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Great pretender

It was Friday night, and I found myself walking fast toward a class for which I was already 15 minutes late. On the way there I was repeatedly mumbling to myself, “What am I doing? This is all a mistake. I want to quit,” on shuffle repeat, with the occasional expletive thrown in. My colleagues were celebrating the end of the work week with beers; I was ending mine with a class called “Advanced Applied Multivariate Analysis.”

The traffic and the rain had not helped ease my self-pity. The regular 30-minute commute became 45 minutes of questioning my life decisions. A nagging voice told me: “You are a single male, and you are not supposed to be doing this.”

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But I kept walking, and I arrived in class thinking I was late. To my relief, the class hadn’t started yet. I had been particularly anxious to get to my classes on time, because I found that missing 10 minutes of lecture was almost tantamount to missing the first half of a movie: You miss the whole point.

So, great, I was not late. The professor arrived, and my fun Friday night began.

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It is not uncommon for my body to manifest stress in the form of upper back pain—what I surmise to be the weight of the world on my shoulders. I had it in college during hell weeks, and it usually went away after all the exams and papers were over. But in this night class, the pain in my upper back had been particularly persistent. I also realized that this back pain had been there for quite some time.

I jogged my memory to pinpoint when the pain started, and couldn’t remember a single event that could have served as a trigger. It could have begun when I received an unexpected promotion at work. I got the news late in April, a time when my final exams in grad school were drawing near and I had a major project that wasn’t working out very well. I wasn’t expecting to climb another rung on the ladder in the next one or two years because I felt that I couldn’t handle any more responsibility at work. I was swamped in school and I wasn’t willing to trade off the very little time I had for myself and my social life. I wasn’t ready for the role and I couldn’t see why my bosses thought otherwise.

Instead of being happy about the promotion, I felt deeply stressed.

In July, to foil my feelings of inadequacy at work, I accepted a high school classmate’s invitation to be a guest lecturer in her MBA class on research methods. I, being the wannabe college instructor, worked on a 20-minute lecture for almost a week.

Guest lectures usually begin with a student introducing the lecturer with a litany of the lecturer’s accomplishments. This wasn’t new to me, since in my previous part-time job as entrance exam teacher for grade school and high school students, it was common practice. I thought I’d handle it pretty well, but as my classmate went on talking about my work and school history, I couldn’t help but cringe at the thought of adults listening to what I have to say on a topic in which I’m not even sure I’m an expert. When she said, “Let’s welcome our guest lecturer…,” I knew it was too late to back out.

I mustered the will to put on a confident facade and got the lecture done. By the time the public speaking euphoria subsided, my upper back pain had made an appearance.

Came August and I began my third and last year in grad school. Both of the classes I took had the word “Advanced” in their titles. At first, it felt like the right thing to do. This was the last semester I’m taking coursework, so I might as well take on the big guys.

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It was Friday night, I was not late, and the professor was doing the lecture. By this time, I would have thought I would no longer be fazed by big words like “kernel density estimation” and “eigenvalues.” But truth be told, I’m rattled to the core every time I hear them because I don’t fully understand them. I looked around the room, and saw classmates nodding knowingly. I rested my head on the wall, feeling left out in a big inside joke.

I groped for my upper back, and it was tense and painful.

I couldn’t shake the thought that my backaches were manifestations of my fear of being exposed as a fraud at work and in school. There must have been a mistake in my promotion, perhaps a wrong perception of my abilities. My classmate must have had no other choice but to pick me as guest lecturer. The educational system must be so flawed that I’m passing all these courses in graduate-level statistics. I’m a fraud, and it’s only a matter of time before I’m found out.

It’s not the first time I had this prolonged bout of impostor syndrome. I had it when I was appointed class president and thought that I was picked because no one else was willing to take on the job. I had it when I started college and felt unworthy to be studying in the country’s best university. I had it when I first changed jobs and promised my new employer all the things I could contribute to the company. It has been a recurring theme in my life.

Psychologists say this is a fairly common feeling among achievers. Neurosurgeon Henry Marsh wrote: “Part of you knows you’re not as good as you’re pretending to be, but you have to come across as being relatively competent and confident.” In a speech addressing Harvard graduates, actress Natalie Portman admitted that 12 years and many accolades after graduation, she was still insecure about her own worthiness.

There is a measure of relief in knowing I’m not alone in this (and good company at that), but it doesn’t make the feeling of insecurity go away. To cope, I imagine that other people are just pretending, too, winging their way in their jobs, taking advantage of a glitch in the system. When I see a world of pretenders, I don’t feel as weighed down by my never-ending fraud.

Mark Anthony P. Pascual, 25, is a researcher. He studied psychology and is studying applied statistics at the University of the Philippines in Diliman.

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