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Mental Health

I have imposter syndrome in my own relationship

We’re driving to brunch on a Sunday, and I all I can think about is what we are going to talk about when we get there. We just started living together, so there’s been quality time had all weekend, anthological talks by the kitchen sink and night caps at our favorite bar. But now, what if we’re those people that sit drenched in fermenting silence doing the most pathetic thing in the world, sipping on a straw? Or worse, we’re the people that go through the trouble of going out together just to stare at their phones—compatibility referenced only by a few synchronic swipes. Seeing this kind of thing always unnerves me, to the point where I have to make up a backstory. Like, those two over there were traveling together having the time of their lives when they met a couple with maxed out passports and even fuller social lives, and they opened their eyes to the dance of non-monogamy as well as the lucrative business of food trucks. Now they’ve agreed to go to dinner only to sit and find other lovers and do comp research on the local shawarma.

My boyfriend and I have been dating for five years, all of which I’ve been heard less concisely saying, it’s endearment or friendship that molds a romantic relationship so that it stays. And I’ve meant it. I feel very emotionally understood by my boyfriend, and my most uninhibited, comedic self.

The problem is anxiety is breaking my heart. I’ve had it since I was a kid. There was one time around age 11 that I wrote down all the things I was nervous for in a coming week on a vanilla piece of paper then placed it in a kitchen drawer. That’s how normal I thought my feelings were. They belonged next to the business cards and car keys splayed in a corner. In a sense, I have always detailed my feelings somewhere astray from public awareness and right behind the knees of everyone. I went to therapy for years to notice how shame and anxiety unwrap under my skin, like the sinister opposites of the veins my mother put there, but to this day when I let either, they are a profound and discrete weight.

In this Midwestern city with its Victorian homes standing like sentient creatures of fashion, I worry I won’t be enough, even though he assures me I am. I have imposter syndrome in my own relationship.

Ellen Hendriksen’s book on social anxiety has been helping me get under and over such a tipping point. She talks about how being socially anxious has a lot to do with what a different researcher in the field has called “the reveal;” the belief that something is fundamentally wrong about us and others will see or intuit it. I have begun to realize how much of my stress and wiry nerves comes from trying to manage what I think is flawed about my personality, stamping out even liminal ideas that I perceive as exposés of absolute dullness.

As we understand the research now, it’s proven that women experience anxiety more than men, which in part has much to do with a lack of connection between gendered traits and low-inhibition—women are taught to edit their speech and behaviors more deeply and with finer thread. Often, I think it would help us find truer voices if we practiced spontaneity. There would be moments of feeling pathetic sure, but also moments where our most inventive and compelling self was on display, only because she wasn’t smushed by hesitation. It’s part of why we love art; its pathos is concerned with the truth, and even more with embracing revelation.

The irony about revelation is that it isn’t fettered out by external impulse—it’s internally granted. But for many of us with anxiety, this is often too much pressure. How can we do anything right if it could possibly go wrong? I want guaranteed security with the thrill of feeling it was pulled off on an edge. You know the edge. It’s the crack between when think you won’t grasp the right word and then pull off one like mangle. I’d like to live in that crack and make furniture out of it. But one can’t, because one simply can’t feel alive all of the time.

A friend said the next stretch where people are having a meal near me and not talking, I should imagine everyone as creatures just eating to survive, and then I’ll be surprised and delighted by any communication, or even eye contact! “Pretty low-standards,” I said. “Not if you’re a creature.” I called the police.

There could be a connection between nourishing my self-esteem only by the validation of others and being overwhelmed by interaction dictated by eating out in company. So maybe the work for now is to be able to enjoy a meal by committing to enjoy myself.

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