How the Imposter Syndrome Works to Keep You Small by Lisa Ellison

At thirty-seven inches and thirty-seven pounds, I was the second smallest kid in my first-grade class. The smallest was a kid we called Peanut—a boy so tiny, he’d drown in the shallow end of the pool. Everyone loved to ruffle Peanut’s hair. I loved his “old man” style, complete with plaid bell-bottoms, butterfly-colored shirts, and hair slicked down with Vitalis.

Peanut was a sweet, old soul who appeared to like being small.

For a long time, I did too.

Growing up in a rust-belt town where bad luck seemed like all we had, a small life with guarantees felt like my best option.

In early adulthood, I chose careers with certainty and sought out pensions that would carry me through retirement. It worked for a while, but in my family living small wasn’t just about paychecks. We stayed small because we feared someone would discover our flaws, or worse we’d try something hard then fail.

Even when small felt safe, it had consequences.

Watching people live the life I wanted left a bitter taste in my mouth.

After a while, I believed I was weak, and felt trapped by my imposed limitations.

Eventually, my body got on board. By thirty-five, I had developed three autoimmune diseases that zapped my energy. Then I contracted Lyme disease and that showed me how frail I had become.

At the height of my Lyme days, I was underweight and jaundiced. My cold hands purpled with poor circulation. Every muscle and bone ached. I feared death was next.

One day, I stared into a mirror and said, “If I’m dying, what have I got to lose?”

I asked my husband to take a picture of me so I could remember this moment.

Then I committed to living the life I really wanted.

While I thought Lyme might kill me, I was certain stretching myself would.

Every time I tried something new, my mind said, “Stop! You can’t do this. Remember, you’re that poor kid with a subpar education and shitty grammar. And you’re sickly to boot. It’s only a matter of time before they find out what a loser you really are.”

My heart raced.

My stomach flip-flopped.

My hands shook.

My body begged for me to stop.

When it felt like too much, I gave myself a hug and said, “Yeah, I know how hard this is.” Then I kept going.

A few years later, my Lyme went into remission. As I had more energy, I took more chances.

Instead of killing me, each effort made me stronger.

And happier.

Along the way, I learned the imposter syndrome is common among high-functioning, talented people who come from marginalized backgrounds. It’s also common in people who grew up in places where staying small was modeled.

Not sure if that’s your story?

Has anyone ever said:

  • “Who do you think you are?”
  • “Look who’s getting too big for their britches?”
  • “I guess you’re highfalutin now.”

Growing up, variations on those phrases were slung at me any time I took risks. It was done not out of malice, but love. My parents and grandparents had always struggled, and they hoped that lowering my expectations would protect me from the disappointments life would surely bring.

Now, I’m in the process of authoring something different.

I hope you are too.

If your imposter syndrome is keeping you small, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where do those messages come from?
  • In what situations do you feel it the most?
  • How do you feel when you listen to that limiting voice?
  • What does it tell you?
  • What does it cost you?
  • What kind of life–and especially writing life–do you really want?

As Julia Cameron says, your dreams come from a divine place. Following them is an expression of the divine with you.

Next week, I’m going to talk about the F word behind all of this small living.

In the meantime, dream a little bigger and know that I’m cheering you on.

This post originally appeared on Lisa’s blog on September 8, 2020.

Close up photo of ant in grass
Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash

Lisa Ellison
Lisa Ellison is an editor, writing coach, and speaker with an EdS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a background in mindfulness. She has spent the last two decades helping clients and students turn difficult experiences into art. Her life story and essays have appeared on NPR’s With Good Reason and in Hippocampus Literary Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, Huffington Post, and The Guardian, among others. A member of the Moving Forewords Memoir Collective, Lisa is currently working on Lucky Me, a memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped her survive her brother’s suicide.

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