I feel like a fraud. Always have, and sometimes I suspect I always will.
Nobody likes to hear artists complain, but I’m sorry folks, this one won’t stay caged. I’ve wanted to be a writer almost as far back as I can remember, ever since my family praised a ghost story I wrote when I was little, ever since a friend of mine almost offhandedly said “This is good, you should write more” and unknowingly gave me permission to share my stuff with my friends. To step up and be that artistic writer guy, which is not an inconsiderable risk in the wolf-haunted woods known as middle school, especially for a chubby gamer kid.
So with family and friends behind me, I wrote, pretty much all the time. With the boundless optimism and heedless ambition of the very young I decided I wanted to write games, I wanted to write stories, I wanted to write novels, I wanted to write articles in the paper, I wanted to be able to reach up on a shelf and pull down paper with my words on it and share it with anyone who’d stand still long enough.
I have done all of these things, some of them several times over, even won a few awards here and there in the process, and yet the vast majority of the time it still feels like I haven’t done anything at all. And I’m far from alone in this. A lot of the other artists I know feel the same way, even if they can’t quite put it in words. Hell, I know it’s not just artists that feel this way, really. I know it can strike anyone, so please don’t take this as a dismissal of anyone who feels these same feelings about their own field – business, athletics, academics, parenthood, you name it. I sympathize, I truly do. If I focus on artists it’s because that’s how I relate to these feelings, not because I don’t think anyone else falls prey to them.
So what does it feel like? It’s like running a race and watching the finish line creep along ahead of you, always out of reach, but also looking over your shoulder and seeing nothing of the race you’ve run so far. Which leaves you running in limbo, neither capable of reaching the satisfaction of finishing nor able to at least look back and be proud of how far you’ve come. I know that might sound a bit like ambition, and I think they can certainly have some things in common, perhaps even spur each other on at times, but in the end they’re not at all the same. At the core of ambition is inspiration, a dream of what you can accomplish, can become, but at the core of impostor feelings there’s only a frustrating desolation. Because any time you try to look over what you’ve done, a conversation remarkably like this one plays out in your head:
I wrote a story!
It’s not published, though, is it?
I’m going to be in an anthology!
Yeah, well, how’s that unfinished novel?
I wrote a novel!
Fine, but it was work for hire, not your own original work.
I wrote my own novel from scratch!
Oh, and look how all those agents are just dying to represent you.
I’m going to self-publish!
Have fun getting lost in the crush on Amazon. By the way, ever finish that original game you wanted to write?
I … I don’t feel so good.
There you go.
And so on. Sometimes, just for variety, that mocking voice will take a different tactic, just so you can’t ever be prepared for it. All those accomplishments you stubbornly insist on claiming become dumb luck, favors from friends, cynical maneuvering that happens to favor you for the moment, even a sort of conspiracy if the voice really feels like running wild that night. Anything but something you deserve, something you worked for, and just as quickly dismissed as soon as possible.
Allow me to give another example of the kind of tricks impostor feelings can play on your mind. Not that long ago, I was talking about game writing with some folks at a convention, and somebody said rather wistfully that they hoped to see something of theirs in print some day. I agreed, and another person in the conversation looked at me funny and said, “Haven’t you already been published?” I hesitated, embarrassed, and finally said something to the effect that I hadn’t published a game entirely of my own design. The others looked at me like I was being a bit of a bastard, and I can imagine why – that must have sounded like the worst sort of patronizing false modesty. A “humblebrag” to use the very apt new term, designed to call attention to my publishing resume by pretending to forget about it.
But the thing was, when I answered, I wasn’t pretending. I really, sincerely didn’t feel like I’d written anything that qualified. Hell, at that instant I didn’t feel like I’d written anything at all. I was being absolutely genuine in my sympathy with the person who wished they could be published, because all the game books I’d worked on in the past didn’t count, because nothing I’ve done in the past counts, not for long. I answered honestly in that moment, because that voice in my brain says those books are old and irrelevant, and so I don’t even add them in my tally unless I stop and think about it.
That’s what it’s like to feel like an impostor at what you do. Not only can it poison your own sense of accomplishment, it can also make you seem like a jerk to others, which of course only makes you feel worse about yourself, and even less deserving of any sense of accomplishment. I don’t know why the human mind loves vicious cycles so much, but sometimes it seems like it was designed for little else, I have to admit.
Let me be clear, though – I’m not asking for sympathy here, exactly. And I’m definitely not asking for people to prop me up, sing my praises, or anything like that. Most of the time I get through these feelings on my own, and when I can’t, I am lucky enough to have a wife, family, and friends who know how to pick me up and shout down that voice for a good long while. And that’s a kind of luck I’ll happily own up to, nagging whispers be damned. I’m not always OK, but I’m always alright, and for that I count my blessings most every day.
No, the reason I’m writing this is for anyone out there who knows that voice, who feels like a fraud sometimes, and thinks it might just be them. That those feelings of being a fraud, being forever unable to cherish accomplishments or just take credit for your own well-earned competence in your field, are unique to you. They’re not. Don’t let them drag you down, don’t listen to the doubt and uncertainty – and if you can’t handle them on your own, that’s OK too. Nobody can do it all the time. Reach out and find some help, because trust me, you can do it. Because you deserve it. Because you’re not an impostor.
“Impostor syndrome” is actually a well-documented effect! It’s very common for people who pursue a career in a way that might seem non-institutionalized. While for many professions, there is a very strict path one must follow to “become a _________”, in many careers, there is no “THE right path” to working in that field or position. The effect can happen even when you do pursue a traditional path to work in that field, but it’s incredibly common when there isn’t a prescribed path at all.
September 10, 2014 at 9:09 pm
This is exactly the kind of thing i needed to hear/read in order to cement my return.
September 12, 2014 at 5:27 pm