The Impostor Syndrome

For most of my life I have lived in Hawaii: on a small island with even smaller towns. I had no exposure to the world, let alone the rest of the United States. My only real experience out of Hawaii was visiting my uncle in California, and I was only eight or so; I don’t really remember it much (I know we went to Disneyland — I rode the teacups — and an air show). I barely even knew the other islands in Hawaii. But there I was, 17 years old and a worldly neophyte, planning to attend Harvard University.

The environmental shock was already overwhelming, but there was the added stress of cultural change. The change hit everyone; many people who came to Harvard were used to being the top dog at home. Losing that meant losing a part of your identity, and there were many on-campus centers to help students deal with it. In my eyes, most of them certainly didn’t seem to show it, though. I never identified myself as an intelligent person; I mostly defined who I was by the people I kept in my life. This was also how I gauged my self-worth. Being far away from all the people who defined me was pretty devastating. I never felt like I belonged with the intellectuals. I also felt inadequate because of the amazing talent and skill all of my peers had in addition to being stellar academically. This led to my largest problem, “The Impostor Syndrome”, created from my immense feelings of inadequacy.

Throughout my life, I have had strong feelings of inadequacy. I would believe that everything I was given was due to luck or some great external power. I was merely an impostor; I was pretending to be something that I’m not. Therefore, I was always deathly afraid that someone would discover that I didn’t deserve these gifts and would take them away. Moreover, I was afraid to want them because of the pain and sadness I was expecting to feel when it was all eventually taken away. So I constantly had the mindset that my life as I knew it was only temporary. This syndrome had a number of symptoms.

It’s forced me to have low self-esteem. I don’t categorize myself in the same league as the people around me. I think very highly of the abilities, traits, and skills of others while regarding myself as having none of those talents. And even in the things I do with my life, I consider others to have near-perfect skill, while my abilities are weak or flawed in some way. Thus, I am always striving to get better, in the hopes that one day I can consider myself an equal.

It’s forced me to try really hard. I am always trying and giving more than 100%. Some of it is passion, but much of it is me trying to prove my worth. Because I lack self-worth, I am always wanting to show the world that I do have value. Show that there are things that I can do. Show that I have something important to give. So everything I do is done with every fibre of my being. I fear that if I give any less, I will fail.

It’s forced me to keep busy. Rather than my imagined level of insignificance stopping me from taking action, it actually forces to stay preoccupied. I keep myself active, so I don’t have time to reflect on my life. Because I am by nature an introverted person, I am inclined toward reflection. By always having some goal, I can live my life like a to-do list, and never have to involve myself in processing the emotions I am feeling. I fill my mind with thoughts to tune out the feelings of inadequacy and frustration with my failures.

It’s forced me to hide. This is probably one of the most interesting results. I know I have a passion for theatre, but I also know that I use it to hide. I enjoy living the lives of other characters and delving into their personas, because it allows me to escape from my own life. I exaggerate because I feel that it covers reality even more. The more “real” I am on stage, the more I fear there is a part of me on stage. There is even enjoyment in living as characters that have terrible experiences and great sadness, because I know that it is still not my life. I think there might be a tiny part of me that hopes one day I will discover a character that might help me deal with my own problems…but who knows?

It’s forced me to be lukewarm. I play it safe. I don’t take wild risks, because I prefer knowing the results. I don’t like when there are a large amount of variables, because there are more opportunities for failure. I think it’s important to be safe when your physical well-being is at stake, but as a performer it means that I rarely stray from the expected. I go for punch lines and comedy because I think it’s easier to make people laugh than make them cry. But nothing I do pushes boundaries, because I believe that it keeps me safe from failure.

It’s forced me to rush through life. The quicker I take myself out of the spotlight, the smaller the chance for failure. There is a voice in my head that tells me I don’t belong on the stage. And as such, I rush through my moments, rather than enjoying them like others do. I feel bad taking up people’s time, so I end up speeding through it. Part of it is also believing that people will think I’m egotistical.

So here I am, feeling stuck. Because of this internal conflict, I have painted myself into a corner. But this world I have devised, one where I have been strong-armed into submission by a greater force, is an illusion. The reality is that I have created this “prison” through decision-making geared toward avoidance. There are many others out there who have imprisoned themselves. There are people who have reacted differently to the same stimuli. We are all human, and we are all seeking acceptance and validation. We are all searching for our purpose and reason for being here. So remind yourself, just as I will start to do, that we are all more alike inside than we might think. The biggest conflict of all, being human, unites us.

I know I have to deal with this syndrome in order to become a better performer. As I said in my earlier post about conflict (The Conflict Quandary), what I need to do is make decisions and take action. I need to make strong choices. The first step is changing my mentality about myself as well as how I think others perceive me. This is not going to be an easy road; old habits are hard to break. But I have faith that by doing this I will create possibilities in my performances and these will undoubtedly spill into my own life. By discarding the limitations I have set upon myself, I will be able to grow even more and truly live.

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Pedro
Pedro Ka'awaloa has a BA in Music from Harvard University. He is a professional performer and music director, as well as a choir conductor, pianist, musician, teacher, and composer. Pedro is also a fitness and mindfulness enthusiast.

16 Comments

  1. I’m surprised by this revelation, Pedro.

    It seems that the big picture always finds a way. Your insecurity has kept you striving.

    My perspective comes from seeing just how conditional the love of my family was. This very conditional love warped my sense of security. It convinced me that life was not safe, so there was no sense trying to stay safe. It caused me to push every boundary. I’m convinced that if love is conditional, it isn’t valuable.

    Your inability to feel your feelings has driven you, but to say you were “forced” is not accurate. Give yourself some credit. You pushed forward despite these feelings, not because you were forced by them.

