A Stranger in the Mirror

A Stranger in the Mirror

It is ironic that a nation which started a movement for Urdu that led to the creation of a new sovereign state would have a separate ethnic group called “Urdu Speaking People”. These are the people known for migrating to Pakistan, from Urdu speaking regions of India. They have some distinct characteristics: they are known for their love of literature, they have a marked manner of speaking, and their own traditional costumes. Considered refined, polite and delicate of stature, they are very likely to get beaten up by strong, young Punjabi boys. They are also known to be extremely negative and ridiculously stingy. I am Urdu speaking.

Keeping in line with the stereotypes, I have a love of saving. Worshipping gold and property as safe long term investments, I actually do not like diamonds because they offer no real re-sale value. Needless to say, from my first day at Jacobs University I started coming up with a game-plan to pay back my student loan as soon as possible. By the time I graduated, substantially in debt, the idea was a blazing torch in my mind. I made my first payment on January 2013. The goal was to be done in 3 years thus reducing by half the time offered by the university payment plan. During this time, I also wanted to financially support my family as much as possible. Recently, taking advantage of the 10% discount offered by the university, I made my last loan payment. As of January 2015 – I was debt free.

My family was thrilled. They knew how much the idea of being in debt had preyed upon my mind, how many projects had taken a backseat to the loan payment, how every extra penny- from tax returns to birthday cash- had gone into payments. The sleepless nights and the stress had all paid off (excuse the pun) and this massive ordeal was finally behind me. However, with every congratulatory message that came in and every call I received, my euphoria kept draining away. A voice resonated in my mind and I heard myself echoing it to everyone I spoke to: “It wasn’t a big deal, I just got really lucky.” By the end of the day, I was dreading talking to people in detail because I was sure they would figure out how it had all been a massive fluke and I was a fraud and that they didn’t need to be so happy for me.

For as long as I can remember, it’s been like this. The concept of personal achievement has always been alien to me, because in my book nothing counts as an achievement. It is always a combination of luck and oversight. Got a good score in the SATs? It was an easy test year. Got a job in a failing economy? Got picked for ethnic diversity. One of my personal favourites: got the highest grades in the entire engineering department of my university in Pakistan and received a scholarship for it? The university’s standard of education is too low.

I considered this perfectly normal for most of my life. As much a part of my identity as an Urdu-speaker as the way my entire family refers to themselves with the majestic plural. Anything that anyone else did was worth applauding and appreciating but anything you did yourself was to be repressed and downplayed. It’s only recently that I came across the term “impostor syndrome” – and just like that, have a piece of the puzzle fell into place.

First described in the 1970s, by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, the impostor syndrome or phenomenon is characterized by feelings of chronic self-doubt and intellectual fraud. It’s not as simple as being humble in the face of fame and success. It is a crippling fear of being “found out” that can keep you up at nights. It is a failure to internalize success and ironically enough, is known to (mostly) affect highly-motivated, driven people.

Imes and Clance first theorized that the phenomenon was mostly experienced by successful women. Their study was conducted over a period of five years with a 150 female professionals in academia and students. Aged between 20 and 45, these women reported feeling like “impostors”. They all believed that they were not intelligent, and had somehow fooled the system and the people around them into believing that they were. They rejected positive messages about their personal skills and abilities and tended to contribute their success to external, uncontrollable factors.

Most sufferers of the impostor syndrome could be categorized in a few distinct behavioural patterns. They work diligently to cover up their so-called “stupidity and inadequacy”. This results in success. But this success is never enough to convince them that they are qualified. They make excuses and go on behaving the same way. Some people fear to express opposing views. They take the viewpoints of their professors, supervisors or bosses and run with them to gain what they need. This leads them to believe that, had they expressed their true opinion they would have been considered unintelligent. A more common example: using charm and perceptiveness. The sufferer usually believes that they just need the right mentor to bring out their intelligence. They select such a person and observe them closely. Using their friendliness, looks, charm, knowledge or even sexuality, they become closely involved with their mentor. Then, they refuse to believe them when they finally receive the validation they were looking for. When the mentor praises or compliments them on their abilities, they believe it is merely a side effect of their social charm. And the whole process repeats itself with someone else.

What causes this cycle to begin in the first place? And is it really more prevalent in women than in men?

The answer to the latter is no. Studies conducted later have shown that men are just as susceptible of doubting themselves as women. Women are just more likely to self-report feelings of inadequacy than men.

There are a few theories behind the rise of the impostor syndrome, ranging from family dynamics to personality factors. They make for an interesting read that I could definitely identify with. But I want to focus on here, is what one can actually do overcome the feeling of not belonging:

  • Focus on the value of your efforts, not the end result. A constant drive to be the best rather than giving your best will only result in a constant struggle to achieve perfection.
  • Realise that you own your successes. It is so difficult for me to believe this statement that I could not even come up with words to explain this. But to paraphrase an interesting read on Forbes: just as you consider yourself fully responsible for any failures you experience, you must also realise that any success you have is a result of your own work.
  • Talk to others. One thing that always helps, is knowing there are others who feel the same way as you do. If you are in school consider talking to your guidance counsellors. Seek the help of people you respect and trust. Who knows, they might just respond with a massive “me too!”
  • Identify and actively be aware of when you are thinking realistically and when you are indulging in negatively berating yourself for no purpose. Question these negative thoughts and make an effort to become more balanced towards yourself.

We talk a lot about being kind to others, but just as important is being kind to ourselves. There is an exquisite kind of pain attached to doubting yourself. You can block others’ voices out. But what if this voice resides in the recesses of your mind, and in the dark of the night whispers to your soul? What if you yourself are causing your hand to shake when confronted with tasks of import? What if it is only your eye that cannot identify with the person who stares back at you from your mirror? Do not let your fears rule you. Know that you are more than the sum of your circumstances. You are responsible for bringing yourself wherever you are. And if you don’t succeed, know that, at the very least, any Urdu-speakers you find will thoroughly approve of you.

Omaina gets very flustered when asked to describe herself and will usually end up making a joke that’s funnier in her head. This is why she prefers to stay at home with a book. Enthusiastic traveler and cook.

Photo credit: pixshark.com