to become a supermodel, I had immense amounts of confidence in my intelligence and my ability to learn. I based a lot of my self-worth on my academic achievements and craved affirmation from my parents, which was willingly given. I became a praise junkie.

The year I graduated from university was the first time the imposter really moved in. That first year of work some very minor bullying at work allowed him to sink his claws. I had to do a counselling exam in order to become a registered Pharmacist. Despite the fact that communicating has always been one of my strengths, I was so sure I would fail, that I went to my doctor and suggested I might be losing my mind. She recommended a book on breathing techniques, which I skim read. I passed the exam and went about my life.

As I have gotten older the imposter has set up camp. A couple of career changes and the tumultuous periods of upskilling that accompany them have allowed him to mesh with my sense of self. The recent hostile takeover was inevitable following the days of blissful confidence and power brought by a marvellous achievement. Tina Fey, a fellow ‘imposter’, famously quipped “The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.” I have never been terribly good at riding rollercoasters though.

When I speak about my achievements I feel like I am bragging and often back-pedal mid sentence to downplay the success. Riding the egomania of success when it comes, quickly bottoms out to crippling fear that the mistake will be recognised and I succumb to feelings of inadequacy. I am fairly assertive in life but in an odd juxtaposition, any strong opinion expressed in a social situation, particularly if I am revelling in a moment of confidence, is followed by a witching-hour analysis of the conversation.  Despite (or perhaps because of) my career in the wine industry I rarely drink to more than a slightly tipsy point and routinely spend the latter hours of long events passing off water as gin and tonic. Not for any physical health concerns, but because the buzz-fuelled loss of inhibition and ensuing confidence boost is inevitably followed by an anxious 3am encounter with the imposter under my bed. Insomnia sets in as I replay every conversation for hints of my fraudulence.    

In February I received the news that I had completed my Wine and Spirit Education Trust Diploma – a huge achievement, only 3 of the 23 talented wine people I started with will be graduating in June. Suffice to say I know a heck of a lot about wine. Yet I have a battle with myself not to begin most wine-related conversations with a disclaimer on my lack of experience. For the entire two years of class tasting practice I downplayed my tasting notes, turning solid and often completely correct descriptions of the wine into wispy, apologetic summaries disguised by self-deprecating humour. Every single time I received the email telling me I had passed, or worse, done well, in one of my exams, a brief period of euphoria would descend into a week of dreadful anxiety as I awaited the phonecall telling me a mistake had been made, that I had actually failed. It never came, but heck I frustrated those around me with the constant doubt.

It took me years to call myself an actor. Despite living as an actor, immersing myself in the community, receiving recognition for my skills, and spending all my money and time training and working as an actor; it felt fraudulent to call myself one. I got there eventually but only after I had done enough professional work that to use any other term felt clunky. Five years into my wine journey, the fact that there isn’t a convenient name for what I do does not help my situation. ‘Wine professional’ always leads to jokes hinting at alcoholism. My training in wine business rather than hospitality, and inherent clumsiness when pouring wine definitely precludes the use of the term ‘sommelier’. I was recently described in a Barossa wine industry newsletter as a ‘wine expert’. When I expressed my discomfort at this, the industry colleague that had forwarded me the link commented “now that it’s printed it must be true”. However, the “Fake it ’till you make it” approach that in one form of another forms the backbone of so many TED talks and entrepreneurial advice columns does nothing to service those afflicted by an imposter. Deliberately faking anything just accentuates the fear of being exposed.

Recently in a moment of vulnerability I confided to a colleague that I am a fraud, that I don’t know what I’m doing. It was a huge relief to let that secret out and I nervously awaited his response. A gentle creature by nature, he was slightly bemused, confused, and concerned. He spoke of my confidence, my assertiveness in times of discussion; the very interactions that repeat through my head at 3am. He pointed out my recent achievements as evidence against fraud, without the flattery or elaboration that can infiltrate the conversation of close friends, just a simple, objective list. Seeing myself through somebody else’s eyes, the way I look at high achievers around me, and without my imposter’s judgement filtering the message, turned the light on.

Monsters that hide under the bed disappear when you turn the light on. Most of us learn this when we are kids. It’s understandable that we forget, with so much of our brain power taken up with day jobs and life stress and social media feeds filled with cute cat pictures. We forget that sometimes you need to sleep with the light on to keep the monsters at bay. Or sometimes just knowing you have the power to flick that switch can be enough. I’m flicking the switch. I’ve started to talk about my imposter syndrome with those around me, and much to my astonishment, so many of the people I admire are also haunted by a shadowy imposter.

As it turns out there are a lot of people who feel the way I do, and surely we can’t all be frauds. So prevalent is imposter syndrome that there are psychologists that specialise in helping people identify and work with these feelings. At a grass roots level though, I have begun to help myself with my light switch approach. When the imposter weighs heavily on my thoughts I identify what is happening. I talk about how I feel with those close to me. I’ve mentioned it to my manager at work. He gently reminds me of the part I played in my wins, just to ensure I don’t notch them up as lucky breaks. When I enter my 3am spiral after a particularly elated day, I get up, turn a light on and jot down my achievements. Putting them on paper in black and white has the same effect as hearing my colleague speak the words – pure and simple, unelaborated. These tiny steps have helped me to start overcoming my kryptonite. To begin with, here I am writing again. 

 

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