Why Praise Makes Me Panic

Whenever I am praised for something people think I have done well, I panic. Even if the Queen of England herself (Hi Elizabeth if you are reading), were to turn up on my doorstep with a party popper and a handful of corgi shaped confetti to congratulate me on achieving something, I would probably have started hyperventilating before a single streamer had hit the floor. Contrary to popular belief, this is not because I have a fear of brightly coloured canine shaped bits of paper flying through the air, but because any positive feedback from anyone feels like a terrible mistake.

Take my A-level results day for example. It was 2011 and was around the time everyone started rioting around England…remember that?..Not that they were rioting about my A-level results…I am just setting the scene…
Anyway, after months of stress and exams, I was handed the envelope that would tell me whether or not all my hard work had paid off. Upon reading the string of letters on the page presented to me, I was a little relieved. I had got the grades I needed to get to university so I thought I had no need for any immediate worry. That was until I turned the corner and bumped into some of my teachers who were all hovering around the corridors.
As I passed, each one turned to me, all of them smiling, all holding their arms out to offer a hug, and with a sinister sparkle of pride in their eyes, they all muttered those immortal words to me…”Well done”. Good lord, just the memory sends tingles of terror to my very core! Stephen King himself is incapable of inspiring such fright with so few words! Grab me a cushion to hide behind and for the love of God someone take me home!

Don’t get me wrong, if I honestly believed that I had done well I would appreciate being congratulated, but in my head I am incapable of doing anything well, so any statement suggesting the contrary is terribly confusing and thus makes me panic. People were looking at my grades and calling me clever, yet inside I knew I wasn’t clever in the slightest. I felt that any of the marks I achieved must have been down to luck.
Maybe I had a really generous person grading my paper? Maybe they made a mistake and added the total up wrong, or maybe I hadn’t taken the exam at all, had dreamt the whole thing and someone else put glasses on and took the test for me? Part of me even worried if I had somehow smuggled a textbook into the exam hall and cheated without knowing it. I wanted to cry out to all the teachers and tell them the truth, tell them that I wasn’t really clever or capable of those grades and was in fact a fraud with a lot of luck and possibly a lookalike somewhere who was the one really in need of praise for the success.
It was like in movies when someone whips out a gun and the person at whom the gun is being aimed throws up their hands and says “You’ve got the wrong guy!”. That is how I feel every single time I am told that I have “done well”, only with me it is when people start aiming trophies at me rather than a gun. I would probably react the same way if I was ever aimed at with a gun too to be fair, but thankfully I haven’t had the experience to confirm this hypothesis (neither do I want to thank you very much.)

Again I don’t want this to come across as the idea that I panic because I don’t want people to think good things of me. Even if people are mistaken I have no problem in being thought to be good at something. My teachers could have followed me around for the rest of the day with a brass band trumpeting my success if they wanted (for some reason they didn’t want. I blame the recession). No, what I fear is the consequences of someone holding that belief and the weight of expectation that goes alongside it. If you do well in education, sport or anything else that can be ranked competitively, you are branded as good at that sport or subject and are therefore expected to perform well the next time, which might not be possible. That is what I fear.
I fear that people will mistake any success I have in life for talent and that they will then expect me to carry on performing at whatever level, when in reality I am incapable of doing anything well and doomed to let them down.
I don’t fear them thinking well of me, I fear the inevitable disappointment when they realise they are wrong, the chance of being discovered as a fraud and made to stand up in court to defend myself against a judge with a hammer and a silly little wig. It is a problem I even struggle with on my blog, as if anyone gives me a nice comment about a post I am initially thrilled, yet at the same time worried that I have misled people into thinking I can write. After every good comment I wonder what the hell I am going to do and how I am ever going to write another post without exposing myself as an imposter.

The other day however, I was so fed up with feeling like this, scared that I was genuinely crazy or just ungrateful when people are nice to me, that I decided to google it to see if anyone else felt like this. They say you shouldn’t google something you think might be wrong with you because if you type in “I have a headache” the internet will automatically diagnose you with some horrendous disease/convince you that you somehow have a badger lodged into your temple which is causing all the pain, but this time I have to say that I am glad I did google this because it has made me feel so much better.

It turns out that this whole feeling like a fraud when praised is an actual thing, and was named as “imposter syndrome” by some clinical psychologists in 1978. Upon this discovery I set about scouring the internet on a grand research quest for knowledge (by which I mean I read some articles on Wikipedia), and it turns out that a lot of people feel like this! Apparently two in five people struggle with it, and though not a mental illness itself, more a psychological phenomenon, it is one that can in turn lead to genuine mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Therefore, knowing that others experienced this problem too, I looked to see if there was a solution or way for people to manage this “imposter syndrome”, and there is! According to some professional psychologist people out there, the main problem is that people who experience imposter syndrome are unaware that others feel inadequate in their achievements as well. However, “once the situation is addressed, victims no longer feel alone in their negative experience”, so talking about it openly with likeminded people is a key to “overcoming this burden”.

Basically then, what I learnt is that a lot of people feel the way I feel, that any success is luck and that they are a fraud undeserving of real praise, and the only way to deal with it is to talk about it. Upon my discovery I immediately wanted to grab a megaphone, climb to the tallest tower in all the land and shout this message to all the other people out there who feel like a fraud, in order to let them know that they are not alone in hopes that it might help. Unfortunately though, I was unable to find a megaphone and there aren’t many tall towers about where I live, so I thought it might be better if I wrote a blog about it instead, which funnily is the blog you are reading now. WHAT A COINCIDENCE.

Therefore I wanted to use this as an opportunity to write a message to anyone out there who has related to this in any way whatsoever, to let them know that feeling this “imposter syndrome” way doesn’t make you weird. More importantly though, the fact that a lot of people feel like it suggests that if you feel that everything you achieve is luck, you are probably wrong.
Ok, luck has it’s part to play in life and the opportunities available at a certain time, but “luck”, by definition isn’t a thing that happens all the time to everyone in every second of every day. The thing that makes finding a “lucky” four leaf clover so exciting is that doing so is rare, and that is what “luck” is about. It isn’t about a common occurrence in the general mundanity of day to day life, it is about those special unlikely moments that pop up infrequently and out of the blue. You cannot put everything good that you have ever achieved down to luck because it just doesn’t make any sense, and if a lot of people feel this way then we can’t all be this lucky, nor can we all be imposters.I know that people out there will probably read this and think the classic “I am the exception, I really am an imposter” but the truth is you are wrong. If we were all imposters and frauds where the hell would all the real people on whom we are basing ourselves be? Either way, the fact that this imposter syndrome is a common experience has made me feel a little less alone, so I have written this in the hopes that someone who also struggles with it will read this and experience the same reassurance I did on Wikipedia. None of you out there are “freaks” or “ungrateful” for struggling with praise, it happens to a lot of people, and hey, if we are all freaks together, then I feel I am in some damn good company. Well done us!

Take care everyone x

Imposter