When the Impostor Syndrome is real, why I stopped writing and moving forward with fear
Warning: This is a looooooooong post. TL;DR: I was not okay but I'm working on it.
If I had ever been lucky enough to have you as a reader of this little space my thoughts occupy online, you will have probably noticed that for a big chunk of 2018, I stopped posting updates and writing these inane blurbs and these little life updates and musings that I have swirling in my head. I even stopped posting photos on Instagram (and for a time stopped posting IG Stories as well). At first, I held off writing about anything because of the tremendous loss I experienced last year. I just wanted a social media break. And I am a social media manager by trade. But I was processing my grief, trying to get on with life and live it as best I could. But then I noticed and caught myself deliberately procrastinating and putting off the seemingly simple task of sitting down and writing. Even as I was going through the motions and handling everything as best as I could to my abilities, successfully landing new clients, traveling to different places, trying to get back to my normal self, I just could not, for the life of me, SIT DOWN AND WRITE.
There aren't many things that I can think of that are worse than catching yourself in the act of doing things that you know, deep down in your gut, are not good for you. It would always be at the back of my head, festering within the depths of my well-pronounced gut; the bothering fact that I should not have stopped writing. I forgot how valuable and cathartic it was (and is, at this very moment) for me to just take stock of my surroundings and throw up word vomit on a blank page; that I needed some sort of outlet to express myself. As inane as I believed them to be, I needed to process the thoughts in my head in a way that I knew how, which was to write them down. My writing isn’t the best. It can get clunky, at times, and tiresome at others. But at best, there is a level of comfort I find in verbalizing the trains of thought I have, instead of them just meandering and going round and round in a swirly, dizzying mess in my head.
The year that had gone by was...a year. It was tough. It was a blur. I went to many different places, literally and figuratively. I've been heartbroken and betrayed, people I love had fallen ill, my loved ones also experienced loss and grief for themselves. I experienced many emotions. Some of them I compartmentalized and buried them deep deep deep in my baul of consciousness until they slowly burbled to the surface and unfortunately, exploded on to my face. But I digress, the point of this post (and it does have one, I promise) is why I stopped writing and what it was, exactly, that drove me into this strange paralysis of sorts. I analyzed everything that I had gone through (it was a struggle) and, in true Mia fashion, I was steeped neck-deep in overthinking, self-loathing and a general sense of just not being in a good head space.
And yes, while my traveling all over the place might have helped get me out of my head and could have helped me center myself or provide a decent distraction, I wasn't aware of my ailing mental health until the last few weeks (the last three or four months to be exact), when I felt myself spiraling and lashing out in anger, perhaps a little too inebriated, twice or thrice (or let's be honest, probably more). I finally realized that over the course of the last year, I somehow developed a warped sense of reality and an overwhelming feeling of being undeserving of good and nice things. I felt as though everything good in my life was going to, eventually be taken away, that I would be found out (of what...I'm not entirely sure) and that all my hard work as a freelancer was somehow questionable and illegitimate (maybe I should go back to corporate???), that people would catch on and realize how terrible of a person I am (I'm not a murderer but I'm no saint either... I'm, at best, a medium person) and my people people people would turn into an angry mob with pitchforks and call me out on my bullshit (I know in my heart they wouldn't but... I don't ever really never know these days).
Yes, folks, it is somewhat of a full-blown existential crisis, a brain meltdown, one that might be self-induced but very real nonetheless. And yes, I do realize that while it might be all in my head, I could not bring myself to write anything of value, to help other fellow freelancers or marketers or just people, in general. I was questioning my worth as a person, as someone working freelance, existing, floating around, purposeless. I just... couldn't. I couldn't figure out what I wanted to say or how to even say it. Until this point.
I continue to struggle with this sense of foreboding joy, this constant questioning of self-worth, and I wonder sometimes if this is my new normal. On more grounded and centered days, when I am able to successfully complete plans I made and I feel good about myself and what I'm doing, I recognize that all this crazy-talk and self-hatred---it's all conjured up in my head; that I am not a terrible-garbage-trash person, that I might deserve good things and I haven't totally and completely lost my mind. And when I do experience these good days, albeit rare, I try my hardest to think of what is triggering to me and on the flip side, what gives me joy. SO FINALLY HERE IS THE POINT OF THIS BLURB: what my triggers are, trying to make sense of them and what I need to do to counteract the darkness I feel. I will try not to wax poetic about how life is unfair and go into a whole self-pity spiral but indulge me a bit. I need to let these things out somehow.
