“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’...You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn by Living
“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” ~T.S. Eliot
You could say my entire adult life has involved a series of pushing myself into situations for which I felt ill-equipped, or if well-equipped, at least an outsider. I am sure many of us feel this way. Adulthood demands so much of us: so much bravery and discomfort. I speak to so many friends who confess to wrestling with “impostor syndrome.” As I reflect on Eleanor Roosevelt’s words, I am filled with gratitude for the way I have been given the strength and inspiration, throughout my adulthood, to push through fears of inadequacy and of failure to be in the joyful, fulfilled place I am today.
I have called upon several mottoes and quotations to catapult me out of my reservations and insecurities into living a life I have felt called to live. I share some of them here in case they can encourage any of my readers. The quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt above is one. But the motto that first encouraged me to move beyond reservations came to me, as a teenager, through a classic film. Many people from my generation are familiar with the film, “Dead Poets Society.” Watching it as a teen, I fully took on board the message, “Carpe Diem,” Latin for “seize the day.” One of the film’s central characters, Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, exhorts his students with this statement, imploring that they make the most of their talents and their lives. I wonder how many other viewers have been “taught” this approach to life by Mr. Keating. I reminded myself of it when I didn’t think I was suitable for Gordon College’s study abroad year at Oxford University. When I considered the other students who were applying for the program, I considered myself wanting. While my parents were both intelligent and hard-working and gave me many privileges such as dance and piano lessons, ours was not a house where intense, intellectual conversation was standard around the dinner table. I suspected that, for many of the other candidates for the program, intellectual conversation was more like a native tongue. Many were the children of teachers or professors, and they spoke fluently in academic speak. Imposter syndrome threatened to derail any earnest attempt to apply or to move forward with my entry into the program once accepted. My family believed in me and well, so did Mr. Keating. I encouraged myself to “seize the day,” and I went for it. That year was utterly transformational. It is hard to imagine what my life would be like today were it not for that seminal experience.
Sometime between that Oxford year and my application to graduate programs, I encountered this one line by Austrian novelist, dramatist, and poet, Hugo von Hofmannsthal: “The burden of those endlessly poured-over and now forever perished possibilities.” That clause gripped me. I had to write it down, and I have returned to it over and over in my adult life to remind myself never to let possibilities perish out of fear or hesitation. I urgently aim to avoid the “burden” of unrealized possibilities. I have not employed this mindset perfectly, by any means. I have resisted pursuing certain opportunities and delayed action, deeming myself not up to the standards required or considering something “out of my league.” I have feared getting in “over my head,” and that has stalled me from time to time. But I am grateful that, more regularly, I have enacted Roosevelt’s policy of “look[ing] fear in the face” and have just gone for it, whatever “it” was at that time. It was the combination of “seize the day” and Hofmannsthal’s words that helped me find the courage to apply for a graduate program in England, this time setting off completely on my own in the U.K., without the support of a US-based study abroad program and other US students for peers. Without that Masters program experience at The University of York, I would not have made several, precious friendships that continue to nurture me to this day, and I would not have met my husband.
In my early twenties, I discovered the dreamy, contemplative band, Innocence Mission, and I fell in love with their song “The Lakes of Canada.” The chorus influenced me particularly:
“O, laugh man, what have you won?
Don’t tell me what cannot be done.
My little mouth, my winter lungs.
Don’t tell me what cannot be done.”
Sometimes this reminded me not to tell myself what could not be done. Roosevelt urges us to “do the thing [we] think [we] cannot do,” and I wanted to make sure I didn’t listen to my own inner critic telling me I could not do certain things. Other times, I used this chorus to help me resist the temptation to worry over what others might think of my fitness for an experience or a job. It came in handy when a librarian I worked with at Berwick Public Library insisted I should apply to Berwick Academy for a position there, saying she felt I belonged there. Never having attended an independent school, and feeling rather down on myself for my time spent out of the workforce raising our young daughters, I didn’t think it likely that the school would want me. I worried that I might embarrass myself by applying. What would the administration and teachers who met me think if they found me to be wanting? But this Innocence Mission chorus and earlier mottoes had already become part of my psyche, and it didn’t take much, along with a good dose of prayer, to get me to pursue the opportunity.
More recently, I encountered the T.S. Eliot quotation, “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” While I don’t feel it’s necessary or helpful to be in over one’s head in every situation, constantly pushing oneself to the max and recognizing no limits, I think the sentiment is valuable. Often we only learn what we are truly capable of under pressure. Frequently we find, when we are stretched almost to our breaking point, that we have far greater grit, resilience and strength available to us than we originally thought. We often surprise ourselves. If I had been unwilling to get in over my head by attending the Oxford program or pursuing a Masters degree in England or applying for a position at a school very different from my own experience, I would not have learned what I was capable of accomplishing. If I had declined the opportunity to work at Berwick Academy when I was told I would need to enroll in a Masters of Library Science program to maintain the position, I would not have discovered that, with a great deal of reliance upon God and the support of some incredible family members, I was able to do it and to learn immensely, winding up very glad to have done it. Those five years of juggling full-time work, part-time graduate study, and raising two young girls were extremely difficult, and a lot of that time is unfortunately a blur. Nevertheless, I got through it, and I now sit back amazed, reflecting on all that I managed to persevere through: not on my own strength, but on the strength of my faith and with steadfast support from family and friends. I now know I have a wonderful village, prepared to help me, and I have deep resources I can draw upon to get me through some very stressful and challenging times.
Preacher and author Joyce Meyer likes to tell people, “do it afraid.” Do the thing you fear, even while you’re afraid to do it. Sometimes that is the only way to get to where you are called to go. We have to go through it, but we can go through it knowing we are not alone. We can call upon our Higher Power and upon our support system. We can utilize the wisdom passed down from others, such as Teddy Roosevelt’s suggestion, “When you are asked if you can do a job, tell 'em, 'Certainly I can!' Then get busy and find out how to do it.” It can be anxiety-producing to sign yourself up for something that you’re not sure you’re up to doing, something you don’t know if you’re fully ready for, or whether you have enough knowledge and a strong enough skill base to support you. But we are all capable of growing and learning along the way. We can “do it afraid.” It’s amazing what can be accomplished with this approach. This is how we find out “how tall we are.”
Lastly, for all those who struggle with “impostor syndrome,” I offer you the statement widely attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Try though they may, no one seems to be able to directly trace this exact wording back to Eleanor, but a very similar sentiment was conveyed in a comment she made regarding a potential snub. Whether or not Eleanor Roosevelt said these exact words is of small consequence. You can’t go wrong with a mindset that determines not to allow oneself to be made to feel beneath or inferior, under any circumstances. Others may determine to make us feel this way or to make us believe we are impostors, but the power remains with us whether or not we allow them. We also have power over whether we allow an ongoing internal dialogue that speaks words of inferiority and inadequacy to us or whether we use life-infusing, hopeful words that spur us on to all that is best for us. Whether it is negotiating at work, moving to a new location, confronting a friend of family member, or seeking forgiveness from someone you hurt in years past, whatever the thing is that is causing you fear and hesitation, you can spur yourself on with the right words which create the right mindset.
What is a horror you have lived through? Let your knowledge of your resilience and the way you were given the strength to see it through settle in for a bit. Give some space to reflect upon that. If you made it through that, will you not surely make it through what faces you today? What is the thing that, right now, you are thinking you cannot do, though there is a cry within you to do it, perhaps even a deep need? You must do that thing. What steps can you take today and this week to make a start? Don’t wait.