Dear Carolyn: I was a bright child. I was raised to believe this gave me the inescapable responsibility to be perfect at everything, and if I wasn’t, then it was entirely my fault for being lazy.

Among other life consequences, this gave me a sense that I was fundamentally bad, because I squandered the immense talents I was born with. So if someone says to me, “Look at what you accomplished,” I consider it trivial compared to everything I should have accomplished. If I do a good deed, I don't give myself credit because “I’m just doing it to make myself feel better.” If someone thanks me for something, I reply graciously, but I tell myself, “They’re saying that because they’re a nice person, not because they’re actually grateful.” And if I get mad at myself because I beat up on myself all the time, that proves I'm bad because a good person wouldn’t get mad.

Needless to say, I have a raging impostor complex, and criticism crushes me because I feel they’ve exposed my true bad self. Most people who know me think I’m confident and mature, but it’s a con job, and underneath the facade I’m a soggy, whimpering mess.

— Impostor

Impostor: I will start with this: There are 7! point! 9! (ish) billion people on Earth.

If seeing that number in this context helps you see the insanity of people expecting you to be Special, then you can stop right here.

If you need more, though, I’ll keep going: Some people do stand out, of course, and break through the global noise to become known to history. Even these people, though, are both crazy exceptions to the usual rules of human performance (the best athlete your local Little League ever had, let’s say, still has almost zero chance of becoming a major league player) — and largely niche players, shooting stars and eventually lost to history.

Plus, these exceptional people are not just talent plus work. They arise from this whole weird combination of born talent and work invested and focus held and planets aligned and the incredibly dumb luck of anyone’s finding just the right outlet for their talents. A great New York Times piece by Michael Sokolove posed this question back in Michael Phelps’s prime: “What if he had imagined himself a basketball player instead? In that case, he would just be another sort of tall guy sitting on the bench — one with no idea that he had missed his true calling.” Wow, that has stuck with me.

It’s not just about what you put in. It’s just not.

So stop torturing yourself for doing/not doing something that almost-100 percent-certainly didn't doom your life outcome.


Your people were nuts about you and thrilled at how clever you were and lost their hold on reality. They also, I can guess with reasonable assurance, thought quite highly of themselves and unwittingly used you to express that. It was a profound disservice, and I’m sorry they did that to you.

And if none of this is even remotely persuasive, then please find a therapist you like and talk this stuff out. You are fundamentally worthy of a life no more burdened by other people’s unreckoned-with baggage than anyone else’s.