We teach our children, boys in particular, performance-based acceptance and people pleasing which sets a life long pattern of behaviour I call imposter syndrome.
It begins when the relationship with their young “girl” friends naturally evolves as their bodies change around puberty. Growing up I would hear words like Male Chauvinist Pigs and news stories of women burning their bras in protest. If you’re like me, boys grew up hearing their gender described as below:
An Excerpt from the book The Myth of Male Power, by Dr. Warren Farrell reads, “…being identified as the discriminators, rapists, date rapists, deadbeat dads, wife-batterers, sexual harassers, serial killers, greedy ‘banksters’ and unfaithful cheaters. It can feel like they are on the top, middle and bottom of women’s ‘enemy list’.”
As I grew up, changes in my relationship with my “girl” friend next door, Anita, became a source of confusion. News, advertising, movies, sitcoms and other TV shows only added to the gender confusion in the 60’s and 70’s. They all portrayed the idealized perfect male/female roles.
As I think back on that period, magazines, radio, TV were the behaviour modification laboratories of the time. Today it is Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, Instagram and the endless parade of social media applications — the “new” media.
Is there any surprise that, as young boys, we felt the tension and urgency to pursue and chase after the favour of our once former “girl” friend? Who suddenly was no longer our friend? The girl we once just played with and had fun with, seemingly overnight begins wearing a bra and now magically transforms into a “woman”. Now an unfamiliar dance ensues. The male pursuing the female. We are no longer just “friends” as the girl takes on this idealized feminine role.
Amee says… when I was 12 years old, my best friend was a few years younger. So it wasn’t cool before his friends to hang out with a “yucky girl”. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t be seen in public with me, especially around his friends. He would be nice when we were at his home, I stayed there a month usually in the summer, or if we were out where his friends wouldn’t see him with me. I thought he was rude when he walked a block ahead of me and pretended he didn’t know me. We were supposed to meet back at the trailer. But being new to his city, I got lost a lot and then would be angry he left me behind.
It went that way for a while so I stopped going there when I got well into puberty. I was a Tom boy for the longest time. Then when I hit 18 years old, he was interested and came to visit. But by then I was into the College scene and the older men who I played football with. My friend just didn’t fit into that category as athletic. He thought it had to do with his physique. It actually had to do with what we had in common as I was a baseball, football, gymnastics, running, yoga type person who worked and went to college. I hung out with people mostly in my classes. But he took it personally and never came back to visit.
My friends in my religious circle were all getting married and I didn’t want to be left out. They all had handsome men in good shape and so it wasn’t acceptable to go out with someone who wasn’t “spiritual enough” and a sharp dresser. So I ignored a few guys that liked me (practically stalked me) because it was creepy and they didn’t measure up to my friends criticism. I wanted to fit in so I just ruled out a lot of men.
I changed the way I dressed and acted so that I could get a boyfriend. With all the sports I engaged in daily, became very athletic and photogenic. Many men were intimidated by how I had changed and they wouldn’t ask me out. I asked them instead, but they turned me down. I felt desperate by asking them out because at the time it wasn’t acceptable for a woman to “chase” a guy.
When I finally started dating, they wouldn’t compliment me so I thought I wasn’t good enough. Finally one of the men told me that they assumed I got compliments all the time and that I was blonde so they assumed I was loose and not too smart. Wow. I was in college and had blonde hair and so they thought I wasn’t smart. What a strange dance between the sexes. I coloured my hair lighter blonde after that, in defiance while I went through college. Plus I stopped playing football because I figured out they were tackling me for a reason other than my athletic abilities.
So I can see how confused the men might have been trying to figure out what was going on in my head. I was confused about what was going on in my head too! But now, looking back, I can see how those guys may have altered who they were, just as I had … all to try to get the attention of the blonde, photogenic, athletic, smart, sexy woman. They may have felt like imposters as well as I did. I wasn’t very happy at that time with the dating scene at all. I didn’t know I held all the power being attractive and smart. I felt I was ugly actually and bony rather than lean. I had body image issues but the guys saw the opposite and didn’t think I had image issues. They were intimidated and I got lonely. I married my first long time boyfriend of 5 months. All my perceptions as a woman followed me and I ended an abusive relationship 10 years later. I still thought I was fat and ugly. Quite the opposite!
Greg continues… As young boys we cannot help but notice the differences and changes to our body and that of our “girl” friend. So we adapt by changing our behaviour. Hoping to make ourselves more desirable in the hope of gain the favour and acceptance of this idealized growing and developing young woman, who used to be our friend.
