Narcissism, Lies and Other Reasons I’ll Never Be Good Enough.

Trigger Warning: the following contains a discussion of rape.

Graduation day: I won a university medal and my mother kicked me out of the family. While I’m sure that she would not claim a direct causal relationship, I’m starting to wonder. It seems that the more external validation I receive, the more caustic she becomes.

I’ve been playing over in my mind the events that have led to all the dramas, and I’m starting to think that this just isn’t even about me but rather the role I play in my mothers life, namely that of the black sheep, the trouble maker, the ‘bad to her good’, and the cause of all her problems. If I don’t adhere to that role, then she would have to readdress her own responsibilities and failings. I’m starting to think that she desperately needs to believe that I am a bad person because if I’m not, then maybe our relationship and our history has had something to do with her.

I have just finished a fine art degree. The week before graduation we (the honours cohort) held our final exhibition, the culmination of our years work. I invited my family. Normally I don’t bother, but it was the last show, I was nominated to MC the event, and I thought it would be nice to have some guests there. The night went by without drama, although my mother and stepfather left shortly after the speeches.

Two days later, as I was cleaning the house and getting lunch ready in expectation of my mum and my stepdad’s arrival, I received a phone call from mum cancelling their visit. She said it was because things were too tense due to the fact that her and her husband were fighting. Also, she just wanted to let me know that their fight was entirely my fault.

Apparently he had been deeply offended by the speech I had made at the exhibition. This instantly struck me as odd; the speech I had given was a very stock-standard thank-you to the staff on behalf of the students. I followed the traditional format – welcome everyone to the show, thank the lecturers, thank the tutors and support staff, thank industry professionals for coming, thank friends and family for their support, and then introduce the next speakers. How could any of that have offended anyone? Well, because it proves my “extreme ingratitude” of course. The worst bit for my stepdad was when I thanked friends and family. As my mother told it to me, this was “just the final straw”, and he “rolled his eyes and thought ‘yeah, she’ll thank everyone but me”.

As I’m sure you can understand, I found this rather exasperating. I mean seriously, he doesn’t think he is included in ‘friends and family’? Although I tried to reason with my mother, she wasn’t having a word of it. In her view, he was right to be hurt; while I might have thanked her before, I had NEVER thanked him and he had only wanted to be singled out and thanked personally during my speech for their financial support over the course of my degree. I’m just completely ungrateful.

Again I tried to reason with her – of course I’m grateful, of course I’ve thanked him, no it wasn’t accompanied by fanfare and applause, but NEVER is a bit of an exaggeration. And it wasn’t MY speech, I was speaking on behalf of the entire cohort; it would have been inappropriate of me to start naming my own individual family members without thanking everyone else’s family individually. This wasn’t an Oscar’s acceptance speech; it was an exhibition opening, and the last opportunity for graduating students to thank the university staff.

At this point in the conversation, my mother brought out the big guns. “Well think about this,” she said. “I overheard some of the staff talking about your artwork and they said ‘This artist makes very narcissistic work’, so I think you better think about how you are coming across to people. I am just so embarrassed by the things they think about you”.

Using other people’s opinions as weapons is pretty typical warfare for my mother. Whenever she feels that her position or logic is challenged, she lashes out with comments like, “this is why your sister/partner/aunty, etc. says *insert random insult about you*” or just “this is why people don’t like you”. Half the time the things she says are either incorrect, out of context, or just plain untrue. The thing is that I have received more validation at university then anywhere else in my life; my confidence has grown exponentially and as a result, likeability just isn’t the issue for me that that it once was. Not everyone is going to like me; not everyone is going to like my artwork. I’m ok with that, or at least I’m learning to be. But in spite of this, my mother’s comment hit me hard. I was furious. Not because someone had called my work narcissistic, but because how dare she attempt to undermine my confidence, hard work, and the relationships I had developed in the university.

What I find funny and also incredibly frustrating, is that narcissistic – as a term to describe the artwork in question, is actually quite apt. It is narcissistic; purposefully, knowingly, ironically narcissistic. To give you a bit of an idea, it is a self-portrait for a start (inherently narcissistic), also it is a video performance work (arguably the most narcissistic of art mediums), but I take it further: I pose for the camera while a leaf blower blows my hair off my face. Diamonds swirl in the background while kittens and unicorns fall across the screen. To anyone who has noticed that we are currently living in an unprecedentedly narcissistic age of profiles, statuses, and selfies, the work could be considered humorously, critically narcissistic. I did actually intend it to be funny, but obviously any humor was lost on my mother.

