Do You Ever Feel Like an Impostor in Your Life?

Existential discomfort results from not making authentic life choices.

Posted Dec 27, 2018

PexSnap, CC0 license
Source: PexSnap, CC0 license

Much has been written about impostor syndrome, the all-too-common feeling that you don’t belong in your job, position, or profession, leading to feelings of inadequacy and fears that “it’s only a matter of time” before everyone else realizes it (or they already do, and they’re just being kind).

But there is another type of impostor syndrome: the feeling that you are not living your own life, but rather someone else’s, or someone else’s idea of what your life should be. In existentialist terms, you are being inauthentic, choosing to walk someone else’s path, or the path someone else chose for you, instead of your own. This type of impostor syndrome also leads to feelings of inadequacy, because just like a job you don’t feel qualified for, the more you feel you don’t belong in your life, the easier it is to feel inadequate within it. This all contributes to a feeling of not belonging where you are — not only because you feel you can’t live up to (what you think are) others’ expectations of you, but because you’re not living the life you really wanted to in the first place.

I call this feeling existential discomfort, and I think about it a lot, given my perpetual state of uncertainty regarding the path of my own life (as reflected in many end-of-the-year posts here, such as this one from last year). I've also realized recently that many of the paths I've followed in my life, especially regarding my job or career, were not deliberate choices, but rather resulted from following what seemed to be the obvious path. (This relates to my three posts last year — here, here, and here — about defining success on your terms, as well as this one on the concept of "career" and what I say I "do.")

It isn’t that I was forced into the paths I took, but rather that I didn’t reflect enough on them before taking them to make sure they were what I really wanted to do, rather than what seemed like a decent option at the time. This method of decision-making, similar to satisficing, is fine when picking what to eat for lunch or which movie to see, but not for making huge, pivotal life decisions, such as career choices. In fact, I never thought about what I wanted to do — indeed, I don't remember ever wanting to do anything in particular — so instead I just did what came naturally. Things turned out fairly well in material terms (which I do not minimize), but I've never stopped wondering if I'm doing what suits me best (because I'm definitely not comfortable with where I am now).

Existential discomfort can lead not only to discontentment or unhappiness, but also to a profound feeling of disconnectedness with your life. If there are certain aspects of your life you didn't choose consciously and reflectively, they might not feel like "yours," and you might not take full "ownership" of them. You might too easily accept the definitions of success common in those aspects of your life, rather than ones you choose for yourself, and as a result, they may not mean as much even when you fulfill them. Put simply, life may not be as satisfying as it could be if you were living a life you chose authentically for yourself, true to your desires and values, rather than what "seemed right at the time."

If you feel like this, you still have a chance to make things better, to correct your course and start to align your life with what you want to do. Examine your past choices — don't dwell on them or collapse into rumination, but accept them, try to determine which ones were not made authentically, and do what you can to fix them. But you can't do any of that until you can figure out what you want to do with your life . . . as always, that is the most difficult part.

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