I had a nice weekend at ArmadilloCon! I got to meet some authors I knew from social media, which is always lovely. I’m in decompress mode today, but one panel has been lingering with me, and that’s the one about imposter syndrome. It was a forty-five minute panel with six speakers, so I didn’t get to talk at any length about what imposter syndrome looks like for me and how I get around it, but I have a blog.
If you’ve managed to go your whole life with a raft of confidence and no doubts, let me explain imposter syndrome: it’s the unfounded feeling that you’re not good enough, or knowledgeable enough, or smart enough to do something, and if you go ahead and do it anyway, then someone will immediately notice how terrible you are and expose you to the rest of the group as a fraud.
From this point onward, I’m going to be talking about my experience. Yours may be different! It probably is, but hopefully hearing about my experience and how I deal with it will be helpful or at least let you know you’re not alone. :)
For me, imposter syndrome is tied up with rejection sensitivity, gatekeeping, and having an excellent imagination.
I was put on the panel because I was complaining about feeling like an imposter while filling out the panel interest list. Speakers were supposed to go through and indicate which panels they’d like to do and were qualified to discuss.
That second part is what triggered my imposter syndrome, because am I qualified to talk about writing erotic scenes in SF/F? I mean, yeah, I do write those scenes, and readers seem to enjoy them, and I’ve written nine books, but there is probably someone better who could talk about it.
And that’s the problem. I compare myself to this imaginary “someone better” and always come up short, because the person in my imagination is perfect in every way, knowledgeable on every subject, and never, ever has doubts.
It’s the same reason my doctor had to change the pain scale, because when she asked it where ten was the worst pain I’d ever imagined, my pain always was like a four. Yeah, it hurt a lot, but not like being burned alive, eaten by a grizzly, and falling into a chipper shredder, combined. That would be a ten-worthy pain.
Having an active imagination can be both a blessing and a curse. :)
Another aspect is gatekeeping. Fandom has long had a gatekeeping issue—as does tech, let’s be clear—and I generally avoid situations where I’m going to have to “prove” myself: “Oh, you like Star Wars? I bet you can’t even name everyone on the Jedi High Council.”
You’re right, I can’t! I have to write down my own character names so I don’t forget them in the middle of a talk, and I spend hundreds of hours writing them. My goldfish brain flatly refuses to hold onto some types of information, which just feeds directly into my worry that maybe I am a fraud.
So how do I get past it? How do I put that book out there, or speak on that panel, or offer advice on the very thing that’s whispering maybe you’re not good enough?
Practice and perseverance.
I know you were probably hoping for a magical cure, but alas, if I had one, this post would be a whole lot shorter. :)
Unfortunately, overcoming imposter syndrome means doing things that are scary. It means putting yourself out there, for good or ill. Your brain doesn’t want to be scared or anxious, so it’ll tell you that it’s better to stay quiet, to take the easy path, to not take the risk.
Your brain is a damn liar.
So when it starts whispering its lies, try to look at things objectively, as difficult as that can be. If you truly can’t be objective, ask a trusted friend for advice. I know if I asked my BFF if I was qualified to be on a panel about writing better sex scenes in SFF, she would be like, of course, why is this even a question for you?
Writers tend to fall into imposter syndrome pretty easily, very possibly because we’re so good with empathy and imagination and worst-case scenarios. Are you writing a book and worried that it’s awful and you suck and everyone who said they liked it is lying to you? Welcome to being a writer! I’d say most of us struggle with those feelings, even people who are highly successful. Keep going, you’ve got this.
Did your book come out but it wasn’t an instant bestseller and now you’re worried that you’re a fraud? The vast majority of books aren’t bestsellers. It’ll be okay. Keep going and maybe your next book will be. Or your tenth, or twentieth. Or maybe you’ll have a very solid midlist career that will make tons of readers happy without ever writing a bestseller—but only if you keep going.
And imposter syndrome doesn’t go away with “success.” If anything, it can get worse, because the measure of success moves. At first, it’s just finishing the book. Then it’s getting an agent. Then a publishing deal. Then hitting a list, then hitting higher on the list. When the goal posts keep moving, it’s easy to fall into the thinking that you aren’t good enough.
You are good enough.
And don’t worry if you still feel like an imposter. You aren’t alone, and a little bit of imposter syndrome isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At least you won’t have to worry about being a pompous asshole. :)
I had several people come up after my panels this weekend and tell me how much they enjoyed my contributions. If I’d let imposter syndrome keep me at home, then those attendees would’ve missed out on my perspective, and that would’ve been a shame.
So keep going, keep doing those scary things, and it will get easier. Not easy, at least not for me, but easier. I’ll never measure up to that imaginary perfect person in my head, but I don’t have to. Even messy and imperfect and unable to remember the answer to a single gatekeeping question, I still have value to contribute.
Maybe the thing I say or do or write will be the thing that someone desperately needs right at that moment.
And that’s worth taking the risk.