Now, I know this content might be more appropriate for a journal with a lock, hidden away, under my mattress, a la Dear Diary, but I need a way to hold myself accountable and honest; honest with myself and honest to the world at large or to at least my circle, who might find themselves reading this. If someone is going through the same thing I am and can give me ideas to combat this horrible Impostor Syndrome, please please please send me a message. Or if you want a safe environment, judgement free, to talk or to bounce ideas off of to combat said Impostor Syndrome, please by all means, hit me up.
Trigger #1: Contracts Ending
"Why didn't they get my services again? Did they not like what I had to offer? Was what I was doing not good enough? Were there things that I could have done better? What did I do wrong?"
There was a point in my career when I would measure my success and equate it to how many clients I had at any given time. I started freelancing about 4 years ago and I would always be handling 5 clients (or more) all at the same time, all by myself. I was proud that I had been chosen. My ideas won. (Me? Little old me? with matching innocent, surprised face) Whether it was a pitch to handle a campaign or a 6 month long project or a company's rebranding or giving workshops on social media and marketing, I won and my ideas won. But after the winning and after all the work had been put in, my contracts were finite. They ended. They were limited in scope to begin with. (I mean what did I expect, really?) And a huge chunk of them ended simultaneously. "It's okay. I'm sure I'll get renewed or something." was what I would try to tell myself. But not everyone would renew and time usually won instead of me.
As a result, I had to learn the hard way that in the freelancing world, the HUSTLE IS REAL and CONTINUOUS. And there is no time for feeling bad for not having your contract renewed. For the longest time, I was in a cushy situation. I had retainer contracts left and right; basically, these were my meal tickets. I didn't have to do much or exert so much effort to reach my KPIs. And since they had ended, the rug was pulled from beneath me, I have realized that the challenge is to never take these things for granted. I grew increasingly complacent and should not have done so. The most unconventional path (the one I have chosen) is often the most humbling one. I have learned now that my hustle shouldn't stop and when it falters, it's good to reflect and identify what I could have done better but I must avoid dwelling. Grieve and mourn but look and move forward, onward and upward.
Trigger #2: Pitch Rejection
Along with the wins I had in the last 4 years, my career and my life (in general) had always been riddled with losses. And perhaps in the past, it was easier for me to bounce back. It was easier to get back on that saddle, put myself out there and pitch pitch pitch; to try and try and to contact as many people as I could, to put up a website and be active on LinkedIn, do all of the things and attend a lot of conferences and seminars and workshops, work on getting Google and Facebook certified. But somewhere along the way, I grew weary and tired. I was doing all of these things for the longest time and just realized that I had little to nothing to show for any of the effort I had put out there. Not only that, I would kill myself to finish pitch deck after pitch deck and get rejected over what I would say would be some of my best and greatest creative work. I would be told that yes, my ideas were awesome and creative and unique and one of a kind but they needed something safer or cheaper or a better fit.
Normally, I could just chalk this up to formulating a better pitch deck or tweaking ideas that are less out there; after all, there is always room for improvement. But after having been told so many times that "your ideas are great but...", it starts to chip away at your confidence. I tried my hardest to remain optimistic and to keep on keeping on but my motivations for trying slowly weakened until they disappeared. Now I feel as though I'm in this rut, as if I don't have it in me to come up with new and fresh ideas because I'm afraid of being rejected yet again. And I know fully well that I shouldn't. I shouldn't give up. But what am I supposed to do when my confidence, that which I consider to be my only resource and capital, is depleted? It's easy to say "Be confident! Be yourself!", "Trust in the process" and all other cliche banalities. How can I trust the process that has rejected me over and over again? How do I regain confidence after having been told NO so many times over?
I honestly don't have the answer to any of these questions. But to mitigate these feelings, I need to choose seeing my losses as wins. They say it's either you win or you learn. Boy, have I learned. And while it does suck, it's not the end of the world and I still have some winning pitches to be grateful for. It's a matter of refocusing my energy to feeling good about what I can feel good about. Maybe that's all there is to it. (?)
Trigger #3: Feeling Stuck and Alone
Now let me preface this section by saying that I am fully aware that I am, by no means, alone. And I know that I speak from a position of privilege. I am constantly surrounded by people whom I love dearly, who would, at a drop of a hat, be there for me when I need them. I've seen it. Over the last two or so years, they have proven to me, countless times, that they are and will be there for me. So, why the doubt? Why the fear? Why do I find myself feeling alone and lonely in the path that I have chosen? It might sound silly and trite but I do get this way.
