Potential & The Imposter Syndrome
There’s something called the Three Act Structure in filmmaking. Act One establishes the hero and the villain, and it ends with an inciting incident. Act Two begins with the hero responding to that inciting incident and is driven by cause and effect. Usually, the hero has a small success which quickly pales in the wake of new circumstances, higher stakes and bigger risks. Sometimes the stakes sky-rocket as a result of the hero’s failure. Act Three is where the big showdown happens, the climax of the film. Most times, the hero emerges victorious. But that’s not how my story ends…
I’m in Form Four. I don’t really like studying but I have to do it to save face. Some of my overachieving stream mates are making passive-aggressive comments about how I’ll bring down the school’s 100% pass rate if I don’t study hard enough. I register for O’Levels. Suddenly, it’s all very real. My whole life is supposed to revolve around these exams, but that’s not how I feel inside. I’d rather be anywhere else.
I’m an intelligent girl and so much is expected of me academically. People say things like “You have such a brilliant mind” and I smile a little and avert my eyes. I’m embarrassed by how smart I am. I don’t feel like I deserve to be this smart. But I don’t tell anyone that.
I get into the exam room and boy, do I ace that sucker. My family is overjoyed; I’ve never seen them this happy for me. In their happiness, they introduce me to Potential. They say she’s my ally and she will push me to break all limits.
“Nice to meet you,” I say, trying to steady my voice and be as confident as she looks. She gives me the faintest of smiles, and I smile back. Then her eyes do a quick scan over my body and then rest on mine. Something about that brown, almost hazel gaze makes me so uncomfortable and self-aware in the worst way possible. Without doing much, Potential has managed to see how incapable I am. I’m afraid of her.
Potential has grown much bigger than I can handle. She looks down at me with a mocking smile, her head cocked to the side. I’m in A’Level now. I am denied the combination I really want to do and so I’m stuck with Chemistry. I don’t like Chemistry. Every class I have to live through only cements the thoughts in my head: I’m only acting, this isn’t the real me.
Potential shines in all her glory, laughing at my futile attempts to become her. Term after term I try, and term after term I fail. It’s so bad that I slip into a deep depression. I hate going back home for the holidays because of how disappointed my mother looks when she reads my report card. I wish I hadn’t made them - my whole family - proud in the first place. It’s better to drink from a poisoned well all the days of your life than to have tasted the sweetness of pure spring water and know you may never taste it again.
Finally, it’s exam time. I am convinced that I’m the biggest imposter ever to walk the face of the earth. I’m in the exam room, face to face with Potential. The battle is brutal. I can’t see much past the fog of depression suffocating me. Two years of trying, two years of telling myself - and listening to people who have zero faith in me - that I wasn’t going to make it. It all comes crashing down.
There are no words for the depression I sink into. My mother doesn’t know what to do with me. She is afraid I might do something drastic, so she has her friends talk to me. The people that once looked at me with hope and admiration now avert their eyes and whisper when I pass by. Some make snide remarks when my mother is around. She prays. I cry.
So many options are thrown at me by people who know best. Just go to university and study IT or whatever they give you. You can always change course later. Do a nursing course, it pays well. Rewrite your A’Levels, you’ll do much better and then you can go to the university of your choice.
But I’m stubborn. I don’t want any of that. I move to the big city and work. First I’m a cashier at a fast-food joint. I use my salary to pay for SATs. I do very well on those, but I can’t get a scholarship because I flunked my A’Levels. Rewrite, they said. You can try again after.
All the while, Potential looks on. Still think you can be me? she asks.
I work at an innovation hub for over a year. All the while trying to get into college. I’m rejected a couple of times. I leave the hub and work at a digital marketing agency. I start to enjoy it. I’m afraid of applying to university again. Maybe I can make something of myself without a university education.
A dear friend of mine tells me to apply to this really cool school for creatives in Cape Town. He thinks I have a gift and he promises to help me every step of the way. So I try one more time.
“Finally!” I exclaim. I feel some sense of achievement and heck, I even feel like I can be somebody after all. I go looking for Potential. She has to know that I got the last laugh.
I find her sitting on a beanbag, legs crossed with a laptop open. She looks up at me.
“Congratulations,” she says, completely throwing me off. What game is she playing?
“You didn’t give up.”
“I had to give it one more try,” I finally say. Why is she being nice to me?
“You know, you’re starting to look like me, only, well, more dishevelled, and a little pimply. Lots of scars too-” Ah, the mean queen returns.
“Yeah okay, and your point is?”
“I’m so glad you find this funny.” Honestly, I’m beginning to loathe this chick.
“Look, it’s not me you’re fighting,” she says. Is that compassion I hear in her tone? The nerve!
“Really now?” I fire back, getting angrier with each syllable. “Last I checked, you were the one who started this fight. You kept growing, and changing and daring me to rise up to the challenge. You enjoyed every second I stumbled, watched on when I needed help. It’s you, damn it. You in all your perfection and excellence. Nobody can live up to you, certainly not me.”
She closes her laptop and saunters towards me. Ever so gently, she takes my hands and says, “Honey, it’s not me you’re fighting. It’s the Imposter Syndrome. I know, we look alike. But we’re not.”
I look up at her, stunned. She looks like me, only better. Much, much better. She’s everything I want, or at least everything I think I want. She can’t be mean, not when she’s me.
My bottom lip quivers.
“I’m so scared,” I whisper.
“I know, baby. I know. I’m sorry I scare you. But let me tell you a little secret. I only exist because you do. I am all you can be, and even then, you can be so much more than me. The Imposter Syndrome knows that, so she fights you. For her, this is it. Her existence relies on you too. When you think, when you dream, when you plan. You’re creating me. And wherever I am, the Imposter Syndrome is also there. It’s how you perceive this reality that will make or break you.”
At this point, my eyes are flooded with tears. Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. The tears fight for release but I keep them at bay with every fibre of my being. Dang it, why are you so sensitive? Get it together, you wuss!
As I inwardly chastise myself, I look at Potential again, only this time she appears to me laughing at me. That does it. I let the tears flow freely, feeling deflated by how easy it was for her to get to me again. I might as well ride this wave of emotions out right now, I reason. There’s no point holding it in when you can’t win. Then something weird happens. As soon as I make this realisation, Potential moves close and gives me a hug. I break away and rub my eyes, shocked and disgusted by this apparent manipulation.
“It’s how yourself that counts. Be kind to yourself, and I’ll be kind to you. If you’re mean to yourself, all you’ll see is the Imposter Syndrome.”
In a split second, my whole life flashes before my eyes. She - Potential - is right. I cry harder, but this time with a smile on my face. I move in for a hug. It’s the best hug I’ve ever felt.
Post Credit Scene
I’m in my room. It’s a cloudy Thursday afternoon. I write a whole story trying to explain the relationship between potential and the imposter syndrome. As I type, I realise that I will have to live with Potential and the Imposter Syndrome for the rest of my life. For as long as I keep achieving things, more will be expected of me. And I’ll never feel like I deserve any of it, but I’d be damned if I stopped trying.
To whom much is given, much tested. ~ Kanye West
18 May 2020