Sunday, February 21, 2021


"Coming out" is one of those phrases that is specific to the 20th and 21st century. It means disclosing a personal, private part of oneself to others. Some keep it private and let just their family know about their sexual orientation or their gender identity. Others have a big party, either in real life (pre pandemic of course) or on the social media.

But I've realized it can come to mean other kinds of disclosures: telling people about parts of yourself that you're afraid they won't like, or that will change their image of you, or that will actually put you in real danger. In the work I'm doing now, accompanying women during their reproductive journeys, I spend months having weekly check-ins with them, and one of the themes is always that they don't feel honoured, or even ready, in their task of making choices about their reproductive life. Whether to have a child, or to have a child without a partner, or to have a baby in the hospital, at home, in a birthing center, with midwives or a doctor or completely on their own; whether to have an ultrasound, or not; whether to keep the placenta, eat it, burn the cord; to breastfeed or not: all of these valid choices that should simply be informed choices, are bound up in fear. Fear because this person or the other person will not like you any more, or won't be your friend, or that you'll lose a community. Fear of being "cancelled". Fear of never, ever being good enough. Fear of being judged.

Impostor Syndrome is a phenomenon that has been recognized in the world of psychology since the late 1970's, but it isn't yet a classified disease in the DSM. This term describes a phenomenon that is increasingly common in "high-achieving" individuals. It is when you feel like you've only gotten where you are because you are basically a wily impostor. And by "getting ahead", I'm not just describing the traditional late-capitalist machine where women and men scramble and scratch their way to the top. No, none of us are off the hook here. It can happen to the most radical, kindest, authentic and all-around wonderful person as well.

Studies show that this syndrome is more prevalent amongst certain groups. My interest is and always has been and will be women, so I'm just going to talk about how it possibly evolves for us. Let's begin with what women are taught. We're taught that we should "get ahead". We can have a career, good looks, a doting partner, children: we can have everything! Especially if we're white! We are also taught, however, that it's not nice to make a scene. That assertiveness can be named "bitchiness" in the blink of an eye. And who wants to be thought of as a bitch? Or, in the case of a Jewish woman I know who was a successful professional, who wants to be thought of as a money-grabber? Or, for a Black friend of mine who is very successful at her job and managed to also create a beautiful family, who wants to be thought of an exotic sexy bird that somehow got lucky? Or that Asian woman who worked hard to get into her field, and does well at it, but everyone "knows" that her family just bought her into it. You get the picture. 

Ok, so it seems to me that this syndrome has a lot to do with WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK about you. Or what you imagine they imagine about you. It's the same, really, as the concept of Coming Out. A person's sexual orientation or gender shouldn't actually be anyone else's business. You're a boy? A girl? You like women? Or men? Great, good, and wonderful. Just don't hurt anyone, and we are good to go. Wear what you want, do what you want in the bedroom and in the world beyond, but care for others and be kind. Or at least that's how it would be in MY ideal world. But, of course, we are living in an aquarium-oriented world, where everything we do or say (and even anything we might believe for five minutes and post on the social media) can be and usually is held against us. Or used as a building block to create that persona that someone else creates about you.

Instagram bios are short: cute, to the point, often using interesting words that may or may not describe the person. What do we actually do on Instagram? We share information, we tell tiny stories, but most of all, we persuade other people to like us. Everyone knows that we create personas; avatars; versions of ourselves that we want to present to the world. We do it in real life, and we do it online. We want people to like us so badly that we create images of ourselves that aren't true at all. "Well, maybe you do that, but I don't" I'm sure will be a common response to this statement. And indeed, it's awful to think that you would actually lie, or falsify who you really are, or create a nicer version of yourself - especially if you work in a caring profession, as I do, as a birth companion who is expected to be honest and upfront.

But here's the thing, even if you have all the best intentions, people will always create a picture of you based on what they imagine they see, rather than looking at the "you" who really exists in front of them. In fact, one of the most important lessons I teach my students is to never form judgements of the woman you are accompanying on her reproductive journey.  You will hear the most surprising things if you keep your ears and your heart open.

I'm getting to the Impostor Syndrome, in a slow sideways manner. 

"Mr. Drake Puddle-Duck advanced in a slow sideways manner, and picked up the various articles. But he put them on himself! They fitted him even worse than Tom Kitten. "It's a very fine morning!" said Mr Drake Puddle-Duck." (Beatrix Potter "The Tale of Tom Kitten")

An outfit drops from the sky. It looks okay. You pick it up, put it on, and figure it fits. You walk around in it for years, until one day it gets too tight and you realize it's just not you. We feel like impostors not because we haven't done the work, but in spite of it. The Impostor feels like she has ended up in the wrong (successful) place, just because of her looks, or her lies, or the fact that she can spin a good yarn. She feels like people imagine she knows more than she really does (even though she actually does know a lot). 

She keeps these doubts inside though, of course, and continues to put her best impression forward. She is the woman with the great career, or the mother-earth type, or the one who has children AND a career, or the one who does everything singlehanded. Whatever role or persona she has chosen for herself, she has to hide her doubts and flaws in the outside world, or in the virtual world, because those doubts and flaws would PROVE that she's an impostor! Does our culture insist upon everyone feeling like a badly reflected image of who they "really" are? Because we crave authenticity and the "real experience"? And we aren't interested in the kind of life that is thrust upon us, one where everyone has their roles clearly mapped out for them. 

I spent some time in a cult (yep. I've been along so many roads in my life; it's one of the reasons why I a: can meet people where they are and b: never expect people to be who I imagine they are). Anyway, the beauty of belonging to a cult is that you never have to question what you're supposed to do. You just do it, because that's what you do. That's what you're told to do: what GOD told you to do! You never have to decide anything for yourself, and you certainly don't tell anyone about your real dreams, desires or inner self. That's an extreme example, but I think that in the past people lived much narrower lives, where certain aspects of yourself were never exposed (hence the modern ceremony of "coming out"). 

Well, I suffer every day feeling like an Impostor - in so many spheres of my life - as a runner, a wife, a midwife, a woman, a cook, an Italian speaker ... you name it, I'm a fake. But the way that I have chosen NOT to wriggle out of that uncomfortable feeling is to tell everyone all about my stuff. 

I've decided that the best way for me to travel through this life will be to keep myself to myself; learn from my experiences; and, above all, be open to others. And if that's the life of an Impostor, so be it. 

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