I is for Imposter

In my last post I wrote about the many forms that my Ego can take, but the one that’s getting a lot of air-time in my head lately is the Imposter, as in Imposter Syndrome.

I get this one a lot actually. 

For example, I am preparing for a big piece of litigation this winter. It’s heavy, with many people’s fate in the balance, and it could go in many directions. 

The truth is that I have a great deal of experience in this arena, having served as a Public Defender trial lawyer for nearly 25 years. I am very well prepared, I know this case intimately, I have a theory and strategy that I believe can be successful, and I have support from a great clerk and the rest of my office.  I am very good at this.

And yet. 

I also have this very intense sense that I don’t actually know what I am doing; that I am going to screw the whole thing up; and that it will be clear to everyone in the aftermath what a fraud and imposter I have been all these years. Lives will be ruined. Injustice will be done.  And it will all be my fault.

Ouch. It actually hurt to write that out. As in, I literally winced. Ouch.

I don’t like to see these thoughts set free in the world!  

Indeed, the Imposter, greatly prefers, and even demands, that I never tell anyone my fears, that I keep them all to myself in the dark and shadowy recesses of my mind, and that I put up the very convincing and confidence-inspiring front of which I am so very capable. 

How unfair is that!  My Imposter is convinced that he is no imposter at all when it comes to putting up a good front! That’s one of his favorite tools!

The Imposter whispers to me the oldest stories:  don’t admit you are afraid. Don’t tell them you are waking up anxious in the middle of the night. Don’t tell them about the procrastination and the distraction, about the very strong desire you have to numb out and not feel anything at all rather than this painful discomfort of fear and lack of confidence.

The truth is I have experienced this Ego manifestation throughout my life. 

Whether it was swimming in the state championships, or playing the lead in a play, or appearing before the Court of Appeals, or bringing home a brand new baby daughter with my wife from the hospital 18 years ago.  

(Flashback to August 2001: I am outside the hospital at the car installing the baby seat, thinking the whole time, You Can NOT BE Serious!  You’re just going to let us take this baby HOME??? WTF!!! We seriously have NO IDEA what we are doing!  HELP!!!)

In the sweetest of ironies, it turns out that for me the Imposter persona is itself an Imposter. 

Imposter Dave pretends to be real, to be a manifestation of my human limitations, an expression of my humility, and even an adversary of my narcissist tendencies.

Yet, Imposter Dave is really just my Shadow in disguise, which is to say my most deeply held belief, the one I hide away and pretend is not there.

My shadow belief tells me that I am not good enough, that I Don’t Have What It Takes, and that nothing I do will ever make any difference in the world. 

In the public defender world this shadow belief often manifests in the form of Burnout, when I start to believe the story that all of my hard work is not making any difference, that I may in fact be a part of the problem, instead of a part of the solution.

Ouch. There it is again.  It hurts to write that out, even though I have a lot of practice in identifying my shadow after 9 years of sitting in ManKind Project circles.

And yet perhaps the most important thing I have learned in doing Men’s Work with The ManKind Project  is that I am Not Alone. 

Indeed, I would estimate that about 80% of the men I talk to in various circles have this very same belief. It’s ubiquitous! 

(For those wondering, the other 20% seem to have the narcissist shadow, that they are The One Who Can Solve Everything, so Get Out of the Way. We could debate, but IMHO it’s hard to say which one is harder to deal with.)

The very good news is that both of these shadows are simply beliefs, not data. They not True in any real sense.  They are stories we tell ourselves, that I have told myself, for a very long time.

In my next post I will dig deeper into Imposter Syndrome and some ways to address it. In the meantime if you have some ideas on this juicy topic, please write me and I will include them (with permission) in my next post!

Putting Ego in its Place

A few weeks ago, we went to the beach in Santa Cruz for four days of vacation. The sun was shining and warm and we didn’t do much and it was heavenly.

In truth, I was actually a little worried about taking the time off. I seem to have developed a story that it’s hard for me to sit still. I tell myself that I am naturally antsy and energetic and happiest when I am busy, like a field dog, delighted while herding but skittish and distracted the rest of the time.

Of course, this story is sheer hogwash.  It is one part Protestant work ethic, one part a persistent idea that Doing is in itself an act of virtue, and one part the idea that scarcity reigns. Like a bad scientist I have collected evidence to support the theory.  Mix these delusions with some liberal-privileged-upbringing guilt, top them with an earnest and heartfelt desire to save-the-world and relieve-all-suffering, and you have a basic blueprint for my Ego.

