The other night I had a dream. In it, I was the age I am now, but it was college graduation time, and (just as I did in 1984), I decided not to go to the ceremony. Instead I had to go to an office to get my diploma (and like most dreams, it was this totally random place that was not familiar to me in any way). Inside it looked like a combination old-time court room and bank.
My mother and stepfather were there (even they’ve been divorced since the early ‘80s), as was my husband. They sat on a long wooden bench behind me as I stood at the counter and spoke to a woman who sat behind thick glass.
I told her my name and she went through her list and couldn’t seem to find me. Dread welled up in me, and then I remembered.
“Oh, maybe it’s under ‘Anderson.’ I got married.”
“Hold on, I need to add that to the record,” she replied.
She shuffled her papers some more and then handed me (through a slot at the bottom of the glass), a gorgeous, thick, tooled leather-covered diploma. But it was more like a book. And inside was page after page of all my accomplishments. Some things were were seemingly insignificant, but the pride I felt, as I leafed through the book, was immense.
In the 30+ years since I graduated from college, I’ve had recurring nightmares that it’s graduation day and I haven’t done the work.
In the nightmares, even though I’m about to get my diploma, I know the truth and “they” probably do too: I probably don’t have enough credits. Rather than finding out ahead of time, I wait to be found out. I can’t find my dorm room, I can’t find my classrooms, I get way behind on homework, or I don’t show up for final exams, and so on.
In reality, I had no desire to attend my college graduation so I received my diploma in the mail. My mother told me I’d regret it for the rest of my life.
And while I don’t regret having not attended my graduation, I do wonder if, back then, there was something else going on…something I was totally unconscious to.
Perhaps something along the lines of, “I don’t deserve to go to my graduation.”
So I spent the next 20-ish years pretending that I was smart and that I had done well in college, as well as trying to prove to myself and to others that I deserve to exist…
…even though I didn’t do well academically, or…
…even though I was stupid…
…even though I didn’t try hard enough…
…even though I was fat, or…
…even though I was single (for a while), or…
…even though I was _________ [fill in the blank with various other so-called negative qualities].
What I am saying here is #1 I used to think that I was a bad, dumb, stupid, pathetic person (and had lots of proof) and #2 I thought I had to pretend (or try to pretend) that I wasn’t. Please hold for further distinction.
And then one day a few years ago I sent away for my college transcript. I’ll never forget the immediate hot prickly-faced shame I felt when I looked at my mediocre 2.9 grade point average.
There it was. Proof. Not the 2.9 GPA, but the emotion: hot prickly-faced shame.
If I felt shame, then it was a proof.
What I know now is that emotions don’t prove a damned thing. They’re just sensations we feel in our bodies. And they hold oceans of wisdom if we’re willing to pay attention and not resist, eat, drink, ignore, suppress, or repress them.
It has taken me a long while to #1 understand that I learn differently AND I am truly intelligent, #2 that I am not an academic, #3 accept and embrace it without having to prove anything, and #4, understand that what I was trying to hide wasn’t even true.
Why tell you all this?
Because I know I am not the only one who struggles with imposter syndrome and “I’m not good enough” thoughts, which result in emotions that feel like crap and make you show up in the world as if you have an awkward cloud of self-doubt over your head.
So pay attention. Notice. When you feel those hot prickly-face, gut-wrenching, soul-sucking, heavy-chested sensations (aka emotions) that you think prove that you’re not good enough, gently catch yourself and remind yourself: this emotion is not proof of anything. It is nothing more and nothing less than a sensation in your body.