Imposter Syndrome, and What It Means to Be an Adult

“I don’t feel like an adult.”

Perhaps that or any of the following statements sound familiar to you: “My adult life looks nothing like I thought it would. I thought I’d have it a lot more together by now. I thought by now I’d be finished with school, or have a stable job, or be married and have kids. Sure, I’m doing (insert list of awesome, inspiring, difficult things) but I can’t balance my checkbook/ I do my laundry at the last minute/ I eat like a teenager/ I’m scrambling for money at the end of every month/ I have eight thousand unanswered emails/ I clean my house for parties by shoving all my junk into grocery bags and sticking them in the closet. What’s wrong with me?”

I can’t tell you how many people I know who feel this way. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to think of an adult in my life who doesn’t feel this way, at least to some degree. And recently I’ve started wondering: What’s up with that?


humanist magazine cover
Thus begins my latest Fierce Humanism column for The Humanist magazine, Imposter Syndrome, and What It Means to Be an Adult. To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Imposter Syndrome, and What It Means to Be an Adult
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3 thoughts on “Imposter Syndrome, and What It Means to Be an Adult

  1. 1

    I can relate to this. Hell, I’m the poster child for it — after spending most of my 20s as a vaguely bohemian dilettante slacker, I went back to school…first for literature, then for pure math. And I’m still working on the latter. And I still don’t feel like a “grown-up.”

    I think that in addition to the “adult = carving out your own life” (which is huge), I’d like to cling to “there’s no such thing as adulthood.” I may have borrowed the phrasing for the latter from a video game (and one which swings from remarkably progressive to really horrid, often within seconds), but I’ll stick to it. Because there are two sides of the “coming of age” concept — accepting/gaining responsibility and agency (which is good, but which could probably be reframed as a growth process rather than an event), and giving up “childishness.” It’s the latter part that I can’t quite seem to accept, which is where I think some of the “imposter syndrome” comes from, at least for me. I want to keep learning, changing, imagining — I reserve the right to be silly as long as I can avoid stepping on other people’s toes in the process. I don’t want to be an “adult” who makes room for joy and fun and carefree moments in the context of a serious life; I want to be someone who (grudgingly but ultimately willingly) makes room for the serious parts in the context of joy and exuberance and imagination. I want “adulthood” to be when I can be serious in order to keep “childish” fun the default mode of living, not when I give up on that and accept the serious bits as the purpose of life.

    Maybe this is why I’m trying so frantically (exuberantly?) to find a way to make a living out of playing with words or playing with shapes and concepts.

  2. 2

    […] and giving up “childishness.” It’s the latter part that I can’t quite seem to accept, which is where I think some of the “imposter syndrome” comes from, at least for me.

    To quote C.S. Lewis (as problematic as he is on other things, I think he’s right on this one):

    Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

    The whole idea that we have to leave childishness behind as adults is a cultural problem. In fact, I’m sure one could make a case that the ‘I have to be a responsible adult’ trope is tied in with some of the other toxic masculinity issues, as a fear of being seen as ‘weak’ or ‘other’.

  3. 3

    bryanfeir, I think it’s connected to the “protestant work ethic” where hard work all the time is seen as desirable. Since I retired I saw the foolishness of it and now I spend my time kayaking and picking guitar like a kid. Let someone suggest any work I just tell em later. Yeah, I’m behaving like a carefree kid and I don’t want to grow up again.

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