That Little Voice in My Head is Saying Cynical Things Again

Somebody from my real life pointed out to me that the last two weeks I’ve mostly been writing about my shortcomings. It was an interesting observation and one I confirmed when I looked at the last 15 or so entries. A lot of them are critical of myself. Maybe I work out my issues here or don’t want to try to hide my foibles anymore. I don’t know. Either way, here we go again…

Since I joined LinkedIn, and now have hundreds of connections to the professional mental health field, I’ve learned that many of these people love to post short videos of people doing brave, risky, daring, amazing things, almost always with some positive message of hope or social justice behind it.

I watched one the other day that featured a woman who appeared to be in her early 20s. She took a chair, a pair of scissors, hair clippers and a sign that said something to effect of “Cut My Hair to Prove Beauty is Only Skin Deep” to Times Square and sat down.

At first, the crowd gathered around her is confused. This looks like your typical girl with long hair you’d walk past on any street, but here she is, wearing a blindfold, asking for them to cut her hair to make a statement. It takes a little while, but then someone approaches her and snips a little with the scissors. Then another, and another. Half her hair is gone before someone takes the clippers and starts shaving away.

In the end, she’s being cheered and people are hugging her. Several women make testimonials statements about how brave she is and what an important message she’s sending.

A few days earlier, I saw another video, this one was from Australia, captured in one of the places where the horrible wildfires have been raging. In the video, you first see a koala bear, running around that has been burned and is clearly disoriented. After a few moments a man and a woman happen upon the scene and rescue the burned koala bear that seemed like it was on death’s door.

They take the beautiful animal out of the burning forest to the side of their car, where they pour water on it to cool and clean its wounds, I assume. There’s a message that the koala was taken to a nearby animal refuge facility to be cared for once the video ended.

As I watched the first video I thought to myself, “These people are acting this way because a camera is there,” “How can the foreign tourists appreciate what is happening if they can’t read her sign?” and “This seems so much more dramatic because it’s edited down to three minutes, has inspirational music and block-letter captioning.”

When I watched the second video I thought to myself, “Who didn’t put down the camera and help the poor koala? Why did he wait for the man and woman? What’s that guy’s story? Does he really know the bear went to a refuge facility or does it just make a nice ending? What are the odds that koala is dead now?”

I find I’ve always had this jaded streak of doubt and pessimism. You can present something nice to me, but I’ll come up with questions to try and debunk just how nice it is.

Maybe this comes from the fact I struggle with imposter syndrome, which I only learned about recently. Go read the first blog I did about it so I don’t have to recap here. Despite doing many, many things in my life that were seen as caring and despite many of the altruistic endeavors my professional life tried to assist, I always felt there was a level of phoniness to it all.

Sure, in 2011, I once raised $300 singing Daydream Believer off-key to a dinner crowd that paid to have me shut up. We were raising money for middle school teacher grants, but I wasn’t doing it just for the money. I was mostly doing it because I like the song and I like performing and I was able to manipulate a situation where it looked like I was playing the fool for a good cause. In reality, I just can’t sing. When I told people afterward I was probably one of the best paid musicians in town that night, it sounded like self-deprecating irony, but that’s only because I knew how to say it out loud to get away with it.

Am I still that bad of a person? Good Lord, no. I have learned to reel it in, both with recovery and I think just maturing over the last decade. But there’s still that piece of me who thinks everything is a manipulated hoax of sorts. Why couldn’t that girl just make her hair cutting statement without a professional production team in tow?

I like magic. I like pro wrestling. I like CGI. They’re all cons. But they’re all honest cons. I know someone is trying to make me believe one set of circumstances when another is true. I think that may be my default setting. I always assume a manipulative con is on. I can relax when people are forthright about it.

Maybe it goes back to the creation of my coping skills and defense mechanisms. You can never be the sucker if you never believe anything. I’m not going to be the old person fleeced into giving my life savings away. I was the kid who went around high school explaining to my much smarter friends how the Who’s Who book industry was a scam to play on their ego. They didn’t like to hear that.

I have matured to the point that I didn’t write these kinds of pessimistic statements under the videos that were posted. If they are 1000% genuine in their content and intent, they are great. But I just don’t believe very much I’m presented on the surface and I really hope that I can grow to be more trusting and less cynical as I continue to recover and get older.

Discovering the concept of Imposter Syndrome

I don’t often share links to other blogs here, but I somehow found a blog a couple of weeks back called Coaching Skills International that has been a breath of fresh air. From what I can tell it’s produced by an online counseling college out of Canada. If I’m wrong, I hope they’ll correct me. I urge you to check it out and see the kind of advice and knowledge they offer.

This past weekend, they posted an article about imposter syndrome. They define it as:

“Impostor syndrome is a psychological condition where people are unable to believe in their successes. Thus, despite the evidence that points to the fact that they are skilled, capable and competent they write this off as temporary – or timing and good luck. Thus, they constantly struggle with feeling like a fraud.”

This absolutely describes the first 37 years of my life, especially the last few years before I lost almost everything and entered recovery. I always had this voice in the back of my head going back to my days as a child that said, “You can’t let them know who you really are. Nobody will approve of, nor like who you really are, so be somebody else.”

