Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.– Maya Angelou
A few years ago I had a conversation with a professor who had just spent several months abroad during a sabbatical year, and we got to talking about her latest book project. I asked if she found writing a book to be a daunting task, and I’ll never forget her response: “It’s a lot easier now that I have something to say.” She went on to describe how difficult it was to write her doctoral dissertation and her first several books, because at the time she wrote them, she was still mapping out the landscape of her field of study and determining her place within it. But now, after years of scholarship, she finally feels as if she has a strong enough grasp of the field and unique ideas of her own to be able to contribute something to it.
Part of the reason why this conversation burned a place in my memory is that it took place at a time when I didn’t feel like I had “something to say.” I had recently finished graduate school, was new to my job, and had no idea what I was doing. While I’ve always enjoyed learning and new experiences, I found myself feeling lost because it was too much newness all at once. I felt like I was disingenuously faking my way through every item on my job description and each task on my to-do list.
We’ve probably all felt this way at some point in our lives, whether in our career, our role as a parent or caregiver, or our place in the community or other social group. Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term “imposter syndrome” to describe this self-perceived phoniness, and they determined that it’s a common experience (especially for women), regardless of how much external validation a person receives for their successes. The antidote to imposter syndrome, some suggest, is positive self-talk, reminding ourselves that we’re enough, just as we are: smart enough, capable enough, hard working enough, and good enough.
While I don’t entirely disagree with this suggestion, I think that it misses something. Saying that we are enough is generally a good and true message, but it fails to emphasize that we are also works in progress. The fact is that sometimes we don’t know what we’re doing; sometimes we don’t have “something to say.” Sometimes, like my professor friend in her early years, we have more to learn than to contribute, more to hear than to say. There’s a certain amount of freedom that can be gained from acknowledging this, from, in the words of Maya Angelou, forgiving ourselves for not knowing what we don’t yet know instead of trying to convince ourselves that we already know enough.
There’s a paradox here, of course: regardless of our stage in life, we are whole, valuable human beings, who are also incomplete and still growing. We can simultaneously notice and name our limitations while accepting ourselves at the stage we are in. As Flannery O’Connor says, “Accepting oneself does not preclude an attempt to become better.” Perhaps the thing that’s most important to remember is that this work of learning, growing and knowing — in our work, in our relationships, and in our spiritual and emotional lives — can be frightening and challenging. We will always do well to be compassionate, gentle and forgiving of ourselves and those whom we encounter, all of whom are on this perpetual journey of self-growth.
Reflect: In what area of my life am I most acutely aware of still needing growth? What do I need to forgive myself for not knowing yet?
Teresa Coda works as a Director of Faith Formation at a Catholic Church, dabbles in interfaith hospital chaplaincy, and writes about life and spirituality. She has a Masters in Divinity from Harvard Divinity School where she studied theology and pastoral care and counseling. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband Caleb, her daughter Esther and her Boston terrier Bean.