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Recently, I came across a few posts about Imposter Syndrome. Along with that link, there is a very good personal essay about one woman's experience with it over on Geek Feminism.

The short definition is "Impostor syndrome describes a situation where someone feels like an imposter or fraud because they think that their accomplishments are nowhere near as good as those of the people around them. Usually, their accomplishments are just as good, and the person is being needlessly insecure."[above link]

I was struck when I first started reading about this, because it absolutely describes the problems I have faced in trying to learn more about computer technology. I've wanted to learn various things, but feel that I'm not good enough, and I frequently find myself denying what I know I'm good at. I'm always second-guessing myself.

And then I realized that it's not just the geeky stuff that it affects; it affects my writing, too.

If someone asks me about my writing achievements, I will certainly mention what I've done, but I'm quick follow up with "but." "But I'm just e-published." "But I haven't sold much." "But it's not that good." I don't feel like I have made any huge accomplishments to be proud of, in part because I'm not published through a big New York house. Realistically, that is becoming less important every single year, and even if I were, I think I would still feel the same way.

It's something I hear a lot from writers. I've been in a lot of writers' groups, and it's so very common that someone will get published, but still feel like they're some kind of sham. That it's not real. That they're making it up. I suspect the "sophomore novel" blues that frequently are discussed have something to do with Imposter Syndrome -- we have trouble believing that what we've done is real and valuable, and now that the whole world is looking at us, now they're going to see what a farce we really are.

This year, I wanted to submit ideas for panels to my local SF convention. I went last year, and they had a wide range of panelists. Many people only had short story publications, and some were not even published, but had real life experience in what they were talking about. Despite having several e-published books, I couldn't believe that anyone would take me seriously. I was convinced people would just laugh at me. That they'd see that I was some sort of fake, a fraud. And then came the shame, that, who the hell did I think I was, trying to present myself as some sort of expert? What the fuck was I thinking, that I had anything worthwhile to share?

All these things ran through my head, and my gut twisted and turned, and I just let the deadline pass, because deep-down, some part of me doesn't believe that I have the credentials to speak on -- well, any issue. And truthfully, I don't think it would be any different if I were NY published. Because I have seen the same thing from NY published authors.

And it seems primarily a problem that affects women. We are so devalued by society that it is hard for us to believe that our ideas and experiences are worthwhile. It is hard to believe that there are those that would value our expertise when it is still common to run across people who tell you to shut up and demand to speak to a man instead. It's something that is reiterated through all our lives, when as kids boys are called on more often in class to answer questions and rewarded more.

Even now, just writing this, my gut is twisting and I fear that I'll be ridiculed for speaking about this with any sort of authority -- because, after all, don't others have it worse? Aren't there other people better able to speak? Why should anyone believe me?

It's part of what led to a breakdown the other night when I received a hurtful comment related to some of my writing. The comment came from someone I trusted, and the novel the commentary was about was one that I had some amount of confidence about. The end result being that I was completely torn up and questioning whether I should even keep at this thing, because, well, obviously I'm just a fake and not anywhere near as good as I think, and I should just give up and make way for Real Writers...

And I know that's bullshit. I really do. And I suspect some people are going to be rolling their eyes here and thinking that I need to get some self-confidence. But it isn't about that, really. It's a cultural issue. Otherwise this wouldn't be so common. Otherwise you would not see professional, published authors, some of them award-winning even, convinced that they suck.

It's not generally talked about. I think it needs to be. I think that's the only way that it will ever change -- that we speak up about our fears and our doubts and these deep feelings that we aren't good enough. Because, you know, I can't put into words how it felt when I first read that article on Imposter Syndrome. I just about burst into tears, because, oh my gods, there was someone out there that was going through the same thing. It wasn't just me. I wasn't crazy.

And I'm writing this, and I'm convinced that I'm going to be told that I'm crazy, that I don't know what I'm talking about, that it isn't that big a deal, that I need to suck it up, that I'm some kind of fraud, that I can't speak about these issues, that this isn't a real issue, that I'm just making it up. I'm scared to the point of my gut knotting and feeling like I'm going to throw up. But I have to write this, and get it out there, because if I feel this way, there have to be others. I know there are others.

This is a discussion that we need to have. Let's start.

This entry was originally posted at http://nonny.dreamwidth.org/476367.html. Please comment there using OpenID.


( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 3rd, 2012 07:30 pm (UTC)
It's not just women. You'd be surprised at who falls into this state of mind.

Rich white bankers do. I read an article some time ago about a "fraud syndrome" Where successful rich white guys, bankers, investment brokers, doctors, lawyers, high achievers in the conventional mainstream world doubt their success, think they're no good at what they devoted their lives to. It goes up and down the line.

It's easy to mistake for the effects of discrimination but the first sentence reminded me of that white investment broker's admission in the psychology article. It's a well known phenomenon. I think it's cultural and deep.

