Last weekend I carpooled to a center in Wisconsin to attend a retreat (at a place where I led a writing retreat last February, where I’ve felt capable and respected, and where there’s space for me to grow) and had the peculiar experience of walking through the front entrance into a wall of self-doubt: Who are YOU to think you should be here? To pose as a seeker?! What a fraud.
The messages were so bizarre they caught my breath. Of course I’ve heard such critical voices thousands of times, but never so palpably or at such a ludicrous moment. Although I didn’t know this going in, the retreat’s focus was the superego, that voice of criticism and self-attack whose sole purpose is to maintain the status quo. The superego had met me at the door—with force.
In the three days since returning, I’ve been bowled over by how many people have shared with me (with no prompting on my part) that they feel like frauds. It plagues artists, for whom there’s always some level of public recognition to strive for that might finally affirm our worth; it plagues leaders, who must stand in front of people who will inevitably question their authority; it plagues parents, who feel they should know what they’re doing and don’t. Is there anyone who doesn’t at some point feel fraudulent?!
I’ve also noticed how much energy this takes. Sometimes the feeling stops us completely. Sometimes it haunts us (“I’m not a real [fill in the blank]”), although we persevere regardless. I still feel like an imposter novelist despite Hannah, Delivered’s successful launch. Only rarely do I have the experience of last weekend, when I pushed through the wall of ridiculous criticism and proceeded during the retreat to be a humble, clear, fully present seeker.
This morning I found this passage from an article David Foster Wallace wrote for the Wall Street Journal:
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. …Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. … Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.
Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it’s that they are unconscious. … They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
Worship! Yes, expending energy is a form of worship. I come away from my retreat with a commitment to turn my energy elsewhere—to worship what is life-giving and justice-seeking rather than what is judgmental, and help others do the same. Because goodness knows we need this energy elsewhere.
And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self… The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.
Two opportunities to get Hannah, Delivered for a song! Koehler Books is selling all ebooks for $0.99 through December–just purchase through whatever ebook platform you use. And I’m hosting a Goodreads Giveway for a free signed copy this week, ending Friday night.
4 thoughts on “Feeling like a Fraud–or Not”
Thanks yet again- I have a chronic problem of subtly worshiping intellect and success. With the advent of Christmas coming on, my job has been slow where I work right now… each day I’ve been coming away with the nagging feeling of having wasted my day… which mentally translates into feeling painfully unsuccessful. An old youth pastor of mine began talking down to me via social media… immediately, I can feel my self-assumed intellect threatened… I try to remember what the late Brennan Manning, who has been a spiritual father to me, once said in his Ragamuffin Gospel- you have to keep taking your own poser before the Father again and again. By doing this intentionally, you both practice your own poser at work and also help continually usher personal healing.
It’s an ongoing struggle, isn’t it? And yet we can make progress. I remember having panic attacks in the shower every morning before I had to go off and teach 7th grade. Now that just seems silly. I hope there’s as much distance between my critical voices today and who I become in another 20 years.
Thank you for sharing your experience, Elizabeth, and for the wise words from David Foster Wallace. It’s comforting and supportive to remember that these critical voices are common to the experience of all of us who risk exposing our true selves. Your resolve after the retreat to not give your energy to the critic is indeed a gift and a reminder to not succumb to self-doubt.
You’re most welcome, Iris! Isn’t that DFW passage great?!