Want to be majorly bummed out? This is probably my most popular tweet of all time.
I’m not saying that specifically to brag (though, wow! Look at all those likes!), but because it should majorly bum you out that so many women you know and love are totally blind to their own amazingness.
And you probably are, too.
I don’t think I always felt this way. I was a little girl who wrote her own autobiography at age 10, because I felt like it might be important to future historians to have a chronicle of ’90s girlhood. I pitched and landed my own column in the local paper in sixth grade, and I prayed that there was such a thing as Permanent Record because it would show that I had a 3.9 GPA and had filled my life with extracurricular activities.
Sometime after my brash and fearless girlhood I became convinced that I was 100 percent inept, totally overrated by friends and family and completely unqualified for adult life in every way. And not just unqualified, by the way, but one meeting away from everyone around me finding out that I didn’t deserve a single good thing that had ever happened to me. "Hold on," colleagues and strangers would say, "are you…stupid? You are, aren’t you?? Turn in your computer and your badge and get the heck out of here, we’ll give your job to someone who is worth a damn. And your boyfriend, while we’re at it. Turn him in, too."
Sometime after my brash and fearless girlhood I became convinced that I was 100 percent inept, totally overrated by friends and family and completely unqualified for adult life in every way.
This had yet to happen, of course, but only because I’d been so convincingly playing the role of Professional Adult Woman With Educated and Worthwhile Opinions. Soon, the jig would be up. And when it was? Everyone would know that I did not hold the credentials to present this PowerPoint on discount haircut establishments in the Midwest.
This feeling stuck with me for job interviews where I routinely interviewed below my qualifications, salary negotiations where I nodded and accepted what was given to me like it was a personal gift and not an exchange for my intelligence and talent and work, and even relationships where I was clearly not dating to my full potential (ladies, you know exactly what I’m talking about).
And it evaporated the moment that my boyfriend got his brain cancer diagnosis. I had woken up a regular girl with a job and a hangover, and sometime during the day, my boyfriend had had a seizure that turned out to be a brain tumor that was the gnarliest form of brain cancer a body can possibly grow. I had never known a person with cancer. I had never been around a sick person in my life. I had no qualifications and no preparation for this life phase. And I’d also never been in love like this. My role was clear, and simple: to stand by this man, and figure it out together. We were married a month later. We had a baby the next year. And I didn’t doubt for a second that I’d done the right thing. Nobody could tell me how to do anything, but I never doubted for a second my credentials for this new role. Who but me could change a baby in a radiation waiting room? Or nurse a newborn while wiping brain surgery blood from his father’s head? Who could carry a grown man to the bathroom when his legs stopped working, or hold his hand as he died? Nobody, that’s who.
The moment Aaron died, that confidence was gone. I was unmoored, and adrift on that old familiar sea of uncertainty. Who was I without him to help me navigate the world? The answer, obviously, was that I was a big worthless dummy who was fucking up everything and didn’t deserve for anything good to happen to her ever again.
The blog I’d written during Aaron’s sickness had reached a certain level of Internet popularity. His obituary had gone viral. And I had signed a book deal to talk about love and loss and what it means to vow for better or worse, sickness or health to someone you know has been handed a death sentence.
It didn’t matter that one of the sharpest editors at one of the world’s best publishers believed in me. It didn’t matter that my agent did (or that I could even type "my agent"). It didn’t matter if my family thought I was the bee’s knees, or if bunch of strangers who read my blog and my Instagram captions and cheered me on through the worst years of my life said, "Cool! A book!" I knew the truth. I wasn’t an author. I was a garbage, talentless person, or even worse, a blogger, and everyone was going to find out. I’d write something people wouldn’t like, or even worse, that they wouldn’t care about. The most important personal moments of my life would be criticized by strangers on the Internet, and then I would probably die? Anxiety is a really easy train of thought to follow.
I’d dreamed of writing a book since I was a child, but not this book. Not a book where my husband and my father, the two men who encouraged me more than anyone else, were central characters lost too soon.
So I didn’t write the book.
I sat and stared at a cursor flashing on my screen. I sent my editor pages that she politely described as "a nice start that I could move on from." I curled up with my comforter made of self-doubt and waited for everyone to find out what a horribly unqualified phony I was.
After approximately three months of this, my sister invited me out for a Sister Date. My sister is also a notable female phony: the COO of a tech company, a lauded Twin Cities businesswoman, a mother of two, a board member on several nonprofits. A real sham of a person, as you can tell.
I let her pick the restaurant and the movie, and at 10 P.M. on a weeknight, we settled into the theater with a giant bucket of popcorn between us to take in the cinematic masterpiece that is Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck.
I laughed. I cried. I peed a little bit because I haven’t done enough kegels since my son was born three years ago. And something magical happened: the veil was lifted, just enough for me to see myself as clearly as I can see the successful, talented women around me. I was watching a very funny movie written and created by a woman my age. A woman who makes things and puts them into the world, for people to react to, to love her for and hate her for. Surely if she could make several seasons of a TV show, do standup and create a feature film, I could sit down at my laptop, stop taking Photo Booth selfies, and write my fucking book.
That night, high on Coca-Cola Classic, real popcorn butter, and giggle-related endorphins, I opened my laptop and wrote like I thought Amy would have. I was brave and funny and sad and real and I wasn’t worried about what Internet trolls would have to say about it.
I don’t know whether Amy Schumer has ever felt the way I do, but let’s say for a moment that she has. That would make her exactly like every one of my female friends who fielded my phone calls and texts and told me with certainty that I was wrong about myself. I collect accomplished, talented females like I used to collect Lisa Frank stickers, but they all assured me that if anyone was an undeserving dummy and complete imposter, it was them, not me. They’d somehow convinced the world that they were leading attorneys, successful businesswomen, talented writers, decent mothers. If anyone were about to be found out, it was them, not me. They knew, like I did, that all the compliments they got from people they knew and respected were falsehoods, and all the criticisms they’d received from strangers or from imaginary critics in their heads were 100 percent fact.
I collect accomplished, talented females like I used to collect Lisa Frank stickers, but they all assured me that if anyone was an undeserving dummy and complete imposter, it was them, not me.
I do my best to not feel like this anymore, but I’d be lying if I said my imposter syndrome wasn’t a chronic condition. The best cure I have for it, truly, is to admire the accomplishments of other women, and to see yourself in them. This sounds weird, but stick with me. I’m not saying, like, take credit for Beyoncé’s Lemonade! You basically wrote it! I’m saying that too often, the success of other humans, and for some reason women in particular, can feel like a personal loss, like the thing she did was something you failed to do. But maybe the thing she did is a thing you can do, and maybe that’s a better place to be mentally.
I saw Amy a few weeks ago. By that I mean I sat in the audience at the Minneapolis Target Center for her sold-out show, but I could definitely see her with my own two eyes, and at one point it felt like she was looking right at me/in my general direction. Because this is America and being stupid is not a crime, there were two people in the front row who apparently didn’t understand where they were or why a woman was allowed on stage to speak, and Amy shut them up and sent them packing, to the cheers of the entire audience. Because it wasn’t their show, it was hers.
I felt a swell of pride, like I was seeing a good friend standing up on stage, talking about thigh chafing and vaginal odor and telling stupid people to leave her presence. And in a way, I was. Because Amy did what any good friend would have done: She helped me see myself for who I am, and what I can do, no matter what other people say.
Thanks, Amy. Brunch Sunday?
Nora McInerny Purmort is the author of the forthcoming It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too). She is a contributing editor to ELLE.com.