My Life as an Impostor

Therapy is a lot like exercise. For the first few months, it feels like much pain for little gain. It’s miserable, you don’t get any better, and any time you don’t spend crying is spent wanting to cry. Then, before you know it, things fall together and snap into place. You improve. Not in increments, but in a rush. You feel better. You feel more like you. You feel like you can smash the world with your fists.

Which is exactly when you find yourself stranded on an endless plateau.

After nearly a year of therapy, I felt good. Really good. I thought it might be time to scale back, to switch from Improvement to Maintenance. I’d hit a plateau, and (having nothing to compare it to) decided that was as better as I was going to get.

Which is exactly when I found myself writing an e-mail to a friend, pausing between paragraphs to cry, trying to make sense of the voice in my head that wouldn’t stop telling me how much I sucked.

Oops.

So, instead of scaling back, I scaled up. I went from one session of therapy a week to two. When my therapist asked what it was that I wanted to work on, at least I had answer: How could I be so confident sometimes (at work, when programming), but struggle to find worth in myself the rest (with friends, in writing)? Why did I see so little in myself, but only in some parts of my life?

It’s a good thing someone sent me a link to a post about something called Impostor Syndrome.

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Source: Indexed – “Two annoying problems”

What is Impostor Syndrome? It’s the feeling that you’re a fraud, that you don’t deserve to your accomplishments. It’s fearing that, even when you succeed, you only did so due to luck or charm or and ability to game the system. Not your own talent. Never that. It’s knowing that one day — one day very soon — your peers will realize that you’ve been faking it all this time and cast you out.

Only, you’re not always an impostor. Not at everything. And I quote:

“[I]t is possible to have generally adequate self-esteem, but to have the negative feelings about the self in the area of achievement associated with the impostor phenomenon.”

In other words, I can feel like a badass at work, but a fake as a writer. I’m not a fraud at work. I believe – hell, I know – I’m good at my job. When I succeed as a programmer, it’s because I earned it.

When someone tells me they like something I wrote (after the blush of initial happiness fades) all I can think is how disappointed they’re going to be when they read the next thing. After all, there’s no way I can do that well again. I got lucky this time. Next time, I won’t. It’s one of the reasons I have so much trouble accepting compliments. Accepting them feels like a lie. A lie I’ll be mocked for spreading when it’s found out.

Things started to make sense. All those times someone had torn me down, made me feel like I wasn’t a real writer, it crushed me. If someone had told me I wasn’t a real programmer, I’d have smacked them in the face with the multi-million dollar sales-generating website for which I’m 100% responsible. Yet, when someone did so much as insinuate that I was a fraud as a writer, I took it to heart. When I saw what other writers had done — the age they were first published, the chances they took while I was fumbling about, the way others reacted to their work — it was enough to founder me. That wasn’t me. They were the real deal. I was a fake.

After the publication of Broken Magic, an ugly undercurrent of dread crept in. I had a second novel nearing completion, and self-publication was a possibility. I should have been happy. I should have been excited. But…

How could I expect it to succeed? What sales Broken Magic generated were surely due to the excitement of it being my first go. With the second one, people would be bored, disinterested. Diminishing returns were here, and there wasn’t any reason for people to care about another novel. Even if they liked Broken Magic, they probably wouldn’t like this one. When they didn’t, they’d realize I really wasn’t very good at this, and that would be that.

Drummed out of the siblinghood of writers as the fraud I was.

The power of naming a thing never ceases to amaze. Before I understood what the feeling of inadequacy here but not there meant (and before I realized just how alone I wasn’t), I felt powerless and adrift. A week or two of therapy after I’d named the problem for what it was, I felt stronger. When the fear that I don’t belong slithers in, I have a chance at stopping it before it coils around a success and squeezes it to death. I have a long way to go, but just as when I got my diagnosis as a crazy person, I no longer feel like a victim.

Maybe some of you out there have felt the same way. Maybe, when someone’s looked at you like you weren’t a real writer/programmer/parent/friend/whatever, it hurt too much because that’s exactly what you believed about yourself. Maybe, like me, you don’t actually dislike who you are. Maybe you just don’t know how to believe in your own successes.

