The Adventures of Impostor Syndrome

Courtesy of Carl Richards at The New York Times.

[I previously wrote on this topic in 2013 and I’m here to report that seven years later … I still have imposter syndrome. But you can read that piece here and weep, if you wish.]

Writers, and creative types more broadly, tend to share some characteristics. One of those I’ve noticed from fellow writers and other artistic types (and of course, it’s not exclusive to those in the creative/artistic fields) is that of impostor syndrome or impostor phenomenon. If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s a term first coined by psychologists Suzanne Imes, and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s, according to the American Psychological Association.

So it’s a relatively new phenomenon wherein those who achieve success are “unable to internalize and accept their success.”

“They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.”

Raise your hand if you’ve done exactly this whenever you’ve achieved some level of success. I’ve been fortunate enough to have success in my career — with both of my journalism internships and landing a good gig as an editor of a small community newspaper, and stemming from that, our paper has attracted the attention of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others, at times — but a day doesn’t go by (not exaggerating) where I think, “Welp, today’s the day they find out I’m a total fraud hack.”

I look at my peers and think, “They’re talented; I’m lucky.” I lucked into my successful stories at The Post Independent in Colorado or The Cincinnati Enquirer. I lucked into my role at The Miami Student at Miami University. I’m lucky. I don’t have the training my peers do. I don’t have that go-get it attitude they seem to have. I’m riddled with social anxiety and fear of putting myself out there and on and on the impostor syndrome talks, rationalizing away any modicum of success.

That’s why job hunting has always been an extra layer of anxiety: I look at qualifications for jobs I like to think I’m qualified for and immediately think, no I’m not actually qualified. I try to remember that if you listed my current job on the way jobs are posted there, with lengthy requirements and qualifications, I’d be too intimidated to apply for my current job. Alas, that awareness doesn’t abate the anxiety.

I’m not good enough. They’ll realize that, eventually. That’s what the impostor syndrome says. The only reason they haven’t figured it out yet is a combination of a luck and, well, maybe I’m a psychopath because I’ve been able to fool them this long.

It’s a sort of a madness, right? To be clear, it’s not actually. Impostor syndrome is not a mental disorder and it is not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5 published by the APA.

That said, the phenomenon is perhaps a symptom of low self-esteem (check!) and a sense of failure (check!) associated with depression (check!).

The particular madness of it is that the entire fear here is built on “being found out,” ergo, you don’t talk about it! If you talk about it, you’ll be found out! What a trip.

I take some solace that famous writers, who have published successful book (critically and commercially) after successful book are also plagued with this phenomenon. The great Maya Angelou said, “I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”

Chris Martin, Natalie Portman, and others also have talked about it.

I’ve seen others split up the different types of impostor syndrome into five categories: 1.) The Perfection; 2.) The Superwoman or Man; 3.) The Genius; 4.) The Individualist; and 5.) The Expert.

Perfectionist? Nope. I’ve never been someone that tries to polish something until it sheens with perfection. I’m also not a goal-setter, so that wouldn’t work.

The Genius? I’m not entirely sure what this one entails, perhaps relying more on perceived intellect rather than hard-work? I don’t know; I don’t think of myself as a genius or trying to reach those lofty goals.

The Expert? Someone who constantly keeps learning and training to improve their skills, so their boss doesn’t realize the fraud they are. Not me, either. I enjoy taking seminars and such, but that perpetual learning cycle isn’t on my radar.

The Individualist? This one gets rather close. As it sounds, this sort of person chooses to work on their own and thinks asking for help is tantamount to revealing they’re an impostor. I tend to be an individualist and disdain group projects. I’m also hard on myself when I can’t figure something out and feel like a loser if I have to ask for help.

The Superwoman or Man? Another one that gets close. Again, this person feels like they’re a phony, like all of these other types, and the way this person tries to compensate is by implementing a stronger work ethic than anyone else. I’ve certainly done this, where I’ll go into any job (not just journalism) with the mindset that I will outwork anyone, and I’ll devote more time to a project than you can to make it work (puns!).

So I’m a bit of an individualist superman, I suppose, which is fitting because I love Superman.

I’ve long harbored a pathological sense that I’m not good enough. That no matter what I do or achieve, in X, Y and Z person’s eyes or the “eyes” of society broadly speaking, I won’t be good enough. I sense that is part and parcel with impostor syndrome.

Add in a toxic mix of always being told how much potential you have (what a dreaded phrase, huh?), and not feeling like you’re living up to it, then when you do have success, it must be because you stumbled into it like a goof.

Do you think you experience this phenomenon as well? If so, which “type” do you think you fit, and how have you addressed the phenomenon, if at all?

Photo courtesy of Pablo Stanley.

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