BELIEVE IN YOURSELF— OR NOT. JUST SHOW UP.
I recently watched the Netflix documentary Knock Down The House. There’s this scene where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is preparing to debate 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley. She waves her arms around and tells herself she needs to take up space. She holds her face in her hands, then looks up and speaks to her boyfriend—though it’s clear she’s speaking to herself.
“I can do this,” she says. “I am experienced enough to do this. I am knowledgeable enough to do this. I am prepared enough to do this. I am mature enough to do this. I am brave enough to do this.”
One day, I hope to believe those things about myself again. But in 2019, my imposter syndrome is delivering a very different speech. It says I’m only in the room because I snuck in, or a mistake was made, or they don’t understand how under qualified I am.
My 7-year-old self, on the other hand, believed I would be a Will Smith back-up dancer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and the first woman president. In 1998, it never crossed my mind that I couldn’t.
I was lucky. I had a dad with a gentle voice who told me I could do anything I set my mind to. I had a mom with outlandish ideas about my potential.
“Oh, you’re into rollerblading? We can train you to be an Olympic triathlete!” she’d say. (Real loose connection there, Mom, but thank you forever for that confidence.)
“Oh, you like to write? You’ll go to Dartmouth!”
These dreams came spouting from a woman who had to drop out of high school and run away from home. I am still grateful for her imagination.
Their voices, combined with an academic system that gave me steady validation in the form of test scores and scholarships, made me feel secure in my abilities. I could do anything.
But of course, after you graduate from school, validation no longer seems steady or automatic, and trying is no longer mandatory. You are an adult, left with only your own voice to say you can do it because the other voices have suddenly silenced. And my family unit, like so many others, had fractured into individuals just doing their best to survive.
I’m not alone: “Women only apply for jobs when they are 100 percent qualified. Men, on the other hand, tend to apply when they are only 60 percent qualified.” What the patriarchal fuck?
Trauma had taught me that independence brings safety. But to be independent, I couldn’t afford a day of missed work or a gap between jobs. I couldn’t afford failure. So I found myself applying to only jobs I checked every qualification for— mostly administrative work. (And if the Hewlett Packard internal report is true, I’m not alone: “Women only apply for jobs when they are 100 percent qualified. Men, on the other hand, tend to apply when they are only 60 percent qualified.” What the patriarchal fuck?)
The more I played it safe, the farther my former dreams of storytelling seemed. I could no longer see the path from where I’d placed myself to where I thought I could thrive.
As I repeatedly aimed for things smaller than my desires, I began to believe a lie: I was small, and my desires were too big.
Failing would be a cosmic final judgement on my personal worth, talent, and potential. Fail once and I’d never get to try again.
The narrative running through my head said it was too late—everyone who wanted to pursue creative work had already put the time in. They had the equipment, training, connections, and experience. They had all been through some sort of master class that I had missed while I was paying bills and trying not to need anyone. The older I became, the wider that gap in experience seemed, and the more embarrassed I was to even admit what I wanted. I presumed failure and rejection, without ever trying. And I was so afraid of failing.
I had come to believe a second lie: failing would be a cosmic final judgement on my personal worth, talent, and potential. Fail once and I’d never get to try again.
But the beautiful thing about dreams is that you can’t really ever get rid of them. They hang on whether you listen or not. The desire to tell stories had never stopped nagging at me.
Five years of unfulfilling work was enough to make me question whether my greatest fear was failing, or dying without ever trying to do what I love. I put in thousands of days of work that felt like sleepwalking, until I finally began to suspect that feeling alive — feeling sparked awake again — was worth the risk of failure. I would try telling stories again.
I almost threw up the first time I sat down to write. I was so nervous when a co-worker caught me writing in a coffee shop that I spilled my drink.
But something happened that my fear did not predict: People began to open doors. I landed opportunity after opportunity, without ever having found that inner voice that said I could. The bigger the opportunity, the more sure I was that they’d made a mistake.
Every time before I hit publish, or before I walked on stage to tell a story, I was seized with fear. I was sure that this would be the time people realized I had no talent. Now they’ll tell me I should give it up. I swung wildly between pre-share anxiety fevers and post-share vulnerability hangovers. But the joy of finally doing what I loved was a powerful force, and it kept pushing me forward.
Joy is always larger than fear.
The motivational gurus on Instagram told me that to succeed, I had to first believe I deserved it. “If you don’t believe in yourself, who will?” “Believing in yourself is the first step to success!”
But what if we could walk into the room before we believed we deserved to be there?
What if believing in yourself isn’t the first step to success, but a byproduct of the real first step — just saying yes?
Today, I’m working in a newsroom as a graduate assistant. That sentence makes me laugh out loud with surprise and joy. I was so daunted when I was first offered the position that I kept reminding the person who hired me that I had no background or qualifications — a tactic terrible for interviews, by the way, but great for self-preservation. You can’t call me an imposter if I call myself one first.
But what if we could walk into the room before we believed we deserved to be there?
I think those Instagram posts are wrong. Sometimes you come to believe you belong somewhere by going there, despite your lack of belief in yourself. Day after day of showing up to the newsroom, doing things I didn’t think I could do, and seeing that I do them anyway — that is the long, hard work of building belief in myself. I can’t shortcut that process.
Life is too short to wait to do what makes you feel alive until you believe you deserve it. I’d rather be inside the room, feeling like I snuck in, than stuck in the bathroom giving myself a never-ending pep-talk in the mirror. (By all means, Cool Runnings it if you need to. But then get in there!)
Although I still hear my imposter syndrome speak, I don’t let it have a say anymore. When it yells “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?” I reply, “Oh, there you are again. Heyyy! I don’t blame you for being here. You’re welcome to have a seat in the corner.”
I’ve learned to give it space to speak and to have compassion for all the reasons it’s probably there: classism, the patriarchy, the risk-avoidance that began when it became clear I didn’t have a safety net. I’ve learned to lower its volume with joy and gratitude. To replace “I don’t belong here” with “I can’t believe I get to be here.” And “I don’t know enough” with “I’m going to learn so much.”
As I watched the ending to the Knock Down The House scene, I got full-body chills. Right after affirming herself, Ocasio-Cortez anticipates Crowley’s critiques: “This whole time, he’s gonna tell me I can’t do this. He’s gonna tell me I’m small, I’m little, that I’m young, that I’m inexperienced,” she says.
I couldn’t help but replace “he” with “my imposter syndrome” as she spoke. I’m my own Joe Crowley — I say those exact words to myself all the time. But then she takes a deep breath and whooshes it out with a big thrust of her arms. If the criticism had been physical, it would have flown across the room.
Now, on days when I’m about to do something that really scares me — so, every day — I borrow that move. Slowly, I am growing the small whisper in my chest:
I should be here, because I am here.
photography by Britney Gill for ON OUR MOON