I Know What the Imposter Syndrome Feels Like—and It Hurts Like Mad When You’re Alone

November 6, 2015

The spices invade my sinuses as I nestle in a booth and tell my friend about my week. We meet often at this little Indian place to pile tikka masala on our naan and talk about the progress that we’re making on our books. She’s writing her first book—a memoir—and I’m working on my second.

Carefully balancing my pyramid of sauced rice on the flat bread, I share with my friend that it’s been hard for me, especially recently, to feel like a real writer. “I want to be able to say, ‘I am a writer,’ and really believe it,” I sigh, feeling vulnerable. I take a bite and look away.

When I glance back across the table my eyes widen. My friend is laughing, with her whole body. Her eyes water—not from the spices, but as though I’ve told the most hilarious joke. I look at her perplexed, and through her laughter she says incredulously, “Isa, you are a published author! And you don’t feel like a writer!” She says it not as a question, but as a statement—a great punch line.

And just like that, the absurdity hits me. My ribs—the ones that were wracking just a few days ago with sobs of worthlessness—start shaking with laughter. We are laughing so hard that now all four eyes are watering. If anyone in this tiny Indian restaurant is looking at us, we don’t notice.

It’s one of the best moments of my life.

I recognize that same brand of laughter a few weeks later while listening to the podcast Self Care with Drs. Sarah, hosted by two outstanding female scientists with PhDs from Harvard. They are talking about a 1978 study where Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes introduce and describe the imposter syndrome: “Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

The doctors laugh a lot as they play tennis with their self-doubt. One of them serves an imposter thought (like, Harvard obviously made a mistake in accepting me) and the other tosses it right back with laughter and incredulousness and encouragement. Then it’s her turn.

We must laugh. Not because this is a joke. It’s very real, and it hurts like mad when we’re alone. We laugh because we’re not. We laugh together because it’s so much better than crying alone.

Last week I found myself crying alone in front of my laptop—because of a compliment of all things. The compliment came in an email notification of my acceptance into a MFA program for creative writing; it congratulated me on my acceptance and included a personal note from a professor, telling me, in detail, how much she liked my writing.

I wept.

But not because it made me feel good. It made me feel nothing, and that scared me. This was the first compliment I’d received in months, months in what Steven Pressfield calls in his book Do the Work “the belly of the whale”—the middle of a project where you’re too far in to turn back but not far enough to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s dark and lonely and you start to question everything and wish you had never started this thing in the first place.

This was the first time I’d received a compliment that didn’t warm my heart. I’m usually able to pause in these moments, appreciate the words, and be grateful for them and especially for the person who gifted them to me. Instead, I cried at the realization that I had let this whole imposter thing get so bad recently that this is what I’d come to. Crying over a compliment. While other people are out there struggling with actual hard things.

I thought of that one Amazon review of my first book: “She’s not a professional writer.”

The reviews that hurt the most are the ones you secretly believe yourself.

It didn’t matter that I had 35 other reviews of people saying how helpful the book was to them. It was this one that I’d somehow let close to me, let it form a crust over my heart so thick that I couldn’t let the compliments break through anymore.

That reviewer was right; when I wrote my first book I wasn’t a professional writer. I was 24 years old. I worked at a college. I wrote my first book with a kind of confidence and joy that confounds me now as I sit in the belly of the whale of this second one.

This second book is my first time trying to do this professionally. But without a day job or a steady paycheck to keep my imposter thoughts at bay, they’ve had room to grow bigger than they ever have before. There is no external sword to slay this dragon anymore—no more A’s to be had, no more scholarships to win, no more degrees to receive.

It’s just me and my work. And lately that has felt exactly like walking around inside out, with my organs spilling out all over the place.  

So what helps? Imes and Clance have some good recommendations. So do Drs. Sarah and the American Psychological Association. Many of their ideas are similar to some version of laughing with a friend over Indian food.  Building each other up. Together. Not alone.

So as I stared at this MFA professor’s compliment on my laptop, I acted fast. I dried my tears and sought out the people I love. They laughed with me. They hugged me tight and long. And then I got back to writing. Because I am a writer. It’s what we do.

Do you feel inadequate? Check out 6 ways to conquer self-doubt—to take control of your head and get out of your own way.

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