You can’t be blamed to think that this is a timeless dance between the sexes. Yet, when a relationship changes in such a radical way at such a young age, it wounds the boys. It sends the message that we are no longer friends, we feel more like the ugly moth and this young idealized woman is the beautiful butterfly.
Nobody loves the moth and everyone loves the butterfly. What’s the difference between the moth and the butterfly? It’s a perception, it’s a projection and we go from feeling acceptance as children, to having to earn acceptance from the young women in our lives.
In my experience, that feeling of chasing, seeking approval from the feminine follows us into adulthood. It literally shapes how we act and how we feel about our own self worth. Often this wounding can follow men (women too, just different) for the rest of their lives.
Here is the problem, as young men we do not have the cognitive abilities to understand these differences. Bereft of insight we learn to perform for favour, approval and acceptance. Perhaps for the first time in our lives — we begin to observe how we can “please” and as a result gain approval and reestablish the relationship with the “girl next door”.
I remember how growing up I would play with a next-door neighbour friend, her name was Anita. We were about the same age, maybe she was a year older, but we grew up playing together. We would go back-and-forth to one another’s houses or the play ground together. We were like best buds and there was a sense of a real friendship. We spent a lot of time together.
I don’t know when it happened exactly, what age, but there was over the course of a summer break, when she came back her body started to change. That is when the awkward boy/girl/woman dance began. She began to get breasts and she acted different. I did not know what to do or how to act.
I was no longer allowed to be alone with her in her home. We would have to go to the park to play. Everything suddenly changed, she didn’t want to do the same things anymore. There was this awkwardness and our relationship never recovered. Obviously, her parents didn’t want her spending time with me. I can imagine that the parents would’ve been concerned because of her changing body or whatever. Plus I would over hear things like “Boys will be boys” during the years I was growing up. This further diminished my self image and negative hit on my self confidence.
I remember, there was a day when I wanted to go and play and hang out with Anita. I was told by her mother that I was no longer allowed to come into their home to play.
Amee says… I remember my mom deciding all of a sudden when I went into Grade 10 that I could no longer associate with men unless he was interested in marriage and then we would court. That had a lot to do with the religion I was associated with at the time.
But if I came home late from school, I was accused of meeting with boys in the bushes. And if I went in a car to get a ride home, I was punished. I couldn’t date until I left home. And because of that, men in the congregation weren’t interested.
When my hips filled out, my mom said it was because I was having sex. This isn’t the way most women grow up I understand, but you can see how religion played its part in it all. I ignored guys in school because they, spiritually, weren’t good enough. I didn’t even notice if any looked at me.
There were 2 boys in particular I remember though, who asked me out. Being embarrassed and scared to talk to a boy, I literally snubbed them. And when some of the boys came over to visit with their parents at our house, I wasn’t allowed to watch TV with them in the recreation room because it was downstairs. Any guy that I was around in the congregation, required a chaperone. I wasn’t allowed to sit near one at a meeting. I avoided eye contact. Religion and societal rules really messed up my younger years, probably for them poor guys trying to figure out what was going on too.
Greg says… I suddenly became painfully aware that as a “boy” I was no longer a “friend” and interpreted that I was not good enough. Not only had I lost access to my friend, her parents somehow didn’t want me around. I was so confused. Suddenly, I became a boy/young man who “can’t not be trusted”. It was a confusing time and back then I didn’t know what I did wrong, I did not understand what changed.
I tried to chase Anita but wasn’t successful. When I would see her on the street, there was this awkwardness and tension. It seemed like her brothers liked me, turned out they were bullies. I guess I was an easy target.
Amee says… It wasn’t socially acceptable in the 70s and early 80s for a girl to (chase) ask a guy out or to dance or to phone him. She had to wait for him to ask her to dance, or call her.
Greg says… Bottom line, I felt like I was not enough. Unfortunately, I think that feeling happens to boys far too often in our society. Just because they are going through puberty how does that now make them less than they were before? Why do we make boys targets of ridicule and begin to judge and label them through the lens of a man? Men today are an easy target. I think it is sick and unfortunately become the norm to attack men and while male privilege.
