October 1, 2016

when the fear creeps in

You know the hip hop trio Naughty by Nature? Well, I'm essentially "Nervous by Nature." I have never been diagnosed with anxiety or depression, but being a counselor, I've experienced enough to know that I definitely struggle from situational anxiety. While most people have a healthy level of anxiety and fear (from an evolutionary standpoint, these things are what can keep people alive), I know that my levels of fear and anxiety tend to go a little above and beyond what is normal and healthy. Need an example? In my senior year of high school, we had to do a fifteen minute presentation in front of a handful of teachers, community members, & district personnel. I thought about crashing my car on the way over to get out of it. I was so nervous for it that I thought I would walk in there and vomit all over. It went fine and I was able to graduate high school (I know, I know, you were really wondering how this story ended!) but the fact of the matter is, that level of fear and anxiety wasn't isolated. It happened whenever there was something big going on and I've realized that it originates from one common place: a fear of being exposed.

When I finished my degree in March, I knew that eventually, if I stayed in Idaho, I'd need to pursue licensure. That meant spending $300 dollars ($70 application fee, $230 test fee) and taking a really big test to determine whether or not I'd receive my license. For a lot of positions, you don't have to be licensed, but for what I want to do and where I see myself going in the future, I'd need it. As soon as I started to think about taking such a big test, I started to feel sick. Eminem stated it well, "His  palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy. There's vomit on his sweater already, mom's spaghetti."If I were to rewrite that to fit my situation better it would read: Her palms are incredibly sweaty, like an abnormal amount, knees weak, arms are heavy and armpits are tingling in a very uncomfortable way. There's vomit on her sweater already, Los Betos taquitos." TMI? Sorry not sorry. I had resigned myself to failing the test before I even took it. I have becoming very good at convincing myself that I don't deserve to be where I'm at. I struggle heavily with Imposter Syndrome. It's this terrible, horrible thing that means I have this persisting fear of being deemed a fraud. I sort of live my life waiting for someone to discover that I don't deserve any of the things I've accomplished, that somehow, I've been handed everything in my life without me really knowing. That's absurd, right? Well, not to me. Over the past five years or so it's gotten increasingly worse and every time there's something big at stake, I convince myself that I'm undeserving to accomplish it and that if I do, it's a fluke. Getting my job at the university? Handed to me. Getting into a competitive masters program? Only because I worked at the university. Being inducted into the honor society? Easy program, not a real accomplishment. Current job offer? Because they'd rather hire me than interview people. Ya'll, give me anything at all and I will explain the heck out of it until it has nothing to do with me working hard and everything to do with me pulling the wool over everyone's eyes. It's almost as if I've been living in fear of being asked "who do you think you are?" and not having an answer for it.

When I was preparing to take the test, I convinced myself that this would be the thing to expose me. I wouldn't be able to pass it. No amount of studying would prepare me. I shouldn't be where I'm at and this would be the thing that would let it all come crashing down, my perfectly crafted insanely unreal reality. Every time I cracked open the study material, I would feel sick and as the test approached, the anxiety and fear I had sort of overtook me. My original plan was to take the test without telling anyone so that I could fail, retake it, and no one would be able to know that I was a failure. I prepared for this test alone and avoided all concrete questions of when the date was. I had to tell a coworker when I was taking it about a week before the test and it made everything more real. I couldn't focus, I wasn't sleeping well, I was either not really eating or eating really unhealthy food (talk about unhealthy coping mechanisms), and felt wildly unsteady. I started to tell a few people when I was going to take the test because it seemed like maybe I needed to share the burden. If I failed, I would have supporters and if I passed, I would have celebrators. I went out to brunch a week before the test with a group of my dearest girlfriends and after telling them about they test, they reassured me that not only did they believe in me, but they would stand beside me regardless of what the results were. They were confident in my abilities when I had convinced myself that I had no abilities to believe in. There are so many people who had been incredibly supportive of me the week leading up to the test: people who helped me prepare (thank you forever Roberto), people who brought me chocolate and talked to me on the phone while I avoided a nervous breakdown (Lacey gets a gold medal for being the best friend of all time), and people who committed to praying for me and spoke reassuring words (it's a great spot to be when your pastor is also your friend).

Panic attacks are a doozy and I've had maybe one or two in my life, but felt as though I was on the verge of one the entire day before the test. I tried to study, tried to relax, tried to focus my breathing and engage in other healthy self care methods, but I just couldn't seem to find that space of peace and calm. At one point, I walked to the bathroom and started weeping. I was overcome with the fear of failing. I didn't want anyone to believe that I was an imposter, didn't want anyone to think that I was stupid, and didn't want to feel incompetent. I looked at myself in the mirror and very affectionately said, "Get your shit together, Novello." Nothing like a good, 'ol fashioned pep talk to make things better.

I showed up to the testing center on Friday morning an hour early. I didn't bring any study material but found myself googling the difference between Schizoid, Schizotypal, and Schizoaffective. I took a practice test and struggled with understanding the questions and audibly said, "You are going to fail this thing, you have no idea what any of this means." Have you gathered that I'm incredibly gracious and gentle with myself? I took the test and passed. Not just passed, but passed well and as soon as I get a little piece of paper, will be able to add another letter behind my name. When I pressed submit and saw my results, I was overcome by relief and started to get weepy. Weepiness is my spiritual gift. While I wish the story ended at, "Jess passed and never doubted her abilities again and her sense of self sky rocketed after proving to herself that she really CAN do it," it obviously doesn't. I'm relieved to have passed and I know that the reason I passed was because I have been preparing for this test for years. I've been in direct client contact for almost two years and I do know what I'm talking about. I'm a competent social worker who works hard at what she does. Deep down, I know these things to be true, but somehow, I always let the fear of failing and being exposed take over. I started seeing a counselor (thought that it was time to practice what I preach) a few months ago as these bigger transitions started happening in my life. I wanted someone to talk it through that I paid, had to be objective, and would hold me accountable to my irrational thinking. She has been really helpful in calling me out when I fall into these negative, harmful ways of thinking. She stops and forces me to examine what I've just said. She's the worst and I hate her but I'm beyond grateful for how she's helping me grow.

What I'm learning right now, more than anything, is to be gentle and gracious with myself. I left myself a note in my desk before leaving work on Thursday that would remind me on Monday that passing or failing that test doesn't change my inherent worth. On Thursday they just seemed like words that I wrote down to try and find some peace, but deep down, I know that they are true. I wish I could tie this story up with a bow and have some lovely resolution that makes everything seem perfect and wonderful. Unfortunately, I don't. I'm a work in progress and I'm learning that it's okay to be that. I'm slowly but surely working through this whole Imposter Syndrome and self worth thing. If you find yourself feeling this way too, just know that you're not alone. We're going to be alright, we're going to make it.

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