I’ve been trying to figure something out for years now. It’s not so much that I’m seeking a solution to a problem, it’s that I’m not sure where I developed certain core beliefs and that finding the story might help me manage my mind about what I’m experiencing today (or what I’ve been experiencing for years).
My instinct is that I am experiencing the insidious tyranny of imposter syndrome, and if that’s the case, then somewhere along the way I began to tie my self worth to my skills and accomplishments. And at any moment I fear that someone is going to find out I’m a talentless, non-skilled (and worthless) fraud.
This post is going to be more of an exploration of that and not so much about a single lesson. If anything, I hope that my story will resonate with you and helps you feel seen. But if you’re not interested in hearing a meandering exploration of my past as a gifted kid and then my battles with imposter syndrome as an adult, I understand. There are other blog posts that might be more interesting to you.
Part I – IQ Tests and the Vampire Horse
The Korean community where I grew up was really small. Not small small, but small enough that everyone knew everyone else. And one day my mom found out that another Korean girl in my class (the only other Korean girl), had just started the gifted program at our elementary school. My mom was furious that I wasn’t selected so she hiked up her pants and her English skills and met with my first grade teacher to tell her that surely I was smarter than these other kids and that I should be put in the program. The teacher said that it was simply an application process that my parents had missed and that they could have me tested and see if I could enter the gifted program for second grade. It was one grade too late for my mom, but what could they do?
The test to get into the gifted program in the mid 80s was an IQ test. I did well enough to get in and I started the program in second grade. It was fine. I didn’t really notice the difference except the fact that teachers were nicer and the kids were more irritating. We also seemed to have more opportunities than the other kids.
But as time went on and I began to collect academic and art awards at the county and state level, I slowly began to think that maybe I was smarter and talented than my classmates. My teachers reinforced this idea by constantly nominating me for competitions and leadership activities. I did it all. I was overweight and unpopular and I liked feeling like I was good at something.
The problem was that everything felt easy. I wrote a short story about a horse that was a vampire (based on a book I had read about a vampire bunny rabbit called Bunnicula) and my teacher, so impressed by my creativity, read it in front of my whole class. I won art awards, writing awards, leadership awards, I competed in creativity competitions, debate, model UN, science olympiad, math competitions. And it was all kind of easy, and boring.
By high school I was so beloved by my school district that I could pretty much do anything I wanted during the school day. When I was a senior, I remember leaving school to take naps at home. My principal let me out of taking an afternoon class in exchange for one of my paintings and I would spend that hour in the dark room developing photos for my portfolio and the school paper and yearbook.
Telling these stories always feel twee to me. I’m not very sentimental about my past because my life out of school felt like a shit show, but the point is that almost all of my self esteem was based entirely on recognition for my intelligence and artistic talents. And while I felt like a gifted and talented kid at school, at home I never felt like anything other than lazy and spoiled American kid. Whatever awards I earned at school didn’t matter if I didn’t make rice on time or do the dishes before my mom got home from working at the family’s convenience store.
So there it is. I grew up believing that I was inherently lazy and spoiled but I somehow did well academically and artistically because I must have had some talent.
In my next post, I’ll write more about how this played out in college and the rest of my twenties.