Let’s call him Ego-Dave.

My ego is the part of me that gets stuff done.  He’s the one that executes plans, keeps track of details, sends lots of emails, and generally holds it all together.  He thrives on tasks, and he is an extremely capable entity.  

As a result folks ask Ego-Dave to do all kinds of things.  This makes him feel important and real, and encourages him to want to run everything, particularly Me.

The problem is that Dave the Ego is not really Me: he is in fact a construct, a piece of software, or a figment of divine imagination.  As Tolle and Muhammed and others have wisely noted, the ego is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.  

So how do I put my Ego in his place?  

This is a delicate bit of business, as I certainly don’t want to destroy him. After all I need him to take care of things. He is very useful!

I also don’t want to disable him artificially. I used to do that with intoxicants, giving my ego involuntary and occasionally violent vacations, with a hangover as a bonus round of sitting around inert and really slacking off. As a strategy this worked, but as a practice it turned out to be damaging and unsustainable.

The trick is to keep my Ego on as a willing, able and enthusiastic helper, while also keeping him firmly in his place. This means giving him a specific and delineated role: a job with parameters and boundaries.  I need to fence him in.

For example, I have tried hiring him on as a Contractor.  He’s the one who executes plans, and fits all the pieces together. He is the boots on the ground guy, who’s not afraid to get dirty or work hard and late.  

This turned out to be a bust, and the trouble is in the title. If the real Me is a timeless boundless awareness that is embodied in this world, then the Contractor is the one who contracts, or shrinks the world to make it manageable.

The Contractor must adhere to linear time.  Indeed he may even create it: if time is an illusory construct then calendars, dates, alarm clocks are his tools. He creates duties and obligations and agreements.  He does logistics, and collaborates with others to manifest intention into matter, and brings things into existence through attention. There is a magical quality to the Contractor archetype, but from a modern sensibility it seems more technological.

The problem is that Ego-Dave the Contractor is always jockeying for control. He wants to be the Boss! Ego-Dave has a huge ego!! He is convinced that he should make the decisions on all the contracts, but he never wants to say no. It’s like the more he does, the more he wants to do! He oversteps his duties.

He’s the one who loves to answer the question “How are you?” with a hearty grinning “Busy!!!”  He’s the one who earnestly believes his entire value as an entity is based on how many things he can do at once. I have tried that archtetype too:  The Juggler.

Ego-Dave the juggler masterfully keeps everything in the air with a touch here, a touch there, tossing and multitasking through life.  

The juggler likes to think that he isn’t working that hard (after all, it’s FUN!), and he’s a big show-off too.  He loves the attention of others, and he adores praise and applause.  

The trouble with Ego-Dave the Juggler is that he always wants to add another ball.  He wants to be the best juggler ever: the one who can keep the entire universe in the air.

When I let the juggler run the show, things get out of control in a hurry.  He pretends to be easy breezy, but he hates dropping a ball, and the fear of letting them all go at once is agonizing.

The juggler archetype was a great improvement from Atlas though.  

Not so long ago, before I even realized that my Ego was a story, I used to see myself as that primordial Titan who held the universe on his shoulders. Atlas is incredibly strong and powerful, and ripped and sexy in a bodybuilder kind of way.  He takes so much pride in his ability to hold it all.  

It was a huge relief when I finally realized that it wasn’t my job to hold everything all the time: that it wasn’t all my fault.

The big problem is that fundamentally my Ego is a workaholic.  He never wants to stop, and when he gets excited about something, watch out, because he is going deep.  He gets very focused, and he gets off on the adrenaline and the excitement and the pressure.  

Which all leads back to my latest Ego-Dave story that I am a field dog and my purpose is to run around and chase stuff and tend the herd.  Of course, this story has a lot in common with the other archetypes, in the common theme of busyness and taking care of others.

Thankfully, I am getting better and better at seeing through the stories of my Ego, and yet still sometimes I fall in so deep that I think it’s all really true.  I believe that I am in the movie, rather than watching it. And this movie is all action all the time, like one of those dreams where you never stop running from some mysterious threat.

When I am lost like this, I am no longer a spirit having a human existence, or a boundless awareness peering out from a human form.  Instead I am a Contractor, a Juggler, an Atlas, or a Field Dog, and I experience fear and sadness and overwhelm.

