The Real Her: The Ins and Outs of My Impostor Syndrome

Ever feel like a fraud despite your qualifications? Me, too.
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Ever feel like a fraud despite your qualifications? Me, too.
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The only way I know how to describe my feeling of fraudulence sounds like it's straight out of a Tame Impala music video: I'm wearing a garish Disney character costume surrounded by people with real talent. I'm typing away on a new story but my mascot hands are too big for the keyboard and all my sentences are coming out wrong. I'm sweating profusely because any minute now someone is going to accidentally knock off my oversized mascot head and expose how small and under-qualified I really am.

This semester, my life ran in parallel storylines. In one universe, I was a functioning, productive human, and in the other, I was going into a wild tailspin. 

To deal with this, I threw myself into my work, which was somewhat effective. I did the most writing I'd done in a single semester. I reported on a new center devoted to the Haudenosaunee people, queried the chancellor on pushing diversity/inclusion on campus, and researched polyamorous relationships. I also got positive feedback on my writing for College Fashion. I let myself relax into my newfound confidence. My personal life swirled in a self-perpetuating mess, but I was well on my way to becoming the writer I wanted to be.

My Final Magazine Project

On Friday, I opened up an email from my magazine professor with feedback on my final project. We had to cut a 5,300-word draft on pig hunting down to 4,000 and make any edits as needed. I read the note from her addressing the major problem areas with my edits, which she includes with every assignment, sandwiched between positive comments. My instincts guided me in the right direction and my changes to the structure began to move the story forward, she began. But, she continued, my rewrites of certain sections were dull and less raw than the original material. I'd managed to cohere some of the ideas in the piece but I'd also missed a major time peg. (I hadn't included the right information to make the piece timely and relevant.) I was about to close the window when I noticed tiny speech bubble icons all the way down the right margin. She'd not only evaluated my structural edits, but gone line-by-line commenting on my line edits. 

She gave me a decent grade, but after those comments, I imagined my professor giving me that B minus half-heartedly. Maybe she felt sorry for me, I thought. After missing a few of her classes, I'd admitted I was struggling with depression that'd gotten so bad I couldn't get out of bed most mornings. Holding a cup of tea and gazing at me through her thick-rimed cat-eye glasses, she told me I shouldn't blame myself and that being human would make me a better journalist.

I think if I'd been a different type of person, someone who questioned herself or dissected her talents less, I would've taken her comments on my project as tough love, a final push out into the world with as much information about my weaknesses as she could give me. That kind of constructive insight is invaluable and can only come from someone who wants you to succeed. Still, I'd struggled to grasp the more complicated parts of magazine editing. My instincts were off. I wondered if maybe I was a dull writer and an editor with no grasp of storytelling.

About Impostor Syndrome & Its Effects

There's a name for this bundle of insecurity, and it's Impostor Syndrome. It's generated plenty of thinkpieces, research, and advice for overcoming it, from The Hairpin's "Do You Have Impostor Syndrome?" to The Harvard Business Review's "The Personality Traits that Make Us Feel Like Frauds." 

According to Slate, the syndrome is prevalent in women, from academia to journalism, but also exists in men, "especially minorities who fear they owe their success to affirmative action." For women who are also women of color (or even queer women of color), it promises a double whammy. The syndrome not only involves the persistent feeling that you got in the room by mistake, but a gauntlet of behaviors like self-deprecating talk, apologizing for everything, being afraid to negotiate a fair salary, and not promoting your own work out of fear it's mediocre.

The feeling of fraudulence, of not having earned anything, exerts its own pressure, if not its own gravitational pull. Come here, it says after I publish a story, let me tell you who you really are. And I buckle. I'll get out my Why I'm a Fraud list (first drafted my freshman year) and begin the weekly Try Another Career! slam poetry reading.

I know my flaws by heart: I digress into an awkward teenager at the worst moments, like when I'm trying to network or pitch an idea. I giggle when I'm nervous. I'm a stubborn perfectionist and my most ardent critic. Sometimes my writing is overwrought or even lazy. I frequently get paralyzing performance anxiety. I'm not always sure I know what I'm talking about. And so on.

When I get caught up in a flare of inadequacy and try to figure out if I belong here, it's like I'm cracking open a million fortune cookies and shaking Magic 8 balls only to see "Sorry, try something else." And let's not forget the number of assumptions and expectations, both internalized and externally enforced, that deride and reward women for underestimating themselves. It doesn't help that when I'm slamming into my limitations, there are very few female Asian American journalists and editors out there I can look to for reassurance. 

The Positive Side

Here's some (somewhat self-serving) consolation: Impostor syndrome tends to target the most hard-working, talented, and successful individuals. The same collection of pieces exploring the consequences of the syndrome also offer some relief: Everyone's faking it sometimes. You're in the room for a reason, so there's no alternative but to rise to the occasion. The fact that this syndrome exists points to the importance of supporting and affirming women and their work, whether financially or by being vocal when we like what they do.

The drive to be exceptional is relentless and exhausting, but the flip side is you can learn to temper that drive to gain a healthy understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. As Molly Fischer points out in "I Hope I Never Get Over My Impostor Syndrome," there's a way to combine perspective with the feeling of inadequacy to make the syndrome work in your favor: 

"Nothing really qualifies you for a job besides doing it, and — yes, it’s all true! — whatever success you have attained is in large part the product of luck and charm and circumstances beyond your control. This goes for you, but it also goes for everyone else."

What do you think?

Does any of this sound familiar? How do you work with your impostor syndrome? Let us know in the comments below!