    It seems the only obstacle to Joy in your life is your separation from your feelings. Emotions are magnetic energy. They are intended to pass through your electrical field. If you don’t allow them expression you hold them within, obstructing your life force. Allow all of your feelings and you’ll see that they are what’s missing.

    What if life is FOR you? What if all you need do is ALLOW? Perhaps being painted into a corner is all an illusion. You only have this moment. All your confusion comes from anticipating an outcome. Leave the outcomes to take care of themselves. Revel in this moment and enjoy every second. The obstacles will vanish.

    Many blessings,
    Carrie

    • Thank you for your great comments, Carrie! I’m glad you noticed the wording. I personified these emotions I was feeling as a condition that one could suffer from. It’s easy to vilify the decisions I’ve made and blame them on an external force, but it was simply that I chose that course as a response to the emotions I was feeling. I took action that I felt would grant me comfort, but didn’t. So now I realize that I need to make new decisions. That may not have come across in my writing.

      Yes, acknowledging these emotions and reevaluating my life through them is definitely going to help me move forward from this point. I agree that allowing myself to experience positive energy will do a lot as well.

      I have another post in the works about this too. I’ve been separating them all into different posts, otherwise my thoughts would be one gigantic jumble!

      Mahalo,
      Pedro

  2. Christine Osterwalder
    Christine Osterwalder

    This was so beautifully written, Pedro, and shows clarity, vulnerability, hope, and desire. Thank you for touching nerves for all of all and helping all of us to question how and what we do. Life is a great adventure. I am so thrilled that you are pursuing your dreams!

    • Thank you, Christine, for your compliments. If I can help others on a path of self-discovery, I am even happier. Life is the greatest adventure, but we don’t do it alone. Our adventures are all intertwined, and I look forward to sharing mine with others. We spend a lot of time guarded and masked. I used to be okay with it, but it’s no way to be. We will never truly live until we open up and realize that we all go through the same things.

      I am thrilled to be here pursuing my dreams too. Thank you for your support, as always! 🙂

  3. I love that you used The Jester picture for this. You are talented. I have known it for years. Now others get to find out. You are as talented as any of them and, if you asked, you would find that they are probably just as insecure as you.

    I am so proud of the journey you are on. IMUA

    • This picture seemed especially appropriate. Thank you, as always, for your support. You are absolutely right, too. It easy to get caught up in our own perceptions of reality, but that means that others are just as likely to do the same. I am trying to remind myself of that every day. The outside picture isn’t always accurate, so we need to be open and communicate. Acknowledging the common struggle brings us together.
      I am proud of myself for taking this leap also. 🙂 What is life without adventure? <3

  4. Pej,
    It’s amazing that you post this.. Brave. I feel those same things as well…and it’s overbearing. You are definitely not alone. But the thing is… You’re already fighting through it. You’re performing professionally in New York! All your hard work and commitment will pay off.. Already is paying off. I’m so proud of you… Keep doing what you’re doing…striving to be the best version of yourself. Takes a lot of work… But it’ll be worth it in the end. Hug!

    • Thanks, Cristina. I know… It was a bold move to post this, but I’m so glad I did. It really helped me deal with these emotions, and of course it is comforting to know that others have the same thoughts.
      Thank you for your words of support. You are a beautifully talented person, and know that I am behind you all the way. Don’t let them get you down! I’m proud of you too. 🙂

      Hugs,
      Ped

  5. Well said. I’ve felt this way since before you were born, my friend. You are not alone, but you are far more extraordinary than you know.

    • Thank you, Walter. I’m sorry that you have felt this way also; it can be quite crippling. But because you believe in me and I believe in you, we can strive for the stars together. It has been a pleasure working with you and getting to know you, and I look forward to reconnecting in the future.

  6. Pedro,
    I shared your post with Father George and Joe Camacho (because they don’t do FB) and our shared response was “wow”. This is an amazingly mature insight. Realizing that your future is laid out by the decisions you make today really wakes you up to making the best possible decisions in this moment.

    From my own experience, I can say to you, “Let go of the self doubt, insecurity and negative thoughts. The word Abbracadabra is Hebrew and it means, ‘I create what I say.’ The greatest act of creation begins by stating your desire: I (the self) want (desire spoken) to be ________(fill in the blank, this is the object of creation/transformation). Always state this transformative statement in the positive. You will be amazed at the doors that continuously open. The converse of this is that negative statements are self fulfilling prophecies.

    We wish you every success and every opportunity to continue learning along your path. Aloha nui loa!

    • Thanks, Jonathan, for the comment. We as humans have that unique ability to imagine what the results of something will be, but it is easy for us to focus on the negative possibilities and let it paralyze us. I have been working on the law of attraction, just as you suggested. Intent carries more power than we think we do, and it can carry us in both directions.

      Aloha to you too, and I hope all is well with you at home.

  7. Great blog Pedro!! I think a lot of creative people and performers go through this same sort of thing – you are not alone. Very cool to hear about all you’re doing and your experiences. Be persistent and go for your dreams! 🙂

    • Thank you, Jasmine! Yes, I agree with you. Everyone want to be accepted and liked by those they care about, but when your passion is something so personal and subjective, it’s hard not to become focused on the reception of your work by others. This can cause great fear and great lack of self-worth. It’s a challenge, but we can overcome it!
      Thank you for your support. I’m definitely enjoying this phase of my life. I hope all is well with you as well. 🙂

  8. Aloha! I’m from Hilo and will be in the city this week. Will you be performing any where? Pls lmk Mahalo

    • Hi Bev! I am in South Pacific which performs at Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford, which is north of Manhattan. If you think you can get up there, you can buy tickets on their website or over the phone!

      ~Pedro

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