Fictional Impostor

A few days ago, reader DS asked over email:

What’s your perspective, now, on imposter syndrome?

The timing is interesting, because I recently got shortlisted for a short-fiction award (I can now officially say I am this-award-nominated author). I looked at all the other people on the list, many of whom are way more accomplished than me (Bram Stoker awardees and such), and I felt — you guessed it — a surge of conviction that I had no business being on that list, and that someone would figure it out and cross me off. In other words, impostor syndrome. I started rationalizing my appearance on this list by things that have nothing to do with the quality of the story chosen. It turns out, one can feel like an impostor in any endeavor, and instead of knitting or doing something else that’s noncompetitive, I chose writing and publishing fiction, and now I have yet another Axis of Insecurity along which I can feel like I am not good enough.

There are plenty of women on this list, so it’s not about the likes of me being underrepresented, as is the case in my technical field. Rather, it has to do with me, personally, feeling like I am not good enough to make the selection and appear in that particular company.

We often talk about impostor syndrome as a systemic issue, and that’s certainly a big issue. When you are underrepresented in a competitive field, it exacerbates the feeling that you don’t belong. But individual people feeling insecure about their own competence is at the core of impostor syndrome, and beneath it is a fundamental, deep lack of belief that what you do matter.

I wrote about imposter syndrome frequently in the past, for example, here. and here. There are more posts, probably a dozen or so  total, which you can find by searching the blog for the word impostor (there’s a search box, not too visible on the desktop, but it’s in the dark gray line of the horizontal top menu).

I am happy to report that, when it comes to my profession, my impostor syndrome has greatly abated. I own my seniority and actually feel (rather than only know intellectually) that I am accomplished. For the most part, I am treated as someone who is established — when invited to serve on panels, to write various evaluation letters, to review papers. Colleagues ask for my opinion and advice. Students listen to what I have to say. In my late 40s, I’m at the top of my professional game, but, more importantly, I  feel that I am at the top of my game.

As I  wrote recently, it’s not all smooth. There are always new douches who expect me to convince them of my competence. But what has changed is that my gut response is, ‘I am fucking senior. I don’t need to convince you of shit. I can just drop this nonsense and leave, and it will truly be your loss.’ And then I actually believe it.

I don’t know what it is that finally made me feel like I am where I should be and doing what I should be. Probably a combination of things. Among them, for sure, is having been able to successfully propel junior people. Helping people get first-author publications, receive PhDs, and get good jobs on the strength of my professional connections; heling junior faculty make tenure; helping junior collaborators fashion white papers and proposals from something ho-hum into something exciting and fundable.

To me, all the objective markers of competence reached a critical mass and finally managed to convince me that I am no longer an impostor. Granted, all this took the better part of two decades, but better late than never, and, most importantly, it did eventually happen.

I see male faculty who are junior to me and who’ve never had to waste energy on battling impostor syndrome. That’s a lot of energy that they can use more productively. But, as annoying and energy-wasting as impostor syndrome may be, I also feel it keeps a person humble. And, in my case, I think it also makes me better attuned to those who might be fighting their own insecurities, and makes me more generous when offering support and praise.

Now I have a new endeavor, and impostor syndrome flares up again. I look at all the established authors while I feel like someone who belongs at the kiddie table. There are writers who started around the same time as me, but who write much more and have already gotten novels and movie deals and big awards. It’s hard not to feel like I really have no business being there, with my one story every few weeks, working around my family and demanding day job, tackling a novel over school breaks. And the worst thing is that I feel greedy. Yes, you read it correctly — greedy. Like all these folks hustling for writing success are giving it their all. I already have a career — a well-paid, competitive, successful career — so who am I to write? Should I not leave it to serious writers? Am I taking oxygen and publication space and award-shortlist space from those who are more worthy? (Yes, this sounds exactly like a woman professor feeling she’s snatched a faculty position from underneath the men who are somehow entitled to it. )

(My husband, of course, is a man lucky not to have ever been afflicted with impostor syndrome. He finds my worries about greediness ludicrous, and generally encourages me to pursue each and every one of my hobbies and interests, saying that being awesome at more than one thing is, well, awesome, and that I don’t owe anyone anything, certainly not to step away so they could have their chance. Of course he makes sense. He always makes sense. I know all this intellectually, but it’s hard to feel the truth of it at my core.)

I think some people are particularly susceptible to impostor syndrome; it has to do with general insecurity. (Some other people don’t feel they should stop doing a thing even in the face of ample evidence to the contrary, so yeah.) But women, in particular, are socialized to not take up space, to not ask for consideration, and instead to make sure everyone else’s needs and wants are met first. I know this is how I often feel, and it takes a lot of energy to keep overriding it every single day. It has to do with a deep feeling that what we are and what we want is simply not very important, and that others have the right to be noticed and appreciates before us, and all this absolutely comes from family and early education. Sadly, these traits are absolute murder for a woman who, as an adult, tries to achieve anything professionally in the modern US society, where one must project confidence and self-promote, both very much traits praised in boys but not in girls. Of course things feel unnatural and unwelcoming when you have to play on a field where all your strengths are weaknesses, and where your systematically extinguished natural impulses suddenly seem to be prime strengths.

Honestly, this topic makes me weary.

I wish I were a more confident person at my core. I am not. All the confidence I have is hard won, and supported by abundant objective evidence. The bad news is that some people feel like they’re on top of the world, no matter what, and most things are easier for them. The good news is that insecurity can make you  more tenacious and resilient, and also more compassionate as a person and mentor, and insecurity doesn’t actually have to stave off real achievement. And, at least in my case, enough objective achievement in my work did move the needle on my dial of self-worth. Maybe it will happen again some day with my fiction, too.

Wise and worldly readers, let me know what you think about impostor syndrome and confidence, in general. 

One comment

  1. I had impostor syndrome for years. In my last job I was a web developer, self-trained and good at what I did, but I felt that if I didn’t know every aspect of design, code, and configuration I was somehow an impostor and everyone would find out. My academic department was running an impostor syndrome seminar for graduate students and I was looking forward to attending to find out how to vanquish it. But the week of the seminar I was inundated by projects and realized I wouldn’t get them done if I took a day off for the seminar. Suddenly it hit me: if I was too busy to attend a seminar on the impostor syndrome…I was not an impostor, I was doing real work and getting it accomplished! My fears vanished like a cloud of bad weather and have never come back.

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