My poetry blog is called “I pretend I’m a writer.” When people ask me what I “do” I usually mumble something along the lines of being self-employed and change the subject. Even though I am medically diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, I wonder if I’m faking the pain. In short, I believe nothing about myself. I’m an imposter.
Imposter Syndrome is widespread and well documented. Gina Mei wrote a great piece on it the other day – Fraud Police. “I quit digital marketing to write and somehow tricked someone into paying me for it,” she begins, which is basically how I feel. Everything I have now, everything I’m doing – I’ve tricked people into it. Soon enough, I’ll stumble, they’ll figure out that I’m a talentless hack and then all bets are off.
Coined in the 1970s by psychologists and researchers to informally describe people who are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Notably, impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women, although some studies indicate that both genders may be affected in equal numbers.
Last time I saw my therapist, she said to me “Why are you so convinced that you can’t cope, that you can’t do what you want, be what you want to be? All the evidence is there that you can, that you are.” I just looked at her like, what?
The above definition from Wikipedia is me to the absolute T. The portfolio of poetry I’ve been working on this semester explored quite a lot of this – writers as liars and tricksters, me figuring out my own identity, creating Found Poems and calling them Stolen Creativity.
I often gush about how fortunate I feel, how very lucky, that I somehow evaded the fraud police and slipped through the cracks. Objectively, this is silly: I’m a writer and I always have been and I probably always will be. But saying this feels like a fib, a childish idea — as though being a “real writer” is a tier that I have no right to claim. Yesterday, I cleaned my toilet and Swiffered a wig of hair and dust from under my bed. I did not work on the Next Great American Novel. – Gina Mei
This post has been really hard to write, because the issue is quite complex, and for me, it’s a pervasive thing. I don’t just feel like as an imposter as a writer, although that’s what been on my mind a lot. I feel it with my physical health, my mental health, and my relationships.
Also, this is a yet another gender issue.
As women, we are taught from a young age to downplay our intelligence and talent. To paraphrase Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, we are taught to shrink ourselves and make our voices smaller. It makes sense that those of us who have been conditioned to believe we deserve nothing will put those beliefs into practice.
While by no means something that only affects young women, it does seem that impostor syndrome is especially prevalent amongst women in their 20’s. Appropriately, the term first seemed to gain popularity around the interwebs thanks to author Hannah Kent’s 2012 TED Talk, “Luck, Error, and Charm.” (Gina Mei)
In an article for Rookie – You can’t fake real – Brodie Lancaster relays a story about being on a panel for the Melbourne Writers Festival after seeing Kent’s talk.
The moderator asked the five panelists to name a women who has changed our lives for the better. We took turns praising the people who had inspired us. Then it was time to take questions from the audience, and someone asked how we, the panelists, respond to the kind of praise we had just given our heroines. Four out of five panelists grew visibly uncomfortable. We stumbled over ourselves to avoid the question; each woman desperately tried to shift the spotlight off of herself and onto the rest of the panel. “What, me? Get out! Nobody cares what I do!” we said. “I don’t know why anyone would admire me,” we protested. “I don’t know what I’m doing!”
The only person on the panel who wasn’t playing treating the idea of praise like a hot potato was Rookie’s own illustrator extraordinaire (and now my unofficial life coach) Minna Gilligan, who, after taking in our absurd attempts at humility, calmly said, “You’re all amazing.” She said it like a parent telling a couple of kids to stop fighting, they’re both pretty, and had the effect of forcing us to confront the self-negation we were reinforcing in ourselves, one another, and the audience. For a moment, I couldn’t believe we’d all slipped into self-doubt mode so easily. The fact that four successful, adult women could so swiftly flip the switch from “Here’s why this woman is so admirable and wonderful,” to “Don’t pay me any mind, I’m nothing special” showed me how pervasive and sneaky impostor syndrome can be.
That word again – pervasive.
When I applied for the creative writing course at the Institute of Modern Letters, I was convinced I wouldn’t get in. Then I did and I had two weeks to sort my life out and move to Wellington to do it.
During my time there, I’ve met a bunch of people and been asked to participate in a few writing events – like Wellington LitCrawl – and my wonderful little voice whispers to me “they don’t really like you. They’ve got the wrong person. You’re gonna bomb so bad.”
This is the same for most of my relationships. I have to spend a bunch of time convincing myself my friends actually like me and think I’m worth being around. And there’s the rub – imposter syndrome is intrinsically linked to self worth and self esteem. If you don’t hold yourself in high esteem, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll be able to accept that others do.
It even spreads to my physical diagnoses, as I mentioned earlier. Despite having all of these on paper, my little voice whispers that I fake the pain for attention. That I’m actually just lazy and exaggerating and I should shut the hell up and go get a job. This is probably one of the reasons I find it so hard to deal with trolls online – they say exactly what’s in my head.
None of that is the slightest bit true. So I guess the first place to start is myself. This has nothing to do with anyone else making mistakes. This is about me learning to internalise the positive things I get told, to not need reinforcement. I know that I haven’t, somehow, incredibly, tricked hundreds of people into thinking I’m an ok girl. I really am an ok girl. (FRIENDS ref, soz if that makes no sense to you).
Step one – Listen to people
Step two – Internalise, baby!
Step three – Rise to the occasion:
Impostor syndrome used to be something I would wallow in for days, weeks, or months. Now, I experience it in fleeting moments,” Ashley Ford wrote for Hughes’ Hairpin piece. “I had to accept that when I’m in a group of people I think of as above me, better than me, or smarter than me, I’m still in the damn room. There’s nothing to do now but rise to the occasion.
There’s a David Whyte poem about faith that I often refer back to. I think it fits here.
I want to write about faith,
about the way the moon rises
over cold snow, night after night,
faithful even as it fades from fullness,
slowly becoming that last curving and impossible
sliver of light before the final darkness.
But I have no faith myself
I refuse it even the smallest entry.
Let this then, my small poem,
like a new moon, slender and barely open,
be the first prayer that opens me to faith.