When I fail to put Ego in his place, then I am indeed his humble servant, and I find that to be very challenging.

Thank goodness for vacation.  When we went to the beach and lounged around the pool and played games it was absolutely delicious.  Once I got a refreshing taste of it, I wanted to sit still forever. I saw right through my Ego-story, and remembered again how good it feels to be free.

Seeking out this space is the reason I meditate.  When I sit and follow my breath, I drink in the experience of boundless awareness.  It is fleeting to be sure, but even a sip of that spacious expanse is a tremendous blessing.  

Meditation is a way of seeing through the stories of the Ego.  By making space for the “real me”, the part of me that is full of wonder and amusement and gratitude to simply sit still and breathe, I am setting boundaries for my Ego-stories.

What an irony:  by letting go of thoughts and stories, I actually create a container for my ego.  By sitting still and doing nothing, I establish parameters for my Ego-archetypes. By rebooting my computer I remind the Ego that he is indeed simply a useful piece of software, and not my operating system.  

What a relief to be back in charge!  Take that Ego-Dave, You’re not the boss of Me!!!

Meditation and Failure Resilience

From the Department of Again and Again

I love my morning walks with Trixy the Dog. We climb 250 steps to the top of Bernal Hill and then jog and walk and fetch tennis balls as the sun rises over the San Francisco Bay. In the winter, the bay burns bright with orange and red and as I breathe deeply of the crisp sky, I feel profound gratitude for my life.

I listen to podcasts as we walk, and I recently heard Sharon Salzberg talking about “beginning again” in meditation. She proposed that that the big work is not in sitting down, it is how one begins again on the cushion after spacing out, fantasizing, daydreaming, or worrying.

Over and over and over again.

In this sense, meditation is really a practice in failure resilience: I experience “failure” repeatedly, along with accompanying opportunities to choose to start over.

In my meditation, as in my life, I am endlessly interrupted by urgent and enticing sirens. “Don’t forget to take that file to work!” “Remember you need to pay that bill today!” “Hey, you never called your dad back!”

With more practice, however, I have come to realize that use of the word “failure” is a harsh self-judgment; distraction is a very ordinary and even lovable aspect of being a human being.

As sentient beings we are eminently distractible: perhaps it is a necessary element of curiosity. Our thoughts feel weighty, pregnant, and ripe, and pose incredibly compelling and seductive challenges. To remain present in our bodies requires discipline, attention, and practice.

While it is surprisingly easy to wake up to the present moment by breathing deeply and letting go of things, to continue to stay awake in it, especially in our turgid modern culture, can be very difficult.

Still, with experience and practice, and with amazing support and teaching from my teacher JunPo Dennis Kelly Roshi, I have come to see that my thoughts are in fact weightless and illusory.

As substantial and meaningful as they may seem, when I look at them from a distance, they are mostly revealed to be misleading, trivial or even ridiculous!

I have come to welcome these thought-mines, for each of these intrusions is a gift. I am continuously offered the opportunity to listen, acknowledge, and explore my mind, and then to choose to loop back to the body/place where I am sitting.

When I return, it’s important that I am nice to myself.

For much of my life, my failure resilience was negligible: each new stumble and fall was simply more evidence of my long demonstrated inherent sucky-ness. My inner voice was a bully, haranguing me for my missteps and mistakes, and providing ever more fuel for the shame-machine.

Thanks to steady practice and lots of emotional work and attention, I have gradually shifted that voice to one that is gentle, loving, and amused. After a reverie into the future or the past, I now wake up, grin, and whisper to myself:

“Oh Dave, you sweet silly man, welcome home!!! The fire is lit, there’s food on the stove, and how ‘bout a nice hot cup of tea?”

I find myself smiling broadly as my old judgment of “failure” shifts, yet again, to “human-ness” or “presence” or simply “being alive.”

I worry about the many people I love that still speak to themselves with a harsh and unforgiving voice. Sometimes I will actually hear it out loud, as a friend scolds himself for a mistake.

Hearing this, I can’t help but butt in: “Hey please don’t be mean to you! You are a good friend of mine, and I stand up for my friends!” They usually smile and pause and smile again, sheepishly. Sometimes I don’t think they knew they were saying it at all.

So to all you wonderful PDs out there: I invite you: Bee gentle with yourselves. Bee loving and kind. Bee here now.

Smile, and welcome yourself home!