Imposter Syndrome: I am so bad at poly!!

I suffer from Imposter Syndrome: the phenomenon of feeling like you suck at something regardless of evidence to the contrary. That label rings true for me when it comes to polyamory. People ask me for advice! Support! My opinions!! They read my blog! They come hear me speak! But OMG you guys, I am so bad at this sometimes . . . 

There are all sorts of ways folks measure success in relationships, but most of those are based on monogamous ideology. In non-monogamy we hold up concepts like autonomy, compersion, kitchen-table poly, egalitarianism, owning your shit, and being “out” as holy grails of doing things right. I’m not here to tell you any of those things are right or wrong, or that if you aspire to them, you should not . . . but I would like you to know that if you’re trying, and you’re not perfect, that that’s okay, too.

All of these things challenge the dominant narrative in the culture I hail from, and there are not a ton of viable role models or support networks readily available to reinforce my positive attitude towards non-monogamy.

Sometimes I find dark places in which it seems like it would be so much easier to give up my hard-won autonomy and submit to rules I don’t believe in just to feel like I’m at least doing something right.

I mean, I won’t do that – I know myself well enough to know that while I was able to function that way for nearly a decade and a half, I don’t ever want to do it again. I do, however, miss the security of following the path of greatest acceptance – that all my socially reinforced expectations of my partner were justified. I miss not second-guessing my wants and needs, and I miss not wondering if I’m just a shitty partner half the time.

At times, I feel overwhelmed spending large amounts of energy unlearning all the ways in which society taught me to experience love. Talking myself out of wanting to be prioritized above other people my partner is close to. Accepting family holidays don’t belong to just me and a partner alone. Dismantling ownership in close relationships. Relearning “special.” Relearning what it means to be sexually partnered. Relearning what love looks like. Relearning what safe looks like. Weighing how important it really is that other people approve of my life. Making sure I let that go. Thinking of the children!! Being brave. Being strong. No, not like that. Doing things I’ve never been taught and perhaps have to make up as I go. Being okay while I do it, or . . . faking it ‘til I make it.

But I also know this: it takes a lot of courage to live authentically, regardless of how others perceive you. And, to commit to doing “the work” when struggling, even when you don’t have anyone with experience to lean on. Challenging the status quo is totally worth it, but we do ourselves a disservice when we pretend it’s a cake walk.

I’m much better at finding compassion for folks at various points in their emotional journey than I am for finding that grace with my own self. 

What seems to help me the most is being transparent with others about my struggles. There is a tendency to feel shame and embarrassment when we don’t live up to our own expectations, but it can be cathartic to use our worst moments to make others feel like they aren’t monsters themselves. Especially anytime anyone seems to be under the impression I walk through this life with anything resembling ease. While it’s true I’m far better (by my own standards) than I used to be, my journey has been fraught with manifestations of my character defects, for sure. Whenever I get the chance, I share what I can about the times I’ve shown up in my relationships as less-than-my-best-self. Insecurity can be an asshole! What’s most important is learning from mistakes, and showing up better the next chance you get.

I’ve heard it recommended that we focus on progress and not perfection. Being transparent with others about my struggles helps reinforce to myself that I’ve made progress, and it gives others permission to struggle, too. At least that’s my hope, because misery thrives in isolation and we all deserve room to grow.

Image credit: Photo by Kolar.io on Unsplash

Oh, The Humanity . . .

I once had an English professor insist that no experience was truly universal. She was right to caution us against alienating readers with hyperbole, but if there were a universal human experience, it would be a perfectly imperfect existence.

The human condition requires that we make mistakes. Statistics ensure we make them most often with those we spend the majority of our time with. If we are lucky, we are loved through them and trusted to do better next time. But being worthy of that trust requires awareness and a desire to do better. Aye, there’s the rub . . . 

It’s easy to make mistakes when you don’t have a clear path. Walk your living space in broad daylight and your route is simple to discern: your spatial awareness, balance and all your future moves can be processed and mapped out before you take the first step. Walk that same path with no light and it’s another experience entirely: each move you make carries with it the possibility of ruin, or at least a stubbed toe. This is what it can be like to navigate non-traditional relationship structures. Without millennia of approved examples to refer to, we’re left to make it up as we go – or, you know, muck it up as we go.

Mistakes come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes you just don’t know any better. Sometimes you do . . . and you do it anyway, only to wish you hadn’t. Oh, and sometimes you don’t realize you’ve messed up until much, much later.

I’ve been on both sides of Mistake Lake. I’ve been the person rowing us out to the middle, and the person being dragged behind the boat. Neither position is particularly pleasurable; both have roles and responsibilities in relationships focused on continuous improvement.

If there were achievements to unlock in this regard, you could consider me an expert-level mistaker. It’s like I’m on a lifelong quest to locate all the ‘Oh, Shit’ easter eggs on this plane of existence. Sometimes I make the same damn mistakes over and over, even as I watch myself do it. 

OH MY GOD HOW DOES ANYONE LOVE ME?!?!?

My mistakes generally happen in the form of words that come out of my most prominent face-hole. It would stand to reason that a writer would gravitate towards that particular mechanism of dumbassery, yes? Words: they are my blessing and my curse. But words, contextualized with motivation, are behavior indeed. Speech is an act – never doubt it. Whether unkind, unnecessary, untrue, or unhelpful, there are all manner of reasons to need to reconsider one’s words. And I’m aware of all of them.

My weapon of choice? Passive-aggression.

Because of COURSE I choose the sword I hate the most from my own collection. After all, it’s forged in the fires of plausible deniability and is therefore nearly invincible. The only defense against it is a higher moral standard, but one cut alone is often enough to exsanguinate my victims of their moral lifeblood: emotional maturity.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on myself, but folks, there are days when I feel like such an imposter and Bad Poly Person that it’s hard to imagine ever fully coming back from my missteps when they happen.

But I do. We all do, if we want to.

Regardless of your weapon of choice, I carry a nifty tool in my relationship toolbox you might find helpful. It’s called an amends. The way it works is pretty simple: when you realize you’ve done something you wish you hadn’t, you acknowledge the error in an apology, ask if there’s anything you can do to right the wrong, do that thing if it’s in your power to do, and then resolve to do better next time. Also? Forgive yourself. You’re not in control of whether or not anyone else does, but believe in your own desire to be a good person and be gentle with your self-talk. Beating yourself up will accomplish nothing.

And if you’re on the other side of this ritual? Try as best you can to extend the grace you’d hope for if it were you. This is how we love each other through the bullshit when we have to build our support networks from the ground up. Holding onto resentment when someone is making an effort to repair their wrongs is usually an inefficient use of emotional energy and does little to incentivize folks to do better next time.

One caveat though: if these missteps become a pattern of behavior someone always apologizes for but never shows up differently in? You just might be dealing with someone it would be best to distance yourself from. Leveraging false grace to continue to be an asshole is some next-level shit. Recovering from mistakes requires effort, progress, and change – don’t accept less than that.

Once upon a time, I became an ordained minister of an internet church so I could perform services for my eldest child and my now daughter-in-law. In that, I was gifted the opportunity to write their vows. The only one I wrote was a promise that they continue to be sweet one another.

And really, that’s all this boils down to. The human condition guarantees we will grind some undeserved salt on our loved ones from time to time. I implore you to use your grown-up tools to find the sweetness you truly intend, and the vulnerability to give, and accept it, in kind.