Impostor Syndrome

I’m telling nothing new here. I’d say most people have this, at least the conscientious ones. Regardless of what you do, whether it’s traditionally seen as creative or not, if you’re like me, there’s a time when you look at yourself, you compare yourself to other people in your vaguely similar situation and you think: “I am a fraud. I’m here out of luck, I’m here because I said the right thing at the right time. They’re going to figure me out sooner or later, and I’ll be drummed out and ridiculed and shunned.”


Sometimes we have a very distorted view of ourselves.

If you haven’t, well, more power to you. I find it crippling.

Listen, I had a hard time contacting a person in the transmedia industry to ask him to be my industry mentor, and I’d already asked him if he’d be willing to entertain the idea in a class where he guest-lectured.

It’s one of the reasons I took a shot at this DCI, actually. Over ten years ago, I did an MFA in playwriting at Columbia University. I got a lot out of it, but the two really big opportunities I had, interning at a comic book company and at a late-night show, I squandered. Because I genuinely felt like I was not as good as some of the other interns there. I felt like I didn’t deserve it. Like I was being a deluded fool for sitting down with some of the show writers and asking them for advice.

I regret the hell out of that to this day. So pursuing the doctorate is not just me hoping to contribute something new to the field of knowledge, which is hard enough for me to swallow if I just look at those words on the page. It’s about pushing myself to understand that my abilities, skills, and knowledge are useful; they exist in a combination and at a quality that is meaningful.

When my knees weren’t a wreck, I practiced a martial art called iaido. The particulars aren’t really important; what is important is the notion that when it was time for testing, if they asked you to test, they pretty much figured you were ready to test, ready to pass it.

If a doctoral program accepts you, there is a genuine reason. It is not luck, it is not personal misrepresentation. There is a reason.

I’ve looked up ways of dealing with impostor syndrome. They’re usually the sort of obvious thing: make a list of positive things, don’t procrastinate, get support from friends. If I knew how to do those things, don’t you think I’d be doing them?

Making a list of positive things about myself is exceedingly difficult. For reasons I have yet to fully understand, when I start acting as my own cheering section everything sounds contrived and hollow and like the sort of thing you get at a particularly poor office retreat. “I care about people!” “Oh, honestly, that’s like saying ‘I’m a people person!’ on your resume.” What I do find useful is looking at my thought processes. I’m pretty okay at taking a step back and evaluating what my brain and heart are doing, so when I’m feeling that desperate caged-in feeling, when I think this is the moment people are going to finally figure out just how incapable I am and walk, I start evaluating physical things. Where does that caged-in feeling manifest? Has my breathing gone shallow? Are my fists clenched?

Once I’ve shorted out the onrush of fear, then I can look at things a bit more coolly. Sometimes the people I fear are the ones who go out of their way to help me. I think of the times that they’ve done that, of the times I’ve approached them with deep misgivings and they’ve been nothing but supportive.

This is where I have trouble with the whole “find people who support you” thing. On its face, this requires you to talk to trusted friends and say I’ve got this impostor problem, which in my sparking mind is tantamount to revealing my inadequacies willfully. That’s a serious no-go zone. So instead I remember the positive exchanges I have with people whose opinion, skill, knowledge, and general attitude I respect, and I replay the hell out of those exchanges in my head. If you’re anything like me, your brain clings easily and almost desperately to any negative thing said about you, or to you. It could be from strangers or friends or family, but the bad just etches itself into memory and will not let go.

My thought here is that it’s every bit as legitimate to replay the good in your head as it is the bad. If the bad experiences stick out of some overzealous response in the mind to make sure you never ever ever make that mistake again, then it’s just as useful to replay the good so you know what to do instead. Or to know that you’re not all bad, that you have some genuinely appreciable good traits.

Procrastination is much harder for me to deal with. It’s avoidance behavior, and it’s not very logical, but it’s there. I avoid doing the stressy thing that will make me feel like a fraud and a failure and do something else that’s pleasant and entertaining.

So I try to reframe things into proactive behavior. Yeah, I’m terrified of writing my treatment, finding out my idea is empty and unworkable and WHAT AM I EVER GOING TO DO, but if I think of the work instead as an exploration, a chance to play around in brain fingerpaint, then it becomes an appealing idea. It’s a slow reframe, like going from night to dawn, and I can’t push it or the whole things falls apart and feeds that self-defeatism engine, but it’s doable.

So yeah. That’s my ramble on impostor syndrome or impostor phenomenon, whatever it’s called these days. It feels a bit better to write it out, which is nice. Do any of you find that useful? Putting it down in some concrete form to confront it outside of immediate mindspace?


Image by Frank Kovalcheck, Feb 2013. Flickr.

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