Imposter Syndrome, and What It Means to Be an Adult

“I don’t feel like an adult.”

Perhaps that or any of the following statements sound familiar to you: “My adult life looks nothing like I thought it would. I thought I’d have it a lot more together by now. I thought by now I’d be finished with school, or have a stable job, or be married and have kids. Sure, I’m doing (insert list of awesome, inspiring, difficult things) but I can’t balance my checkbook/ I do my laundry at the last minute/ I eat like a teenager/ I’m scrambling for money at the end of every month/ I have eight thousand unanswered emails/ I clean my house for parties by shoving all my junk into grocery bags and sticking them in the closet. What’s wrong with me?”

I can’t tell you how many people I know who feel this way. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to think of an adult in my life who doesn’t feel this way, at least to some degree. And recently I’ve started wondering: What’s up with that?

Many religions have coming-of-age traditions: rites of passage in which children declare themselves to finally be adults. Much of the time, of course, these traditions are less about actual adulthood, and more about the formality of declaring yourself an adult so you can make a supposedly adult commitment to your religion. As a result, many people get pressured into taking part in these rituals, even when they’re having serious doubts about their religion or are even open nonbelievers. (In researching my book, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, I read a depressingly large number of these stories.) And these rites often take place at a much younger age than we generally consider people capable of making important decisions. (It’s traditional in Judaism, for instance, for bar and bat mitzvahs to take place at age thirteen, and while Catholic confirmations are common for teens, they can happen as young as age seven.)

Many humanist communities are doing nonreligious rites of passage, such as baby-namings and coming-of-age ceremonies. I think this is a fine idea. But lots of nonbelievers don’t get to have these rituals. Heck, I didn’t, and I was raised without religion. So for those of us who never had a humanist coming-of-age ceremony—and even for those of us who did—I think it’s worth asking: How do we define adulthood?

As nonreligious people, we reject the definition of adulthood as stating an adult acceptance of one’s religion, or knuckling under to pressure to do so. And as freethinkers, we’re more likely to reject the standard set of cultural markers—“adulthood” equals marriage, financial stability, higher education, a steady job, and so on. If we reject these standard definitions, then what does adulthood mean? And why do so many of us have a hard time thinking of ourselves as adults?

You may have heard of “imposter syndrome,” a condition where accomplished people see themselves as frauds, as not deserving of success or recognition, despite significant evidence to the contrary. I think imposter syndrome can apply to more than just career accomplishments. I think imposter syndrome can apply to every aspect of life, and our ability to navigate it as adults.

A big part of this, I think, comes from how we see adulthood when we’re growing up. When we’re kids, we tend to see adults as infallible, omniscient, having everything figured out. So when we ourselves become adults, and we’re all too aware of how fallible we are and how much we’re just making things up as we go along, we feel like failures. Or at least, we don’t feel like grownups. (I sometimes wonder if this contributes to the religious impulse: the panicked realization that you don’t really know what you’re doing, that none of the other adults around you knows what they’re doing, and the fact that nobody is driving the bus could easily make people yearn for an all-knowing, all-powerful cosmic parent-in-the-sky who actually has things under control.)

It’s also easy to focus on our failures rather than our successes. It makes a certain amount of sense: humans are problem-solvers, and if we’re trying to make things better for ourselves and others, it’s easy to focus on what isn’t working. But this does lead to dissatisfaction. And it’s easy to have that “grass is greener” syndrome when we’re assessing our lives. It’s easy to see other people’s lives as more together than our own—since “successful and together” is the face that people tend to present. As a friend said when we were talking about this, “Keep in mind you only see the side of other people’s lives that they want you to see. Sort of like when you think everyone but you has a clean house or apartment. They cleaned it because you were coming over!”

And I think that seeing ourselves as adults can be especially hard for people with unconventional careers and lives. Our culture’s idea of what it means to be an adult is somewhat rigid: marriage, kids, a nice home, a stable job. Now, I know in my head that this is crap: I can reel off the names of dozens of amazing adults—adults I look up to and admire and am inspired by—whose lives don’t look like that. I can think of people who left high-paying career tracks to do relief work; people who dropped out of school to become artists or musicians or writers; people who went to school to pursue uncertain careers in social work or healthcare or something else they think matters instead of going for the big bucks; people who rejected the supposed ideal of monogamous marriage and are inventing relationship structures that work for them. But the rigid image of adulthood is very prevalent, and it’s hard not to buy into. And when you’re carving out your own life, then, pretty much by definition, there’s no cultural template—no yardstick to measure yourself against to decide whether you’re doing okay.

And yet, that very conundrum—the lack of a cultural yardstick to measure success—may actually point the way out of this problem. I’m not sure I could come up with a simple, sound-bite-length definition of “adulthood.” But if I had to, it would probably be: “Carving out your own life.” It wouldn’t have anything to do with any particular marker. It would be about your ability to decide which markers matter to you. It would be about taking responsibility for your choices—and accepting the consequences of those choices.

It wouldn’t be about any particular signpost. It would mean being willing and able to paint those signs yourself.

To me, accepting without question the cultural standards of adulthood—doing what everyone expects of you simply because they expect it—that’s the opposite of responsible. That’s the opposite of adult. But if you do what matters to you, and you accept the burdens and consequences and risks of that choice—then in my eyes, you’re an adult.

Even if you do eat cookies for breakfast.