Even if my mother’s reality of the overheard comment is true (as an insult and attack on me personally), it was a pretty classless move to repeat it to me in that context. I was still waiting for my results and had the next three years of my life dependent on them. If I didn’t receive first-class Honours I would have blown my chance at an academic scholarship and doctorate. Despite very kind and reassuring support from the uni staff, I still felt ill with self-doubt and anticipation. What if they don’t like my research? What if they don’t like my work? What if I’ve completely messed up? What if, in the final moment I’ve finally revealed my fraudulence? What if they don’t want me? What the hell am I going to do with my life? Impostor syndrome or not, waiting for results is stressful. I think it was unnecessarily mean for her to come in at that point and state that in her brief time overhearing a conversation, she has uncovered the staff’s true feelings about me – the same staff that are currently marking my work, assessing my application, and who I hope will become my colleagues in the future.

She didn’t actually listen to any of this. The conversation went downhill very quickly. She insisted that I just couldn’t take criticism. I can’t remember which one of us hung-up on the other.

I couple of days later I wrote to my stepdad. While I needed a day to let myself simmer down, the truth is that it bothers me that he feels I am ungrateful for all their help, because I’m not. If I haven’t made my gratitude clear to him then that is an issue, and I have no problem with addressing it and saying thank you again. So I wrote to him and I apologized for appearing ungrateful and clarified to him that my speech was in no way designed to exclude him. I explained that I was speaking on behalf of the class, that it wasn’t my speech alone and that I was following the script. I reassured him that I considered him to be family and that my generalized thank-you to family and friends had been directed at him. I also thanked him as sincerely as I could and told him that I am very aware I could not have done finished my degree without their help. And I meant it. I am grateful.

In his response he explained that he had been in a particularly bad mood at the time (for very good reason – he had just been made redundant) and on top of that, Mum and him were fighting about issues over her unwillingness to help out with his elderly mother. He said that the conversation with mum had gone too far but that he thinks some things he said were taken out of context. He also accepted both my apology and thanks. We were good. Lets move on.

If I only had to deal with him we would have moved on, by now I had my marks back (100% 1st class) and I had just been notified of my acceptance to the doctoral program. I finally felt proud of myself; I had clawed my way from being a high-school dropout and teenage runaway to becoming a university graduate. Now, two days out from graduation, I was in the mood to celebrate, but unfortunately this is the point where things were about to turn really bad.

*Cue dramatic music. Mum called.

Right from the start she had ‘that tone’. You know the one – the mother tone: the tone typically reserved for disobedient teenagers. It normally consists of abruptly short sentences followed by tightly pursed lips and a scowl. For example, “Now that’s enough!” or “You listen to me”. Having three children myself, I know the tone well, but I have become much more accustomed to giving it than receiving it.

“Right.” she said with the warmth of Nurse Ratched, “I’m sorry for my part in what happened”. Purse, scowl, and pause.

That pause is my pre-scripted place to apologise to her in return, at which point she will agree that yes I should be apologizing to her, because she was right all along. If mum does anything well, its passive aggression; she is a master at it. This time I really didn’t feel like taking the bait. “Ok mum”, I replied. “But I don’t think you understand why I was so upset at your comment about overhearing the staff say my work was narcissistic.”

“What?! I never said that!”

“Yes Mum, yes you did.”

“No I didn’t! And I can prove that I didn’t, because I know who it was that said your work is narcissistic and I know they’re not staff.”

‘Well who was it?”

“I’m not telling you.”

“Well it’s actually irrelevant anyway mum. I’m not upset that someone thinks my work is narcissistic. I’m upset because…”

She wasn’t interested in hearing a thing. For the next little while we spoke over the top of each. I tried to explain that artworks can be called narcissistic without implying that the artist is necessarily a narcissist. She tried to explain that I am definitely a narcissist – she had googled it. I’m narcissistic with a false sense of entitlement, and everyone thinks so. Also I’m a liar, clearly – because I’m accusing her of saying the staff said something when it was actually someone else. My complete lack of gratitude and unwillingness to thank my stepfather just proves everything.

“But I have thanked him.” I insisted. By this stage I was offended, hurt, and frustrated.

“Not good enough. Now stop talking and let me tell you what you should have done.”

“Ok Mum, but I’ll make you a deal. You tell me what I should have done, and I’ll listen. But then, we are going to talk about what you should have done and you can listen.”

“Well, what the hell do you mean by that?”

And out it came…the first thing that popped into my head… “How about what you should have done when I was raped at 13 and you refused to talk about it”

I actually added a couple more things to the list but it was already too late. She had given the phone to her husband and walked away. The shock of suddenly hearing his voice on the phone and the knowledge that, once again, she wasn’t willing to listen to me, was too much. My partner, who by now was standing next to me listening, took the phone from me and attempted to talk reason. It didn’t go well.

