My editor at the Indianapolis Star this summer called me an “insecure overachiever.” After listening to me brainstorm and fret over how to tackle a particularly complex story, he explained that he saw I was tenacious and paranoid, which kept my work accurate. I initially took it as a compliment awarded to the best type of journalist. My bubbly personality isn’t as underestimated as I think! People do see I’m ambitious and driven! I cheered internally, as he continued to say: “You need to relax.”
Months have passed and I’ve realized the term actually denotes an unhealthy attitude toward success. Fear of failure has haunted me for most of my young adult life. My friendly demeanor masks crippling perfectionism.
In high school, the realm to conquer was taking fifteen Advanced Placement classes by senior year, earning one of the only five A+’s given out in calculus class, beefing up my resume with participation in (and maybe presidencies of) multiple clubs, and successfully making it into an Ivy League school. Armed with 4.5 GPAs and perfect ACT scores, my Asian-American peers constantly gossiped about each other, seeing who was projected to go furthest in the IT, engineering, med, and/or financial brokering field.
When I didn’t fit the STEM mold, I decided to pursue my dreams of writing. But I worried I was a sinner defying my parents’ first-generation immigrant dreams of ensuring their children got high-paying stable jobs. In my rich Portland suburb, no one outright scolded my way of honoring my parents’ sacrifice. But still I overcompensated.
I used more sophisticated sentences. I hungrily dove for every writing opportunity I could. I tried to be as successful as possible in my own right so I would rise above ridicule. After long days at internships, I’d go home and read what I wrote, scanning for imperfection. And when my time at a publication came to an end, I’d track the number of details that proved I was worth something as a journalist. I kept my worries to myself, but they ate at me. If things went wrong, I blamed the social conditioning of comparing myself to my overachieving peers. In my lowest moments, I lamented that if I were a greater woman with more of an academic backbone, maybe the outside world would take my dreams more seriously.
As a journalist, my upbringing aggravated a condition that was already hard to beat: imposter syndrome. An ever-nagging feeling from my adolescence remains: “What if I might not be good enough??” I prematurely fear outcomes that haven’t happened yet, in case I’ve misperceived my worth and qualification.
I’m in Washington, D.C. this fall interning on the Hill. I’m a national Congressional correspondent for a newsroom I’ve never seen the inside of. I’ve talked to high ranking senators and representatives and talked to people who have my dream jobs. Seven publications and three years later, I’m a semester away from graduating and seem to have my shit together. But still, I scan the Twitters of famous people, comparing myself to them, wishing I was a little further along in my career, and holy shit but why?
Man, I’m sick of it. What more could I have done to achieve?? I crave peace from beating myself up for not doing more — whether it’s winning more awards, taking more prestigious internships, networking with more editors — every opportunity cost be damned. I meditate to turn feeling worry into feeling worthy, and I try to remind myself that passive aggressive ridicule from immature 17-year-olds of the past is not an excuse to wreck my sanity now.
As a journalist, I build my stories off the trust that people place in me. Now I want to return the favor to myself. I want to start trusting myself. I’ve always been incredulous when I hear my peers say they “just want to tell stories for a living.” I believe journalists need to remember they carry a certain arrogance to do their jobs properly, a pride I’ve begun to lose. “Storyteller” is too humble; anyone can sit around a campfire and set a scene, time, place — tie together relevant facts with a pretty ribbon of rhetorical subjectivity. But I waver and sometimes fall prey to perfectionistic worry.
Before I can be the trusted voice of the people, I’m still learning to accept and trust my own voice. That inner voice wants me to be a secure achiever. Only when I start listening to it will I maintain the right attitude toward work. And then I will truly value tenacity and accuracy for the sake of my work, not because I’m fighting against fear of myself.