When my husband was pondering whether he wanted to earn a graduate degree in math, we asked one of his math professors for his perspective. He invited us to have dinner with his family, and we came bursting with questions:
How do you know if you’re prepared? What is the workload? How will you know if you’re doing enough? How difficult is it?
Over steaming bowls of beef stew, the professor told us about the Imposter Syndrome. In his experience, he explained, he felt like he was the one struggling to keep up while everybody else knew exactly what to do. Initially, he presumed that he was the only person in his grad program who found the waters of upper-level math a little too deep. He was the only one making it up as he went along—or so he thought.
Of course, that wasn’t actually the case. Almost everybody feels the Imposter Syndrome in graduate school, the professor explained. He advised my husband not to worry if he felt inadequate. It’s new and challenging for everyone.
I remembered feeling the Imposter Syndrome myself when I declared my major as a freshman in college. I had only written one English term paper, so it seemed presumptuous to proclaim that I was capable of an English major. I had no idea what I was doing! Sure, I loved literature and thinking about books, but wasn’t it absurd to imagine that I could analyze Shakespeare or Milton? I was petrified that the registrar or the department head—who both gravely inspected my declaration card—would tell me, “I’m sorry, but you’re not qualified.”
Join the Imposter Club
I got over feeling like an imposter English major after a few semesters, and fortunately I can avoid the Imposter Syndrome of math grad students. Lately, though, I have found a still more significant Imposter Syndrome: adulthood.
Secretly I think, “Someday soon someone will say, ‘She’s not really a grownup! She’s just pretending!’”
This isn’t because my parents neglected to prepare me for life. My mom began teaching me how to cook when I was eleven years old. My dad scrupulously instructed me in car maintenance. Unfortunately for him, while my mind readily recalls the fine plot details of a book that I loved when I read it five years ago, it fails to retain car information. I recall asking him, “So, how do you check the tire pressure?” after he had shown me at least twice.
Even if I could tune my own car engine, it’s just the plain and simple truth that I have never experienced being a grownup and living independently. (College doesn’t count. You know it doesn’t.) I marvel at all the people I encounter who effortlessly adapt to adulthood. How do they know how to do it?
I’m guessing—taking heart from the professor’s avowal that he wasn’t the only one feeling like an imposter in his grad program—that I’m not the only one making up adulthood as I go along either. So I have a few tips, for everyone from recent college graduates dispatched into the real world, to high school graduates headed straight to full-time work.
Embrace Responsibility; Resist Perfectionism
No longer will your mom scrutinize your room—but that’s not an excuse to act like a slob. That may have been okay in college, but you’re a grown-up now (albeit an imposter one). Don’t assume that just because you’ve never done something before, you have to do it poorly. Take the extra time to call all of the trash pickup companies in your area to get the best price.
Actively and eagerly seek out the fulfillment of your duties, including tending to your home and serving others. Peter instructs us in 1 Peter 4:9: “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” As adults, we need to try to make our spaces welcome and inviting. This doesn’t mean you have to be impeccably neat. My husband is messier than I am, but we’re both devoted to making sure the trash doesn’t overflow and that the kitchen is tidy.
Is making five homemade meals a week too challenging? Or is it impossible to fit cleaning the bathroom once a week into your schedule? That’s okay. Remember, we’re imposters here—not seasoned grownups who already know everything about maintaining a house. Don’t worry if you’re not doing it perfectly. You will have to learn as you go.
Cultivate an In-Between Stage
Most imposters need some time for trial and error. My husband and I were fortunate enough to spend our last semester in college with a perfect balance of adult responsibilities and carefree college student perks. We had to mow the lawn, take out the trash, keep the kitchen clean, and so forth at the house we were renting, but we were still sustained by some cafeteria food, free printing, parental monetary assistance, lots of events with snacks, reminder emails from the college telling us about important deadlines, and no utility bills (due to our generous landlords).
This interim period taught me that the main area I needed to work on for post-graduation life was staying on top of our food supply. Meal-planning is hard, folks! Especially if you like cooking from scratch and eating cheaply and using recipes. Because of my in-between stage, I have already improved at the tedious processing of making grocery lists and shopping.
If you’re still in college, relish the in-adulthood-but-not-of-it atmosphere. Try to think about the tasks that will challenge you after graduation, and maybe get a little practice in.
Ask for Help
Embrace your imposter-hood. Don’t be embarrassed by it, or pretend that you have it all figured out. You may have to fool the rest of the world that you are an adult when you go to the grocery store or pay your utility bill, but trust some people enough to let down the façade.
I do make an effort to try to figure things out on my own (How did new adults do it before Google?), but I know that I have resources only a phone call away. Sometimes calling them is just more efficient than the welter of ambiguous information on the Internet.
For instance: “Mom, the Internet disagrees about whether x ingredient is a good substitute for y ingredient. What do you do?”
There is no shame in saying to your mom or dad, “How do I do this?” You’re not turning in your grownup card when you do.
Balance Work and Play
Even with good resources, being a grownup wears you down. Maybe we feel like imposters in part because we loved being children and never wanted to grow up.
Don’t try to fake it all the time, especially if you don’t want to. I’m grateful to have a husband who celebrated with me when I turned our owl-shaped salt shaker to face his buddy, the owl-shaped pepper shaker, and crowed, “Look, they’re having a conversation!”
Still, you won’t always enjoy respites. Sometimes you just can’t tie being a grownup into some lofty ideal of responsibility or pretend you’re a kid again. Sometimes, you just have to make yourself do it.
For example, I hate talking on the phone to strangers. There’s no solution to this, except for dialing the number and having a conversation.
Part of adulthood is just doing what you have to do even when you really don’t want to do it.
Suffer Now Instead of Later
“Suffer now so you don’t have to later.”
One of my good friends from college likes to repeat this aphorism, and my husband and I have applied it to our financial decisions.
Don’t become more of an imposter than you are by acting like an established grownup. Being frugal for a few years while you’re building a foundation is important for pretty much anyone. Learn how to budget, how to save up, how to give, and in general how to manage money.
You may feel like you have neither the lifestyle nor the self-assured appearance of other twenty-somethings, but don’t let this bother you. Prioritize for the long-term.
I look like I’m fourteen years old, or maybe sixteen if I’m feeling charitable. I don’t wear much makeup, and I don’t have a particularly stylish wardrobe. I have clothes I’ve worn since I was twelve or thirteen years old.
Adulthood isn’t about looking a certain part or reaching a certain age. It’s more than earning a paycheck and paying the bills. As adults, we take primary responsibility for meeting our own needs and wants. Adulthood means accepting and fulfilling certain duties, like putting food on the table, taking care of your house, and making financially responsible decisions.
Being a grownup, I tell myself, is about fulfilling my duties. In doing so, I can be a real adult, even if I don’t feel like one.
It Never Ends
Unfortunately, once you have conquered the Imposter Syndrome for adults, you may realize that you’re an imposter at something else.
One of my mentors once told me a parenting story that she found helpful when she became a mother:
A child starts complaining about the way his parent is handling a situation. The parent calmly looks at the child and says, “You know, this is the first time I’ve tried this.”
Maybe we’re all imposters, just making it up as we go along. We may as well embrace it.