First he argued with my stepdad about why he wasn’t willing to put me back on the phone so that he could give me a stern talking to about upsetting my mother. Then my mother got back on the phone and he argued with her. Their argument – what I heard of it anyway, sent chills down my spine. Although I couldn’t hear what she was saying, it didn’t take a lot to work it out. For the next 15 minutes my partner argued empathically that “It did happen…She was raped…She’s not a liar…You can’t say IF it happened; it DID happen…What has your embarrassment got to do with anything?…” and on it went. She was completely adamant that I was lying. Eventually someone hung up. Afterwards, my partner cried. I stopped crying and entered a state of self-preserving numbness, a familiar state I remember from my teenage years. My partner did try to talk to her once more the following day, but it just got worse. She remained completely unwilling to talk to me.

Needless to say, she didn’t come to my graduation. Instead of congratulations, I received a text message stating that I was no longer part of the family. Thanks Mum.

If you have managed to make it this far through my post and are still reading, let me express a little gratitude: Hey, thanks for listening. This is long and convoluted and I’m sorry that I feel compelled to vent it out in a blow-by-blow account. This has taken more explaining and time than I had anticipated. I opened this blog by suggesting that I had come to a realization about why this situation has become so out of hand – that I’m starting to think that her view of me has much more to do with the view of herself that she desperately clings to than any kind of reality, and I do plan to get back to that point eventually. Hold tight for chapter two and the next exciting adventure – joint therapy with my mother.

Spoiler Alert: Things aren’t going to get better.

Chapter two can now be found here

Impostor Syndrome

The writing of my first university assignment was a traumatic event. It was 1000 words of pure hellish agonising torture, with alternating episodes of dramatic wailing and pitiful sobbing in front of my computer screen.

I was convinced that this assignment would reveal my inability to go any further with the degree, and as a result I would be taken aside and quietly asked to leave. Now I know that that seems a little melodramatic, but there were good reasons that I doubted myself. The last year of high school I completed was year 9. In my favourite high school subject – and incidentally the one that I was now pursuing in uni – I received a final grade of only 17 and a half percent. I applied for uni as a mature-age, full-fee-paying student, and during my application interview I literally begged. They kind of had to let me in. Now that I was in, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was terrified and completely intimidated by the aloof and relaxed faces of my classmates who seemed in no way daunted by the task ahead.

That short 1000-word essay was one of the most terrifying endeavors I have ever undertaken. When the results were returned, I discovered that I had received a high distinction. I hid in the toilets and cried. First, out of relief, pride, and feelings of sheer luck, and then out of fear that I wouldn’t be able to fluke it again.

The writing of my second university assignment was yet another traumatic event. 2000 words of pure hellish agonizing torture, again with alternating episodes of dramatic wailing, pitiful sobbing, and even a little yelling and swearing in front of my computer screen.

This time I dreaded the eventual embarrassment that would follow the assignment. I feared the look of disappointment on the face of the teacher who had given me that first HD, and the expression of resigned pity from friends and family that surely had known it was a fluke all along. I wished I had been unmasked the first time. This seemed like a lot of work for something that surely was doomed to fail.

The third, fourth, and subsequent essays went more or less the same way, although I did find a few more things to panic about as I went, like: ‘maybe I’m just cheating the system because I put ‘too much’ time and effort into my studies. I bet really smart people do this easily.’ And then, as my results came in: ‘maybe they felt sorry for me’, or: ‘maybe they didn’t even read it and gave everyone the same grade’. As I look back, the idea that the markers weren’t taking their job seriously seems ridiculous, if not a bit offensive.

I finished the year with a perfect GPA. Secretly I felt crap about it. I comforted myself by thinking that even if I had just cheated the system, surely it was proof of at least some level of intelligence as obviously I had been clever enough to crack the secret university code.

The rest of my degree was hard won. I soon lost my perfect score – I handed in an assignment late under the incorrect assumption that I had an extension. Under my faculty’s rule, late assessments get an automatic grade of 0. This will do terrible things to your GPA. I have always wished that I had just handed in what I had by the due date. It would have been incomplete, unedited and ugly but maybe I could have just scraped a low pass out of it. Even a failing grade of 3 would have been better than the big fat zero I ended up receiving. However, to say that I worked hard during my undergraduate degree would be an understatement. Even I am able to recognize that I did in fact put in the effort. Furthermore, over the course of those years, a lot of ‘life’ happened that didn’t make studying any easier. Of most lasting impact was the surprise pregnancy and birth of my third child, after which I went part-time for a while, and pumped breast milk between lectures. It was hard and there were moments when my confidence bottomed out and I genuinely considered leaving. I am pleased I didn’t. Despite all my self-doubt, I made it to the end of my course. And while I may not have finished with a perfect score, the 97.8% that I did manage is undeniably impressive, especially given the circumstances. I received first class honours, a university medal, and an offer of a full scholarship to complete a doctorate. Not bad for a high school dropout.

