“Loving ourselves through the process of owning our story is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.” ~Brené Brown
Lunge, turn, reverse, jump, land and rebound, push, pull, cut, run, double turn, fling, pause…
Not good enough! Smooth the transitions, make it cleaner, find more ease!
Heart pounds, ragged breath, muscles burn…
You need more weight on the lunge and point your damn feet when you jump. Do it again.
Repeat. Lunge, turn, reverse, jump, land and rebound, push, pull, cut, run, double turn, fling, pause…
What is your problem? Why is it so sloppy? Clean it up! Do it again.
Not good enough, do it again carved a deep groove into my brain, branding it like a wild bull by a hot iron. Not good enough. My mind, not my teacher, was brutalizing me, taunting me, teaching me “discipline” to improve my dancing.
I improved—enough to become a professional dancer—but I couldn’t internalize or recognize any of my accomplishments.
Even after being asked to join a dance company before I graduated college, I continued to struggle with “not being good enough.” Despite the many compliments I received for my performance and choreography, I brushed them away thinking that they were lying to me, just placating me with false praise.
I faltered in my performance, felt paralyzed by fear that would not always fade away once the performance began, distrusted my ability to remember the choreography, always fought the anxiety of being in front of an audience, and cried oceans of tears because I could never reach the bar I had set for myself. My confidence and faith in my ability to perform to the level that I wanted to plummeted.
I loved dancing so much. I loved moving my body through space, the creative process, and working with a group of talented dancers to create shows. I loved rehearsals because I felt relaxed and at ease, like I could perform with the freedom that I couldn’t feel onstage. I loved refining and smoothing transitions and was described as a “liquid” dancer. I loved expressing my style through my movement.
But the tension between my passion and my insecurity created an internal trip cord. I didn’t trust myself. In rehearsal I was militant about practicing the steps over and over, even when everyone was exhausted, because I still didn’t trust that I knew the choreography.
I had made mistakes before, blanked out onstage, and felt deep humiliation and shame for not performing someone else’s choreography as well as I should have or meeting a paying audience’s expectations. I was proud that I had so much stamina to rehearse twice as hard as I needed to. If I rehearsed extra. then maybe it would finally quiet the critical voice in my head.
It didn’t quiet the critic and the cycle continued.
The shame of being a mediocre dancer led to working harder, but fear of making mistakes or not reaching the goal led to fear of being seen as mediocre, which led, once again, to shame. Shame is dark, subtle, slippery. Over and over, I went through this cycle, the shame cave becoming deeper and darker, until I was lost in it, burned out from so much effort and so little reward.
After ten years of pushing myself to learn, pushing against my fears, pushing myself to excel, and beating myself up along the way, I couldn’t push through any longer. I had nothing left to give. The trickling current of anxiety and depression became a flood and swallowed me up into a profound depression. Everything felt arduous, even the simplest daily tasks.
I looked at people in the streets around me and thought, “How is everybody not depressed? How is anybody smiling?” But they were—smiling, laughing, moving through their days effortlessly, accomplishing wonderful things—and I was not. I was depleted of all vitality.
I quit performing and turned to my yoga practice to help heal from the burnout. I learned therapeutic yogic principles about balancing effort and ease, surrender, non-grasping, contentment, non-violence (even toward oneself).
It seemed only natural to become certified as a yoga teacher and, as I began to teach, I encountered the same insecurities. The same thoughts arose—I need to be an excellent yoga teacher, need to create excellent sequences, have excellent pacing, use excellent language to help guide students into an excellent experience. I felt the same performance anxiety—debilitating self-consciousness.
What are they thinking about me? Am I giving them what they need? There are so many different people in my class. They are different ages with different bodies and different life experiences. What do I know to teach other people? I have only ever been a dancer so how do I know what other people need for their bodies?
I didn’t want to harm anyone because I didn’t know enough or have enough information and, once again, I quit after a couple of years.
My deepest darkest secret, feeling inherently flawed and chronically inadequate, took up space in my heart and my throat. Rent-free. In fact, I was paying for its unwelcome residence.
My next strategy was simply to take the pressure off myself. I chose low-pressure jobs that didn’t require a big performance from me. I was lucky and these were jobs that I liked that suited me well as I slowly healed from years of chronic self-abuse.
In my early forties I came across a term that I identified with—imposter syndrome.
High achievers’ fear of being exposed as a fraud or imposter. Unable to accept accolades or compliments or awards for one’s talent, skill, or experience.
Imposters suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.
I thought, “That sounds like something I can relate to,” but I wasn’t ready to face it head on. I was finally feeling contented in a job that I liked, without the pressures of performing in ways that touched that deep insecurity, and I wanted to soak that contentment in.
And then Covid-19 happened, and I lost that job.
Midway through the pandemic, in an effort to be proactive about the next phase of my life, I turned my attention to developing a yoga therapy practice. Create a mission and vision. Come up with content and language. Identify my audience. Create a website and so on. And again, I came up against the deepest darkest secret that had been so blissfully dormant for several years. I was surprised at its potency, but I decided I was ready to face it head on.
I remembered imposter syndrome and started researching again. Again, I checked all the boxes—except one. In so many articles that I read, examples were given of well-known people who struggled with imposter syndrome. These are people who have achieved extraordinary things, are in the public eye, and have either overcome or pushed through their demons to go on to incredible accomplishments.
Naturally, I thought, “Well, I’m no celebrity, have no major awards or accomplishments to speak of, and I haven’t achieved that much in my career, so this probably doesn’t actually apply to me.”
Such is imposter syndrome.
Comparison to others (who we deem higher achieving than we are) will trigger a cascade of shame and doubt.
Few people actually talk about imposter syndrome—either they don’t know about it or don’t want to discuss it because of the deep feelings of shame or insecurity that accompany it.
I want you who silently struggle with imposter syndrome or dysmorphia or profound shame and insecurity to know that I, too, have struggled, but it’s getting better.
Drop by drop, my cup fills as I take every opportunity to be kind to myself where in the past I would have criticized.
Having studied positive neuroplasticity, I now understand our brains’ negativity bias and the protective role of the inner critic. I have a newfound appreciation for our natural protective mechanisms and gratitude for the ability of the brain to learn and grow new skills.
I’m starting small, taking small steps to create an inner garden of welcome. A beautiful nurturing place where I invite one or two for tea and laugh and share experiences and stories.
And after some time, I hope the garden will expand and the walls begin to crumble a little and I can have a small group for tea, stories, and dancing. And then gradually over time, the garden will expand further so that I can host more people in for tea, stories, dancing, and games.
I can imagine that remnants of the walls will remain as a reminder of where I’ve been, and I can look at them with gratitude for keeping me safe for a while as I softened and settled and tended to the garden within.