Amee says… as a woman, I had the power. What would have happened if I asked a boy to dance at a sock hop, and they turned me down and the crowd of guys are all laughing at me? I wouldn’t ever go do that again. When I was 28 years old, and I was single again, the same thing happened. My friends and I went out dancing and if I didn’t like the guy because he was rude or came on to me, I told him my name was Bertha. This was a signal to myself, because the next time I went out dancing and the same guy came over and called me Bertha, I knew he was inappropriate the last time and I’d turn him down to dance. After awhile they got the hint. But after awhile, I just learned that passive aggressive hurt their feelings and stopped them from bugging me, so then I just lied that I had a boyfriend. (I’m spilling the beans on women here, aren’t I?)
Greg says… Boys go from having these girls who are friends to having to now earn the girls favour. The girls are transitioning to becoming young women and now are attracting boys their age or slightly older. Now we suddenly have to compete and pursue these girls who are now becoming women.
There’s a point where boys don’t want to spend time with girls. The girls now want to spend time with their girlfriends rather than with boys. Unless, you are the handsome, cool dude then the girls are chasing you.
It’s counter-intuitive, but I believe that’s the beginning of a young males introduction and early programming to please and seek approval of the “idealized” female/girl. This creates a great and confusing contrast for most boys because they are not the “idealized male”. Then in an effort to acquire the affection of the female, begin to chase their approval.
This creates a gap in their identity because they have to act like the “idealized male” without the tools, skills or attributes to be able to pull it off. Plus, the last thing a boy wants is to show any weakness. This is the beginning of the creation of a false persona, and this creates awkward inner tension within because we know we are not the cool dude, the idealized male. Yet, we are expected to pursue and seek the affection of a girl. Otherwise, we are again seen to be less than worthy. So we persist and sell a part of our soul to gain approval, affection and attention. Is it any surprise that later in life we end up feeling like an imposter?
Amee says… women don’t come with a book, they come with a library without a reference or index cards. Confusing for us, and its very freaking crazy for a guy to figure us out. And we all do this with undeveloped problem solving capabilities because of undeveloped pre-frontal cortexes of the brain.
Greg says… So we begin to try to adapt our image of ourselves and our persona to try to make up for this loss of identity. It is this estrangement from our own self which can cause us to end up chasing this ideal our entire lives. The more we do it, the more we feel we are less than we need to be and we heap more insecurity on our fragile imposter identity.
We end up creating a persona to try to match the idealized male, the man that we are supposed to be. We work hard to create this carefully crafted persona, all based upon the projection of society, which determines what “makes a man a man”. During puberty we are all subject to changing hormones and bodies and unless we are born with the ideal size, shape and physique we are relegated to the sidelines by the “idealized female”.
Amee says… My dad was hurt emotionally when he was in his early 20s when his step-father told him to act like a man, and that he wasn’t a man, he was a mouse. So my dad went nuts chasing after my mom because he was frantically worried he’d end up with the plain woman next door. And my mom was the prize. He needed arm candy in order to please his step-father and other men who laughed at him. My dad of course won my mom over because she loves attention in a large way and my dad fits the bill. She used to snub men and literally slap them on the face if they asked her out and she had turned them down before. She was worried they would come onto her sexually if they asked her out repeatedly.
Greg says… You do not have to look far in the animal kingdom to see how the males are all dressed up and pretty to attract the females. Many male bird species are all decked out doing their little dance to gain the interest of the female.
Amee says… the peacock is a prime example.
Greg says… This is true in many animal/bird species where the males have to compete for the females attention to perpetuate and preserve their lineage. Here is the rub for the human species…
“Just because a man feels powerless does not mean a woman feels powerful. And just because a woman — or a man — is perceived by others to have power, does not mean she or he feels powerful inside themselves.” Excerpt from the book, The Myth of Male Power, Dr. Warren Farrell
So if you are suffering from imposter syndrome, you are not alone and it is not all your fault. You did your best to adapt and try to fit into the role you thought you were supposed to fill. You do not have to stay stuck in that defeating role. You can chose to explore your feelings and get to know yourself on a whole new level.
Amee says… I used to think I was adopted because I felt like an impostor in my family, which was all messed up from societal beliefs and insecurities of their gender.
Greg says… I had a similar experience, thinking I was adopted. My body, type, physique and size was very different than my sister and brother. Turns out I resembled my mothers side of the family physically.
Probably a good thing. My father, brother and sister all predeceased me. I am still alive and kicking, enjoying life and exploring my identity.
My biggest takeaway from having this discussion with Amee and exploring the dance between the sexes is it is complicated. There are no easy answers. My best advice is to confront and examine your own experiences growing up. You might be surprised what you learn about yourself and the patterns of behaviour that have shaped your life. The good news is you can changed all that and it begins with awareness.