I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t suffer from some form or degree of imposter syndrome. For me, it started with an acceptance to a university my guidance counselor said I had zero chance of getting into. I spent four years there thinking that someone made a mistake by letting me in. Years later, when I worked in admissions at another elite university, I spent a lot of time trying to convince students that they deserved to be admitted. They’d say “Someone messed up by letting me in.” I’d say “You mean me? I didn’t mess up.” But I knew how they felt.
My whole life I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded with people who are at the top of their fields—historians, scientists, writers, artists, athletes, businesspeople—and here’s what I’ve learned: very few think they deserve or can live up to their reputations. If an actor gets a hundred great reviews, she will focus on the one that has two lines that sting. When a poet receives an award, she will think of all the others who are better than she who didn’t win. Most of us, as it turns out, don’t feel worthy.
So here I am, writing for a company whose clothes I love, selected from a group of exceptional women, lucky to be featured in this blog, and my response is: Who messed up and let me in?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no cringing self-loather. I learned early to cover up my inadequacies with a compensatory and often off-putting bravado and have spent years faking my way into situations beyond my abilities and expertise. Usually this works, though it’s dog-heeled by the fear of being found out. When we write in the first-person personal, we craft ourselves into a character; my “I” is a fictive kind of self, an invention rooted in the truth as I know it, presented to you in a way that I fashion. At times I err on the side of making this character seem more confident than I feel, and then strangers write to tell me how irritatingly arrogant I am.
Running creates opportunities for objective measures and for ways to compare ourselves with others. The clock can’t lie and it won’t protect my fragile psyche. My times tell me I’m not as fast as I once was, and in truth, I was never that fast, never an elite runner, never even an excellent one. I’ve done okay, but many of my friends are far more talented and disciplined than I. I have, however, been fortunate to be offered opportunities, often because I am willing to write about them: a five-day hundred mile stage race in the Himalayas, marathons in Thailand and Singapore and all over this country, some as part of a pace team leading other runners to PRs and Boston qualifiers. I’ve accompanied friends on the last forty miles of their 100 mile races and I’ve had friends who have pushed me to my own best times. I compete in a nutty sport called “ride and tie,” which combines trail running and endurance horseback riding.
Running has done so much for me. I was a cigarette-smoking, high heel-wearing, perpetually black-clad egghead until I turned thirty, left my husband, left Manhattan, moved to North Carolina, and eventually started dating a man who took my dog for runs. After a while I joined them because I didn’t like being left out. In the process of becoming a runner, I found a passion that keeps me fit and strong, a way to protect time to think during busy days, and a chance to spend hours on the trails chatting with friends and strangers. I love going to races not because I love to race, but because I love the community I find there.
I spent my fortieth birthday in the North Carolina mountains, alone in a hotel room I had planned to share with a man I had broken up with a few days before. I flooded myself with diet A&W root beer and carbo-loaded with Tootsie Rolls and Wheat Thins. The next day I ran a trail marathon and, to my surprise, won it. It was a nice way to enter my years as a “masters” runner, a strong start to middle age (except for the dumped boyfriend part). Since then I’ve moved west, gone to graduate school, published a couple more books, changed careers, landed a great academic teaching job, and am—so help me I’m really going to say this—happier than I’ve ever been.
In February I will turn fifty. I’m still drinking ungodly amounts of diet root beer, and Tootsie Rolls and Wheat Thins still form the base of my food pyramid. I’m still single, still going through boyfriends the way other women go through panty hose, still without children, and now without the possibility of bearing them. Sometimes I worry that I will never find the right partner; sometimes I wonder what I will be when I grow up. I’m a renter, a microwave cooker, someone who, until recently, owned no real furniture. I have another great dog, Helen, a sixteen-month-old mutt who reminds me that life is full of unexpected pleasures, though I don’t share her enthusiasm for eating horse poop and rolling in stinky dead things.
Instead of making singular New Year’s resolutions, for a long time my closest friends and I have been declaring what we want of the coming year, committing to an on-going project. Mine have met with more or less success. The Year of The Dollar was a spectacular failure. After I’d quit my job and was working on my second book, I vowed to earn more money. I didn’t make five figures that year. (Really.) The Year of Moisturizing, however, has continued and I’m sure I’d have even more wrinkles without it. The Year of Losing Electrons (trying to be more positive) was not as much fun as coming up with the geeky name.
Three years ago my mother died. My only resolution was to get out of bed each morning. Sometimes I succeeded. Eight months later, breaking a self-imposed dating moratorium—I knew people married inappropriately following the death of a parent—I embarked on what I think of now as The Year of The Bad Boyfriend. Grief can addle the brain, and, well, we all make mistakes. I try not to keep beating myself up for that one. Sometimes I succeed.
To my surprise, after years of turmoil, years of feeling inadequate—not good enough, not smart enough, not strong, pretty, fast, thin, muscular, tall, kind, generous, willing, funny, wealthy, clean, patient enough; my legs too bowed, my hair too frizzy, my teeth too crooked, my voice too loud, my brain too soft—I’m oddly content with who I am. There’s loads of room for improvement, but I’ve learned to accept that there are things I will never be good at (parallel parking, physics, twisting myself into a yoga pretzel) and have decided that’s okay. One of the gifts of maturity, especially for us neurotic overachievers, is that you realize you don’t have to be good at everything.
And so I’ve resolved that 2012 will be The Year of Being Me, But Better. I will continue to do the things I do, but with more effort, more finesse, more attention and care. I’ll work hard to be a better writer, teacher, friend, runner, dog-mother. I will continue to present myself in ways that are honest, self-deprecating when appropriate, and proud when worthy.
I will be motivated by the many awe-inspiring women I know, even when I don’t feel like I’m good enough to clean their running shoes. But more, I will be motivated each time I hear a stranger tell me she’s run her first 5K, or is training for a marathon, or has lost weight by getting outside, or—and this is what truly impresses me—she manages to exercise even though she’s a mother. Working mothers who run should have an awards category all their own.
The fact is, anyone can run. But making it a priority, carving out the time, finding the discipline is something we all struggle with. Winters are particularly hard for me. When the sky is grey, my outlook clouds and I want to stay warm inside, snuggled with my fifty-pound lap dog and a good book. I don’t like to exercise; I like to run. But I don’t like to run if I don’t feel like it, even though I know I should and I know I will feel better afterward. When I have a hard time getting my butt out the door, I will remember all the women who never thought of themselves as runners but have found the courage to try. That’s what it takes: the courage to try, the determination to lace up the shoes.
During the year I will be writing for this blog, my greatest wish is to hear stories from the women who are reading it, women who are juggling and balancing and struggling and thriving, women who are brave enough to get out there and be active, women whose lives are far more complicated than mine but are still managing to stay active and fit, who are trying to be the best version of themselves.
You just ran your first 5K? You’re going to try to jog for a few minutes each day when you take the dog for a walk? You want to qualify for the Boston marathon? I want to hear about it. And I’ll thank you for giving me the inspiration to keep going.