Often, when I reflect on my choices, I see that the life path that I have chosen is slightly different. I do not believe in marriage for myself, I do not want children, that the only family I need are my friends and the family I have that already exist. (These things are obviously for a separate article altogether) For these choices, I have my reasons. This is the path I have chosen. Ginusto ko toh. And while I stand by these particular choices, it has become quite apparent to me that the friends I am surrounded by all have their own lives. My best friend of 13 years is getting married next year. Two of my close friends have just announced their pregnancies. And yes, I know that they are always going to be there for me, sure. But obviously, their lives do not revolve around mine. Rightly so, family comes first. My siblings will grow old and will have their own families. And I will, inevitably, face my twilight years by myself and alone. Now, I have made peace with this, somewhat, to a certain degree. But right now, in my early 30s, it's purely abstract. How I will manage and cope when it is right in front of me, in plain sight and in full view, is another animal altogether, one that I can only imagine to be an entirely different challenge. Not only have I chosen a career that will render me alone, but I have backed myself into a corner where loneliness appears to be a prerequisite. I have no officemates, no mentors, no bosses, no people with the same shared experience to turn to. Best combo idea ever! Freelancer + No kids, no family, in the year 2046? It's just a scary thought and I am terrified. And sure there might be other freelancers out there, who are just as scared as I am, but at this very moment, I don't know many or any of them. I will have to, again, put myself out there, find them for myself and build relationships with them. And the exhaustion I feel from putting myself out there has just built up.
My convoluted fears about loneliness, mortality and such aside, there is also the feeling of being left behind. It's true that being a freelancer is often presented with different, new and unique challenges. But I am no longer the fresh faced optimistic freelancer I once was. Of the level of seniority I occupy and the skills I possess, I am nowhere near my peers, in terms of how much I earn and how much political capital I have (in the industries I circulate in). I am in constant fear that the demand for freelance consultants, doing what I do, in the current market landscape, is dwindling and while my peers are climbing their own personal ladders left and right, I am just here. I will still be here. The plateauing and stagnation is something I wasn't prepared for. The day to day and ins and outs of being a freelancer can be just as mind-numbing as going to the office daily for a regular 9 to 5. I have trouble getting out of bed, fully aware that I must put myself out there, to actually HAVE work to do. What happens is this daily drudgery of nothingness; feeling purposeless and without direction nor motivation nor clients. It simultaneously renders me paralyzed and drives me restless. It isn't that I am bored of my work. It is that I don't even have enough work to do to feel bored. But in order for me to get work, there is that exhaustion from the constant rejection. And I just feel stuck and left behind. It's a vicious cycle I'm stuck in and I need to pull myself out of. Maybe all there is to it, really, is about rechanneling that restless energy into something more productive. Looking past the fear and the exhaustion and just bouncing back.
SO, WHAT NOW?
I have been writing this piece for about three weeks now; probably the longest it has ever taken me to write anything. And the mere act of mustering up the energy and courage to express these thoughts in a coherent manner has been harrowing. But it simply must be done. I need to get out of this funk. I think I'm self-aware enough to recognize that this is a headspace I no longer want to be in. It's depressing.
Before I started writing this, I was having trouble identifying and properly articulating what had been gnawing away at the back of my head. At least now, I have fully, fully ascertained what had been bothering me. That's gotta be a good first step, right? But I know that I need to be more proactive in my approach to getting out of this funk. There has to be a positive spin to all this. My sanity seems to depend on this.
I was speaking to my best friend and she, being the ever-supportive friend, was telling me that while she didn't know how to help me, she offered what she did when she goes to a dark place, similar to mine. Banal platitudes, sure, but these were helpful ones. She reminded me that I had a lot to be thankful for and I needed to stop and catch myself before totally drowning in self-pity. She told me to list down all my little victories and remember that my life is totally and completely in my control, having clients or not. She also told me that exhaustion can be counteracted by curiosity to try and experience novel things. She reminded me that I was loved and deserved it, despite not feeling like I did.
I think one of the things I need to learn and practice from all this is self-compassion. Somewhere along the way, being the way that I am, overly critical and judgmental of myself, I just forgot how to be kind to myself. And yes, it is easier said than done to just "Love yourself!". Lawwwddjeeezus knows it is easier said than done. But I do have to start somewhere.
So this is my resolve. Though still meek and humble, it is there. I will start writing again, I will start pitching again, I will find the energy to put myself out there, in spite of the weariness. It will be slow and it will be a painful process but it will get back on that proverbial horse. And I will try my damned hardest to move with my fears and work through them. I know now that my fears and triggers exist for a reason. I should look at them as motivators instead of letting them render me paralyzed. Now that I have acknowledged them, I have to, repeatedly, make the conscious decision to walk right into them, fully aware that though I might fail, I might also be one step closer to success (in the figurative sense). I need to keep reminding myself of how far I have come, despite feeling like I have nothing to show for it, and let my curiosity about the future and the prospect of doing good work, the "What if this makes me and brings me satisfaction?" overcome the "What if I fail?" in my head. At least, I will have tried something instead of sitting on fearful inaction.