The pitfalls of poly imposter syndrome

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A row of papier maché masks hanging on the wall.

Imposter syndrome, a sense of somehow being undeserving of certain titles or labels – often accompanied by a fear of being ‘outed’ as a fraud – is most commonly associated with the workplace. But what happens when it creeps into our personal lives?

I was sitting in a cafe a couple of months ago with a friend who had just finished a postdoctoral degree in physics.

After 13 years of school education, three years of undergraduate, a masters degree and four years of hard work researching complicated physics, I asked her if she’d describe herself as a ‘physicist’. She said no.

I asked if her colleagues, at similar career stages to her, were physicists. She said yes. But she couldn’t really put her finger on why she didn’t feel she‘d earned this title herself. 

I often feel like an outsider or a pretender in polyamory circles, and only realised fairly recently that I’m not alone in this. So why is it that we can feel like imposters in what are often very welcoming, open and inclusive spaces?

A lot of my anxiety is based on some assumptions I made without realising. Assumptions about what I think a ‘good’ or ‘typical’ polyamorous person looks like.

Here are some of my big stumbling blocks – and how I’ve begun to overcome them.

I’m quite good at monogamy

I haven’t always been in ethically non-monogamous relationships. I made the leap into ethical non-monogamy almost two years ago.

I’d previously dabbled with don’t-ask-don’t-tell and variations on monogamish, but when I met my current partner and he was openly dating someone else, it solidified a lot of my thoughts and feelings around relationships. I stepped into poly fully.

A friend recently told me they’d ‘never really had a choice’ about being polyamorous. This is just the way they’ve always felt about relationships. I understand that this is many people’s experience but it hasn’t been mine – I don’t feel particularly ‘trapped’ by monogamy as others describe. Non-monogamy is a deliberate and conscious choice for me. It fits me and the people in my life at the moment.

There’s a quiz at the start of The Jealousy Workbook to help you determine if you’re more inclined to monogamy or non-monogamy, and I always seem to come out squarely in the middle with a capacity for either.

It can feel like everyone in the polyamory community is doing this because it’s their only option – and that they somehow belong here more than I do.

I only have one partner (at the moment)

For the first half of 2018, I had two partners. Other than that, over the last two years, I’ve only really had one. With mostly monogamous friends this can simplify things as I no longer refer to my partner as ‘one of my partners’ (a tactic I used to assert my status among the non-monogamous).

With polyamorous friends, I sometimes feel like I need to amplify any online or face-to-face dating I’ve been doing to ‘prove myself’ as non-monogamous.

I was chatting about this at a recent meet in my hometown, and one friend explained that they had never really felt like a polyamory imposter because their personal definition for polyamory involved potential. As long as they were open to the potential for multiple romantic and/or physical relationships, they felt they belonged within the definition of ‘polyamorous’.

I know on a rational level that I don’t have to have multiple concurrent partners to identify as polyamorous, just as the gender of my current partner doesn’t affect my pansexual identity. But the feeling of being the odd one out when surrounded by friends and their constellations of partners and metamours is strong.

Until very recently I’d been feeling the fallout from the end of a turbulent relationship and my workload had been so intense that I wasn’t interested in finding new partners. Which leads me to:

I’m not interested in more partners (right now)

There have been phases in life where almost every person walking past has seemed worthy of a head turn, but right now I don’t seem to find many people attractive.

I’m completely aware that this is partly due to weather and day-length changes affecting my energy, partly due a fairly messy breakup and partly due to just being kind of busy. Don’t get me wrong – I love the idea of smooshing faces with attractive people, but the whole seduction dance that goes along with it seems exhausting to me at the moment.

Some of my polyamorous friends seem to be constantly getting excited about new dates or partners or opportunities to meet people who could become dates or partners… and I think that’s pretty awesome. I do miss that excitement but I know I need to prioritise dates with myself right now (because who doesn’t love a bath with a glass of wine followed by Netflix in a dressing gown – and not having to talk to another human?).

I (still) get jealous

Jealousy, or ‘wobbles’ as they’re known in the poly community, are so accepted as part of polyamory (particularly in the early stages or for couples opening up), that most books on non-monogamy devote a couple of chapters to the topic. I still get wobbles and occasionally I get them hard from (what feels like) nowhere.

My current partner is patient and understanding and we’ve grown together in wonderful ways, improving how we communicate about thoughts and feelings. I know he is there for me in crisis and in celebrations, but there is still an insecure voice in my head that feels threatened when he gets smiley and excited about a new person.

I feel jealousy and compersion at the same time. I’m constantly working on my feelings and reflecting on why I feel certain things. But sometimes I wish I could just stop having these extreme reactions already!

Compersion – in this case being happy for my partner when he’s caught up in a new experience – has definitely come as a surprise to me. I understood, in theory, that I could celebrate my lover’s joy, but before experiencing it myself I was skeptical that compersion could be as strong (or stronger even) than jealousy.

I don’t always understand partners’ jealousy

I get wobbly. I get jealous. Generally, if I’m able to have a frank conversation with someone I can ease this or at least make it manageable. My jealousy tends to stem from a fear of being replaced and I’m still working out what reassurances I can ask for. All of this feels like positive work and progress.

When a partner is in a wobble, I try to provide them with reassurances and listen to their worries. In situations where a partner’s jealousy seems to grow rather than lessen over time, or if they become fixated on a specific aspect of another relationship, I can feel incredibly guilty and incredibly helpless.

I mentioned The Jealousy Workbook before, and I actually got a copy to try and ease tension in a relationship that had reached breaking point – in large part due to a partner’s jealousy. Working through exercises together was useful as it helped me see things from their point of view, but exercises seemed of little benefit to my partner. Eventually, their jealousy ended our relationship and there’s a part of me that feels that if I had been ‘better’ at polyamory I could have helped them more and saved it.

I have so much more to learn

This last point is one of the things I love most about polyamory. There are so many books, blogs, podcasts and communities (both physical and virtual) that even when I think I have a handle on how I and others around me function, I can still learn so much from the experiences of others.

Through polyamory, I’ve realised that I don’t know half of what I thought I knew about my own needs and boundaries. I’ve also learned that my communication skills could do with some work. I’ve pushed myself emotionally in places where I thought I was confident and secure and found that I still have a ways to go. At times, I’ve wondered whether it wouldn’t just be easier to ‘go back to monogamy’.

Someone once told me that we aren’t ‘in’ relationships, we are ‘practising’ them. I love the idea that life and love are about growing and learning. Making mistakes is hard and it can hurt and it’s particularly frustrating when I get stuck in familiar cycles, but I’m trying to maintain perspective on this. I can process these experiences without them hardening me.

Final thoughts

I know a lot of these insecurities are based on my own in-built assumptions around what polyamory is or should be. I also know that seeing others post about these issues and mention them in conversation has helped me come to terms with them. So I hope me sharing my experiences has been helpful for you too.

I still feel like an imposter – but at least I’m not the only one.


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