I think it crosses a lot of lines and is one of the sick things in American culture that everyone feels this way, creative people get it because your entire profession isn't "real work" and women get it because people would rather talk to a guy but men get it because they're sure the other guy is more a real man than they are - it's this general insecurity that goes around across overy group of people I've ever met. It's not healthy and it's not true.

Your achievements are real.

I've been fighting that as an illusion for years, because I fall into it too sometimes.
Apr. 3rd, 2012 07:45 pm (UTC)
There are added layers to it for women, because sexism is real and very often any achievement by a woman gets discounted because it was a woman who did it. I remember running into that in descriptions of Amelia Earhart, who took a lot of early aviation records. If she did something for the first time she was always described as "the first woman who did this" as if well, guys had been doing it for decades, even if she was the first pilot who did it.

Sexism is full of dirty tricks and cheap put-downs. It's too easy to believe negative stereotypes about yourself for any minority. But there is also a level where this happens to everyone in any group including the top groups, who are left feeling as if they're frauds and their personal achievements aren't real - possibly because they have to work for them and other people's seem to have just been handed off by luck.

The arts have another layer of external source. Writing isn't a "real job" and someone who bought a house and supported a family for 20 years on published novels still gets told "when are you going to get a real job?" Stephen King still gets picked on despite making a freaking fortune because some esoteric critics like a subcategory of literary fiction more than his chosen subjects. Never mind how deep his works get, the fact that some critics say he's not literary is enough to depress him and make him think he's not as good as some obscure critically acclaimed bit of depressing junk.

The unfounded criticism comes in from all directions. It's always socially acceptable. It gets labeled by whatever excuse the critic can come up with - and thus anything like sexism ar racism just opens the floodgates for it. But it's there in everything. The cruel reality is that much of the criticism comes out of schadenfreude - jealousy of the successful. It's socially acceptable to get back at someone you're jealous of and find some way to hurt them or dismiss their accomplishments as unreal.

I think that comes into it too - the "fraud" feeling is a defense against malicious attacks by people who are jealous. Not a healthy one, an internal one.

There is something going on with this and I think it has more to do with how socially acceptable personal attacks on other people for any reason are, and yes, that does include sexism. In fact even when guys get it, there's usually a sexist element to the attacks - they're not Manly enough because they didn't make their millions swinging a pick axe or something else physical, but if they did, they'd be poor and both groups of men get it.
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Apr. 3rd, 2012 11:29 pm (UTC)
When I say it affects everyone across many different groups, I'm not being flip. I've heard it in too many confidences from too many people in too many different situations. Many of them but not all were women. Others weren't white. Others were disabled. Others were poor. Others were privileged. Some were straight, others gay or bi or trans. It's something that common - and I think the level where it's that common needs to be addressed too, because it's pure BS wherever it happens. It can be about anything at all.

Nonny's getting it twice topically, once over being a woman and again over being a writer. But she'd get it in general if she was a male accountant over intelligence or something. The pattern is that if anyone stands out or excels in anything at all, it's open season for personal criticism and outright denial of any native ability or earned skill.
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Apr. 4th, 2012 09:45 pm (UTC)
I've run across descriptions of it more in women and minorities, because they are frequently discouraged from fairly young ages from having confidence in themselves. This isn't to say that everyone has it, because that's certainly not the case (such as it's not the case that every woman will feel unsafe out alone at night; I have walked downtown in Olympia and Seattle and Dallas without ever feeling unsafe, whereas the majority of women will express feeling unsafe), but that doesn't mean it's not a real issue that deserves attention.

I'm glad that it's not something that you experience, but please, saying that because you don't experience it as a member of *x group*, that it isn't an issue for the group at large is hugely dismissive.

Edited at 2012-04-04 09:47 pm (UTC)
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Apr. 4th, 2012 10:36 pm (UTC)
Ah, my apologies. I have had a lot of people say "well, I'm *x* and I don't experience that" with the underlying implication that it's not real. I'm sorry if I misread you :)
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Apr. 4th, 2012 10:53 pm (UTC)
Yup. It may make a little more sense why I reacted that way when I say I participate in a lot of gaming communities. ;)

Ah, that's not quite how I read the comment. I read it more as that it's really common, but ... surprisingly, not really talked about, because it's just assumed "that's the way things are." But I can see where you're coming from, and ohfuckinglordie do I hear you on the FMS thing >_<

BTW, since I know you're local also! Are you going to be at Norwescon? :)
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Apr. 4th, 2012 11:56 pm (UTC)
Oh man, I can't imagine going to that many cons in a year! o.O I did Norwescon last year, Linuxfest, and Steamcon last year (and will probably not be doing LF this year as I have a 8hr flight a week later and, yeah, not doing 6hrs of driving + con the week before... and Steamcon, not doing again as the hotel they are in is incredibly disability unfriendly + their panels were not that interesting) and holy shit that was exhausting enough.