If so, today is the day to fight back. When someone compliments you, accept it. Own it. You earned it. You earned your successes. You deserve them.

My name is Eric Sipple, and I am not a fraud.

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11 Responses to My Life as an Impostor

  1. Anna says:

    You know I know how this goes. So I will just say: right there with you, kicking this thing in the face. Or the knee. Whatever we can reach at the time. (I hear insteps are vulnerable.) (What. You also knew I was bloody-minded.)

  2. Chelsea says:

    I know exactly how this feels. In every interaction I have with anybody online, I’m ALWAYS terrified that they will suddenly decide that I’m not who I say I am, that I am a fraud, that I am not worthy of the love and respect they have gained for my online persona. It’s taken me a lot of time to get over that. My current circle of twitter friends has helped me to get over that. And I am grateful.

    And you are not a fraud. You are talented, you are kind, you are genuine, you are wonderful, and even when the voices in your head are telling you that you are, you need to push those to the back of your mind and REMEMBER THAT.

  3. Nance says:

    You have just described about 60% of our family. Thanks for getting the feeling into words. Sometime I’ll fill you in on some branches of the family tree that you haven’t yet explored. It is said that knowledge is power. Having a map of the past could prove useful.

    By the way, I love your writing. It has no pretense or contrivement; straight, real, direct and moving. All good qualities. You are very good at being Eric!

  4. QuoterGal says:

    I’ve been a *paid* graphic designer for over 30 years. Still waiting to get found out. We opened a coffee bar – waiting for people to find out we’re *all* frauds there. I’m a pretty decent person, but still waiting for folks to discover just how awful I am.

    In other words: yeah. I don’t have it everywhere nor all the time, but I’ve had it in some way all my life. A. too. Sometimes I think it’s the human condition, sometimes I think it’s the pathology of just *some* of us, sometimes I think it’s gone away – but it always comes back.

    May we feel it less and less.

  5. Catherine says:

    Here’s to feeling it less and less, absolutely. Just saw this and now feel my own blog post today to be annoyingly chipper, ha ha… ha!

    I know you don’t need to hear this from me but will say anyway: You are a good writer. I have a number of thoughts & feels about your writing that I won’t get into here, but you are good at it.

    That terrified / terrifying fraudulent feeling is so common and makes me wonder if there are any people who think (or know!) they are frauds but are confidently like, HA HA HA NOBODY WILL EVER FIND ME OUT I HAVE THEM ALL FOOLED HA HA HA. Maybe just sociopaths. Hm.

  6. Carissa says:

    Thank you, Eric, for again putting into words something I feel so often. One minute I can be flying high and the next absolutely certain I’ll never achieve the same moment again (but I do). I’ve thought it might be manic depression, but it only affects certain areas of my life, such as achievements at work or that can be compared to others in a tangible way, and I don’t think that fits the definition.

    Yet another reason I cannot wait to meet you. Because you’re not an impostor or a fraud, but as real as they get. I want to pinch you. ;-)

  7. Renee says:

    Thanks for the reminder, especially the part about it affecting just certain parts of our lives.

  8. K L Karoly says:

    Hello do I EVER get this one. In my former life, there was evidence of my ‘accomplishments’, yes it was destructive evidence but, yep ‘lookee what I did or helped do’. Since entering a gentler phase and reinventing myself, I can’t get Bruce Cockburn’s “Pacing the Cage” outa my head.

  9. Saismaat says:

    I think a lot of us who didn’t get some piece we needed as kids doubt our ability or worth. I know I do. Has nothing to do with our ability or worth. I usually know that.

  10. iasoupmama says:

    Eric Sipple, you are not a fraud. You are, however, as human as humanity allows, which means that you are complex. Your life is colored with rich, deep, variegated tones. As are all of the talented people of the world. And that is perfection.

  11. Michelle Longo says:

    You are so not a fraud and I can’t wait to read your second book!! In fact, I admire and look up to you for your accomplishments.

    And thank you for introducing me to the concept of imposter syndrome. I’ve always wondered how it is possible for me to have such low self-esteem while simultaneously having a superiority complex…

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