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.

Default image
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.


  1. Thanks for this glimpse into your new life. Sounds exhausting, but you have always packed your life with lots of work and fulfillment. Good for you!

    • Moving quickly is always exhausting, but I am working on realizing my dreams. It will all pay off in the end. Thank you for your support, as always, Ruth. I have always loved your positivity!

  2. So proud of you and all you have accomplished! IMUA! <3

    • Thank you, Suzi. None of this is fruitless; it will all pay off. This has been a fabulous new chapter in my life! <3

Leave a Reply