Giving Imposter Syndrome the Boot

Xin Song, Message from Nature

I have a confession to make. It’s something I’ve never admitted before publicly. I still have a fair amount of shame around it and it is probably the number one source for my sometimes crippling self-doubt. It’s been around for decades, easily, and is the number one symptom of a larger problem:

Impostor Syndrome.

The term has been around since it was coined by clinical psychologists in 1978, but it’s become more widely used in the past 10 years or so. Impostor Syndrome describes a pervasive belief that despite external evidence of competence, those exhibiting the syndrome are convinced they are frauds. They believe they do not deserve the success they have achieved, or they dismiss their success as pure luck.

Famous examples of high achievers in our society who have admitted to struggling with the syndrome are best-selling author Neil Gaiman, US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, actress Emma Watson, and two-time Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks.

Though not exclusively the domain of women, Impostor Syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women. Though my own work and ambitions are nowhere near as remarkable as that list of luminaries, my struggle with Impostor Syndrome might actually be regarded something of a high art at this point, so well-developed is it.

I remember the moment I finally called myself a writer without flinching. I was speaking to a producer at a holiday party. I had been working to rebrand myself for years to focus on writing as my primary vocational vehicle. But even though I had been published in national magazines, and even though I had been regarded as an expert in my field, and even though I had published a book in that field, I could not say the words “I am a writer.” Impostor Syndrome stopped me every time.

You don’t have a literary degree, my inner impostor voice argued. All these people have master’s degrees, maybe doctorates in their field, she compared. You think because you got published in a few magazines that makes you a writer?

But on that cold, rainy night in December, in a room full of creative directors and authors and other super-smart, super-educated, super-successful people, when my new friend asked me the proverbial ice breaker, “What do you do?” I answered without thinking: “I’m a writer.”

Time stood still. The moment seem to stretch on indefinitely and and I was hyper-aware of being in that moment, feeling all the feels, completely absorbed. It was electric. Visceral. Thrilling. So this is self-validation, I thought. The Imposter was nowhere to be found.

For weeks after that night, I was a writing machine. Now that the debilitating self-doubt had been banished, I was more creative, more inspired, more focused than ever before. More articles were published. More websites optimized. More newsletters, emails, and I recommitted to a third draft—80,000 words—of a new book. I overhauled my website to focus on my writing work and made new business cards. I rode the wave for all it was worth.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last. Five months later, I was right back in Camp Doubt, frumpy sweatpants and all. I realized this wasn’t the first time I’d been on this roller coaster. I became determined to get at the heart of the matter.

Clearly it was time to get creative about how to transform this persistent self-doubt.

I drew encouragement from a Buddhist parable about a Tibetan yogi named Milarepa. As the story goes, Milarepa lived in isolation in a mountain cave. One day while he was out gathering firewood, he returned to find that his cave had been taken over by demons. His first thought upon seeing them was, “I have to get rid of them!” He lunges after them, chases them, tries to force them out, but the demons are unfazed. In fact, the more he chases them, the more they seemed to get comfortable in their new home. When forcing them out failed, he tried compassionate reasoning with them. This strategy was also unsuccessful.

Finally, Milarepa accepts that he cannot bargain, manipulate, or resist these demons in a way that will bring him peace. He says to them, “ Since it looks like we’re going to live here together, I open myself to whatever you have to teach me.” He walks over to the largest, most terrifying demon and says “Eat me if you wish.” He places his head in the demon’s mouth, and at that moment the demon dissolves into space.

Declaring out loud that I am a writer was one of many head-in-the-mouth-of-the-demon moments I can recall. The demon, of course, is self-doubt—just one of many possible permutations of Impostor Syndrome. Several years have passed since that notable occurrence and while I’d love to say I no longer struggle with Impostor Syndrome, it still comes up.

Confronting our critical, negative, unhelpful aspects—such as feeling like a fraud—isn’t necessarily a one time thing. If the habit of being self-critical has been there for a long  time—sometimes our entire lives—our surrender may be required more than once.

Have I written work I’m proud of? Absolutely. Have I written poorly? Also true. Have I sold a million copies of anything I’ve written? Not yet. Could I write more than I do? Probably.

But the volume of writing I do, the number of sales, or number of contracts I have cannot be the measure of my success as a writer. After all, income is not my primary motivation for writing.

To be a writer requires one thing and one thing only: writing. I write because I enjoy writing. Sometimes I am even good at it. But essentially, the formula is this: I write, therefore I am writer.

Impostor Syndrome often germinates in us while we’re young and impressionable. Not everyone struggles with it, but ask just about anyone you trust to be honest and you’ll be surprised at how many people will admit they do. It’s an awful feeling and can be very destructive. I don’t claim to have the answers for anyone else, but the Milarepa tactic has worked well for me, short of being able to go back in time to model a more positive regard of my own accomplishments to school-aged me. If I could do that, I’d take young Üma out for pizza and something fizzy to
drink and have a nice heart to heart.

Girl, I’d say, don’t listen to the haters—whether they are external or internal. They are not your friend. Their advice will be bad, completely wrong. You have incredible talent and vision. You also have the uncanny ability to get in your own way when pursuing something really important to you. Don’t go there. Doubt does not have your best interests at heart so don’t grant it the power to stop you from doing what you want—or prevent celebrating when you do. And finally, dear Üma, you’re a motherf*cking writer. Go write, dammit.

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