Considering doing GeekGirlCon in the fall, though, as I heard really good things about it from last year and honestly kinda wish I had done it instead of Steamcon in retrospect.
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Apr. 5th, 2012 12:06 am (UTC)
I haven't actually heard of Foolscape! It's just far enough away to be difficult for me, though, and it doesn't look like there is a lot of programming. Though I will keep an eye on it, because there are definitely authors I would go to see even despite the drive. (With my FMS/RA, driving to the Seattle/Redmond area is unfortunately very painful and exhausting :( )
Apr. 4th, 2012 10:12 pm (UTC)
Excellent! I think that sometimes life circumstances may make it easier to resist. I'm a transman and can look at a lot of social pressures as having gone over my head because they made no sense. That makes it easier for me to face my fears with every real achievement.

It used to hurt deep when someone said I wasn't a real writer and didn't really care about it because I'd never finished anything. It didn't matter how many short stories I'd finished because none of them sold and I kept losing them after submitting them. But when I finished a novel, that one got shot down for good. When I self published Raven Dance the other big one "What have you written?" vanished. When it made a good profit I was able to ground in that.

Yes. I'm a science fiction writer. That fat doorstop paid out seven times over and it's science fiction, I made up the whole thing, therefore whether you think I'm a sucky SF writer or a great one, you can't say I'm not a science fiction writer.

I think the biggest part of that was also letting myself loosen up and drift into other genres like fantasy, nature novels, art instruction.

I think the pressure to it is ubiquitous and some people have better filters than others for disbelieving it - and I am so glad you don't fall into it at all. As long as I have facts to stand on, I'm good, will laugh all the way to the bank. Especially when the facts fit my definitions, because I'm beginning to care less and less about "pro publication" if it comes with a bad contract.
Apr. 3rd, 2012 07:44 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I know I've seen a few comments from NYT Besellers (I think seanan_mcguire has posted about it before, if memory serves). It seems like no matter what accomplishments you make, they're never good enough to dislodge that seed of self-doubt.
Apr. 3rd, 2012 08:00 pm (UTC)
Yup. You are not crazy, you do know what you are talking about and almost everyone feels the same way. I run up against that belief pattern constantly. I have to specifically argue against it. This fat white girl from nowheresville, WI who never finished her college education has lobbied members of congress, written several academic papers, published poetry and performed her own one woman show. And yet I get terrified every time I think about submitting something.

There will always be people who dislike your work and probably dislike you personally. They are not your audience. And there are people who are thirsty for what you have to offer. I try to focus on the latter and ignore the former-even when the former is in my own head.
Apr. 3rd, 2012 08:00 pm (UTC)
I just saw this article and it made me think of your post. I wonder if Imposter Syndrome was the reason she decided to stay out of the limelight after the incredible success of her debut book-- one she only published on a dare by her friends?
Apr. 3rd, 2012 08:37 pm (UTC)
You call it a syndrome, I call it a lifestyle. :P

Yeah, no, I've talked myself out of so many things in my life because I'm constantly convinced that there are hundreds of better, brighter candidates for things and seriously, who do I think I am?

but that's why I'm in therapy, hurrah.
Apr. 3rd, 2012 11:39 pm (UTC)
How I fight that self doubt is to step back and look for a reality check. I start counting up the facts of my accomplishments. I check whether the comment had any useful technical critique, if I'm better off hearing that or if it'd improve my work. When it doesn't, I reject it.

If I'm having trouble rejecting it, I turn to trusted friends and get some support for my response. Usually when it's going on with other people it's much easier to see how bogus it is. Reality checks from trusted friends are the bes t way to get back to the facts.
Apr. 3rd, 2012 11:59 pm (UTC)
A lot of why I commented as I did is that reminding myself of how common it is helps me deal with it when I fall into believing negative personal criticism. When I step back from that common pattern it's easier to see how ludicrous any of that BS is. It's easier to look at my accomplishments and see them as real, trust my expertise in the things I'm good at and blow off those bitter mind games.

I decided I didn't care if some people thought I was arrogant or overconfident. The consequences of overconfidence? I'll try things I wouldn't have tried. Real critique, that's something I pay attention to and through trial and error my skills improve. But the best critique comes from those that already liked it in the first place and have the most refined sense of what makes my favorite genres and types of work succeed. Not from people who have any reason to want to discourage me from doing it at all.

Doing what they want is like handing your lunch money to the bully.

I get angry about this issue. I have for years. The only way I can fight it best is by not doing it. That's why I give supportive critique with technical help along with uncritical compliments and critical compliments - the targeted ones that let a beginner know that trial worked, that crazy scary thing that doesn't look right means they got it better than usual rather than ruined it. That insecurity hits hardest on something that's going well, maybe because your unconscious knows the jealous will attack.
( 21 comments — Leave a comment )