Impostor syndrome is where, no matter how skilled and experienced you are, you feel like a fraud. That at any moment, someone will tap you on the shoulder and say "Excuse me ma'am, there's been a mistake... you're not supposed to work here? Also everyone can tell you have no idea what appropriate officewear is, and that you used dry shampoo instead of having a shower this morning. Please gather up your things. So sorry about the mix-up."
At least that's my version, I gather with some people it's a more dramatic unmasking, but for me I always imagine being informed quietly by a butler who's a bit embarrassed for me. And it can be any field, personal or professional.
Anyway here's my 3 tactics, you'll definitely know the 1st, maybe the 2nd, but the 3rd, courtesy of scifi author Chuck Wendig, is a new one to me and I love it.
1. Understand that literally everyone, however famous and lauded, feels this way. Here's an amazing (brief!) story of Neil Gaiman's experience with impostor syndrome. The point being that if everyone feels it, then it's not meaningful feedback. It's a response to being human, not a response to being a fraud (indeed, real frauds often seem LESS likely to feel it). So feeling like a fraud is no particular indication of whether you are or not - it's just not a reliable messenger.
2. This only works with people you respect, such as if you work among talented and admirable people, or you feel like your partner thinks you're much more wonderful than you really are and one day they're going to figure it out and leave you. Basically you leverage your respect for them.
They're really smart right? And perceptive, and talented? They know what good work looks like, they've worked with dozens of people before? So if you're really this big doofus that you think you are, how did you manage to successfully deceive multiple piercingly intelligent and competent people, over the course of months? Do you think they would be very easy to fool? (Also, you can't "trick" someone into liking your art. Liking an artwork vs only falsely believing you like an artwork is the same thing. You are experiencing the emotion of enjoying that art.)
3. Chuck Wendig's advice is to lean into it. (Probably works best in situations where the above won't work.)
"I learn to embrace the joy of the forbidden. What I mean is this: impostor syndrome wants you to feel like a new kid in class, and every moment of your career feels like you entering the classroom and going to sit down at a faraway desk as everyone stares at you, The New Kid.
But there's a different version if it, where you experience an illicit thrill of being somewhere you're explicitly not supposed to be. It's like sneaking backstage at a concert. Or hanging out in your high school after hours, after everything is shut and everyone is gone.
There are a few real-world analogs to this I've experienced -- in Hawaii, I've been to places where you're not supposed to go, off-the-beaten-path, and you can see some truly delirious waterfalls, beaches, cliffs, if you do. Or, having crashed a party or an event you weren't invited to? Suddenly you're quickly shoveling down fancy horse-doovers and pretending like you're supposed to be there.
Recently I got to sit in First Class for the first time, and it was like, exciting because I knew I didn't belong there. I was like HA HA FUCK YOU I AM DRINKING SCOTCH BEFORE WE TAKE OFF AT 11AM THAT'S RIGHT, I'M A FLY IN YOUR MILK, RICH PEOPLE. I SEE YOU LOOKING AT ME, GUY IN THE THIRD ROW. IT'S ME, THE BARBARIAN IN ROW 4, BUDDY. HUGS AND KISSES, GUY-WHO-IS-PROBABLY-A-CEO. HA HA HA SUCK IT.
And it's that "ha ha ha suck it" that feels so good about being somewhere you're not supposed to be. There is a great deal of freedom, in fact, in that. Being the barbarian at the gate comes with a great deal of reduced responsibility. Because you're breaking the rules. You've changed the game. You're not supposed to be here, and yet, here you are.
Impostor Syndrome can either be you, The New Kid, nervous about not belonging. Or it can be you, the Party-Crasher, joyfully gobbling down fancy foods and enjoying the anarchy of your uninvited presence."
This piece was originally published in The Whippet #35 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!
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