Reflecting on my achievements, my intense fear and self-doubt seems like a completely melodramatic overreaction. And it is. But apparently it is also quite common. Introducing…. Impostor Syndrome – the feeling that despite your accomplishments, you are actually a fraud.

It appears that not only am I not a complete raving lunatic, I’m also in quite impressive company. Apparently Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, the amazing Maya Angelou, and a string of other celebrities have all suffered from feelings of fakery. Impostor Syndrome is also rampant with academia, particularly in female academics. The first time I heard of it was when one of my lecturers posted an article on her Facebook. While I feel awful for taking any pleasure in someone else’s discomfort, the idea that this particular lecturer believes herself to be anything other than absolutely amazing, is both absurd and a little comforting. If she can’t always see herself objectively, then surely Impostor Syndrome is a real thing, and so maybe I haven’t been seeing myself completely objectively either.

If you would like to know more about Impostor Syndrome, or Impostor Phenomenon as it is often called, I would recommend Dr. Pauline Clance’s website. It was Clance, along with her colleague Suzanne Imes, that first described Impostor Phenomenon back in 1978. Continuing her work since then, her website includes an extensive reference list from 1978 to present.

Write or Die Trying

Write or die trying. That is the plan.

According to Blogging 101, I should start my blog with an introduction. So in accordance with my respect for good etiquette…

Why, hello there. Welcome to my blog. I am a fresh inductee into the world of higher degree research, struggling with impostor syndrome, and an inability to spell. I am also an artist, a mother, a high school dropout and an ex street-kid.

In just a few weeks I am starting a PhD in Philosophy. Even in just contemplating the task ahead I find myself becoming lightheaded and have to remind myself to breathe. Imposter syndrome has already kicked into full swing and my anxiety levels are reaching an unprecedented high. If I put my feelings of fakery aside for a moment, my biggest issue is that I hate to write. I really hate it. Some days, every word is a struggle. During my undergrad, countless hours were spent crying into my keyboard desperately searching for words. I know that this kind of frustration is common, even for people that actually enjoy writing, but for me the frustration only amplified an already completely irrational and paranoid fear.

I am quite certain that writing will be my undoing. The written word is so terrifyingly permanent. I have said so many stupid things in my life and I am genuinely grateful that they were only said and not written down somewhere to be later unearthed. Like remember that time I told you that the fact you were a Virgo with a Taurean moon gave me insight into your personality? Or worse still, the time I pronounced hyperbole – hyper-bowl. Thank god there is no record of these embarrassing incidents.

While we are on the topic of embarrassment, I should mention (and perhaps apologise for), my spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Spelling in particular has haunted me my entire life. Without spellcheck I become almost completely illegible. My spelling has improved a lot over the course of my degree, but I can more easily make sense of Kant than I can phonetics. There has always been something with phonetics I just don’t get, and I am continually perplexed by other people’s ability to sound words out. Recently my uncle was diagnosed with auditory dyslexia, and while I myself have never been officially tested, a similar diagnosis wouldn’t surprise me in the least. But I will whinge more about this in a later episode.

The purpose of starting this blog is to challenge these fears face on. I think there is a writer in there somewhere, if only I could get over myself. I read an article recently that said the most effective treatment for imposter syndrome is simply acknowledging that imposter syndrome is a thing. Since my orthographical deficiencies are a definite source of fuel for feeling like an academic fraud, I guess I will be starting there, but I plan to also get down and dirty with some of the other reasons self-confidence is an issue (brace yourself for the inevitable mother issues). I am hoping that in naming and claiming my fears, challenges, and failures I will be able to fight my way through them, and not only finish this PhD, but actually feel like I deserve to.

Words that were misspelt in the making of this blog.

Contemplating, breathe, anxiety, unprecedented, struggle, desperately, amplified, irrational, terrifyingly, permanent, genuinely, Taurean, bowl, embarrassing, embarrassment, apologise, grammar, punctuation, particular, haunted, entire, illegible, phonetics, continually, auditory, whinge, purpose, orthographical, deficiencies, source, fuel, fraud, feel.