I have suspicions that this developed first from somehow getting the message from my environment that I wasn’t enough. I think there’s a fine line between correcting and teaching a small child the right way to do things and making them feel inferior and as if they don’t have the instinct to do things correctly the first time, leading them to constantly doubt themselves.

Most of those negative messages came from a babysitter I had while my parents worked prior to me entering school. I’ve already written about the abuse while I was there, so I’ll skip it, but I also think my imposter syndrome was borne out of a fear of my safety. I internally learned at an early age how to say and do what I needed to avoid her wrath (most of the time) and that involved putting on a show, not being my genuine self. It’s the survival skill I leaned upon too heavily as I grew up.

Finally, I think my imperfect mental health likely played a role in exacerbating my imposter syndrome. Anxiety pushes you to avoid negative things like conflict with others. Depression forces you to put on a happy face for the world. Mania attempts to convince you that you’re something special and the life of the party, despite knowing you’re faking it.

Example #1

I remember in late 2012 when, as the co-founder of a large film festival in Maine, we held a press conference to announce our plans. It was in the space adjacent to our office we also rented and turned into an art gallery.

We had purchased a couple of those large backdrops (called step-and-repeats) you see celebrities pose in front of on the red carpet that usually has small logos for the event and a sponsor. A friend from a local college brought over a very cool looking podium and sound system so there was one of those small microphones you see on awards show to speak into.

As a surprise, I arranged to have Les Stroud of the Survivorman television show come to the festival that year and teased the announcement. I also arranged to have him speak to us via Skype at the press conference. The whole visual set-up was very professional.

As a city councilor (a whole other imposter story), I was good friends with the mayor and he agreed to attend the press conference to speak about the economic impact to the city.

So, we sent invitations to a few VIPs, our sponsors and the media to come to the press conference to hear what we had to say – and they all did. When the emcee (the magazine’s managing editor) introduced me to make the surprise announcement of Survivorman, I came up to the podium and looked out. There were probably 40 invited guests, including four TV stations with cameras and two newspaper reporters there.

I was standing on a stage and they were all waiting to hear me. In that moment, a wave of thoughts sprouted: “How did I pull this all together? How is every media source within 50 miles here? How can none of them recognize that I’m a hustler, a liar and a fraud? I am putting on a totally fake press conference – except it’s not fake. Or is it? It’s for a real event. I shouldn’t be in this position. It should be reserved for talented people who know what they’re doing. This song and dance is going to result in sponsors giving me tens of thousands of dollars I don’t deserve. How do I make sure these people don’t see the REAL me?”

Example #2

In my high school senior yearbook, I won the “Most Opinionated” superlative. I knew what that meant. It was the “Biggest loudmouth asshole who we still somehow like award.”

Even then I felt like I was an imposter. I excelled at things I found simple, like history and creative writing, and figured out how to cheat my way through math and science. I don’t think I was part of any specific clique, finding it easy to bounce around because as a chameleon, I could adapt to whomever I was hanging out with. If I was with the jocks, I’d turn my brain off. If I was with the brains, I’d hide the fact I loved sports.

Fast-forward 19 years and I’m nearing my demise. About six months after Example #1 took place, I was asked if I would give the commencement address for the latest graduating class. It took less than two decades for the loudmouth asshole who had to sit silently at his graduation in 1994 to get the headlining spot for the Class of 2013. This was a new high-water mark in fooling the world.

By this point, I was well into the deepest part of my addictions. I knew I’d need to have a few drinks in me to give the speech, but knew in that condition I couldn’t work from notecards behind a podium on a stage. So, I started the speech with a lame comment and walked off the stage and gave the speech from the auditorium floor, pacing the entire time. I didn’t use notecards and just made some bullet points and wrote a few jokes. I’ve always had the ability to just wing it when public speaking.

After the speech, one person complimented me, saying: “I liked how you came down to talk to the kids and walked around. And the fact you memorized that speech! Very impressive!”

Was it impressive or was it a con? My mind at the time told me I was conning the world and the only way I got away with it was with the numbing effects of alcohol and porn. Otherwise, I might have slipped up and screamed, “I’m completely full of shit everybody! Stop enabling me!”

I tracked down that speech online when writing this. Ironically, in the first five or six minutes, there is a lot of subtext to what I’m saying which sounds to me like I’m wrestling with imposter syndrome. There are so many references to it if you know what to look for. You can also count the number of times I drunkenly stumble over my words. I guess most people never caught on.

But I have to confess, even today, I find that pajama pants joke pretty funny.

If you’d like to see me fake my way through giving an “inspirational” speech, but knowing what was really going on, check this out:



A post-script to this example is that while I was giving this speech, my daughter was one town away, winning her middle school talent show. She was a bit of a wallflower, not participating in many activities and I have so much regret not being there to see it. My injured mind told me it was easier to fake being a successful professional in front of 3,000 than being a good father, blended into a small audience.

It was years of rehab, therapy, research, introspection, writing and very intentionally making different behavioral decisions that helped me move away from imposter syndrome. If you’d like to learn some practical techniques for overcoming it, check out the article that inspired this post at: Imposter Syndrome I wrote several more thoughts in their comments I haven’t shared here.