Monday, February 1, 2016

Impostor Syndrome

Over on his blog, Whatever, popular SF author John Scalzi talks about a phenomenon he's been experiencing a lot lately among fellow writers while attending conventions and other social-professional gatherings: Impostor Syndrome. In his own words, here's how he describes the term:

"Impostor Syndrome, briefly put, is the feeling that one’s achievements and status are a fluke, and that sooner or later one will be revealed as a fraud. Anecdotally speaking, it seems, Imposter Syndrome affects a lot of writers, editors and other folks in the publishing life. I think this is in part because the writing life is a precarious one, financially and otherwise, and also in part because people in publishing seem to be a generally neurotic lot anyway. Imposter Syndrome is just another log on that particular fire."

As a struggling writer myself (struggling in that I'm constantly trying to improve my craft and "get better"), I'm certainly no stranger to crippling self-doubt. But I'm not sure I would classify myself under suffering from this particular syndrome. Then again, I have not yet reached the level of professional accomplishment within the field of SF publishing as the folk Scalzi is referring to in his piece. Yet I get the feeling that even when I do reach such a level, I probably will feel as if I worked my ass off to get there, and probably won't have much time to wonder if perhaps I am an impostor.

I mean, like I said before, I have my own level of self critique/doubt that is always in the back of my mind as I write. But I have a peculiar realization when it comes to that nagging voice telling me that I will never amount to anything, ever.

It's there, truthfully, only because I'm strong enough to have that voice there.

In other words, that self doubt does not trouble me. It is not my disability, because I cannot be harmed or hampered in such manner. That voice is more like that of an aggressive high school coach, or perhaps boot camp drill sergeant is more accurate. It berates me, it yells at me, it tells me that I'm no fucking good and that no one will ever love me, maggot! But it does so because deep down that voice just wants me to succeed. See? It wants me to develop a thick skin and to shrug off such negativity and continue pushing myself forward. To be the best me I can be because that's all I can be!

And because I'm actually very well grounded and come from an upbringing of constant positive reinforcement -- from, first, my mother; and then later, my grandmother and aunt -- that the opposite of such positivity really has very little effect on my ego. I hear the voice loud and clear, yes; but I never allow it to truly reach me.

I do, however, know a few people who are the opposite of myself. Who try their best to convince everyone else that they suffer no such voices in their heads. That they've always known they were meant for great things, and that it never once even crossed their minds to ever doubt themselves.

And, great. That's awesome! More power to you, sister. But, honestly? I suspect that most of them are quite delusional. At least one guy I know personally is most definitely full of his own shit. He likes to talk a big game about how good he is at his craft, but yet never really puts in the real work it takes to actually be good at it. How can that be?

Well, as they say: the BS is strong in this one!

This person never likes to hear me talk down about my own work. He gives me a look as if I'm committing artistic suicide. He claims that he never doubts himself. But, really? Never? How is that even possible? For me, self doubt is how an artist perfects himself. Or, at least, motivates himself to keep going and improve. A person who does not possess even a modicum of this self-critique . . . well, how can he ever get better at his craft?

No, what I suspect is that such a person is in fact quite insecure in their abilities. Ironically, he lives in constant, neurotic fear of failure. Moreover, he may even suffer from great personal depression. The type of person who truly *needs* to believe that he is the best thing that has ever happened to his field of practice, or else he has no reason for being. In his mind, that voice is quite crippling indeed! And so, to hide this perceived weakness, he protects himself behind aggrandized claims to greatness and braggadocio. By promoting a persona that is above such things as doubt and uncertainty.

And that to me, my friends, is the true Impostor Syndrome. It is not when one questions one's right to be in a position to receive recognition and accolades for one's artistic achievements. Perhaps, instead, the real impostor is the artist who feels he should be handed such platitudes based simply on the God-given genius he was born with, and to which he never really needed to work at.

Such people are the true enigmas; the doppelgängers, if you will, of artistic merit.


  1. Doubt is one of the things that makes accomplishment possible!

  2. OMG! This was never so strong for me as when I stepped up to the line at the Pacific Crest to run my first (and only - so far) marathon...I thought, "what am I thinking. I'm the fattest one here?" But I'd been running 20 miles at a time for months...and had no problem finishing and actually medaling...but sometimes I still think "what am I thinking?" whenever I step up to the line to run ...NO KIDDING. Why won't that little voice just shut up...

  3. Rick -- Precisely! Can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Or, something like that. Eh. Well, anyway, glad someone gets it. :)

  4. Kim -- That is so impressive! I'm still in awe at all that you have accomplished these past several years. And, I think the true fear is what happens if that voice ever DOES shut up.

  5. First congrats on the short story sale!!!! Oh man that's really cool, love it.

    I went to a in-state local college in Massachusetts for Biotech. Small public school. At my first job my fellow 4 new hires had gone to MIT, Brown, BU, or BC. I thought "no way do I belong here, no way am I ready."

    Well I was WAY better than they were and after almost 20 years have become maybe the top molecular biology techniques man in the field. So I had doubt at first :)

  6. Thanks, Jeremiah! :)

    And, yes ... so it seems a little self-doubt went a long way for you as well. Good job, buddy!


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