On Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome seems to be in the air again. I’m not sure why, but the inevitable outcome involves large groups of accomplished people agonising over their struggles with it. This is a pity because not only does it spread like a psychological virus, freighting entire communities in spasms of self-doubt, I don’t think it even begins to account for the imagined *and real* challenges writers, scholars and other ‘thinking’ people face.
Me, I kind of like Misha Glouberman‘s response to Imposter Syndrome in The Chairs Are Where the People Go: that sometimes when people feel like imposters it’s because they are in fact imposters. Not only is the statement refreshingly honest in its invitation to self-reflection, I think it can also serve as a useful trick to get people ‘unstuck’ from unwarranted self-doubt.
I also like a lot of what American science fiction writer John Scalzi says in this essay (focused on writers, but applicable to other fields of endeavour), which he sums up as “if you write, you are a writer.” Period.
I encountered the idea of imposter syndrome as a graduate student in the late 1990s. I remember trying it on for size and setting it aside. It didn’t fit me. Something else did — something I couldn’t name; something that was (not coincidental to graduate school) becoming a force of active destruction in my life — but it wasn’t imposter syndrome.
Me, I am intensely intrinsically motivated (note: PDF opens). When I do something, I am motivated by a lot of things, but almost never by others’ expectations of me, or by the promise of praise or reward (or, by corollary, the fear of disapproval or punishment). I have (almost) always (see below) been this way.This is not to say I don’t like or enjoy praise, or remain unaffected by criticism (I actually like and appreciate thoughtful criticism), but that they do not (with the pertinent exception discussed below) strongly influence (and certainly do not define) the things I do or the ways I do them.
And it’s a good thing too. Because (unlike Scalzi, as described in his essay), I did not grow up in supportive or encouraging institutional environments. I was told, over and over, and in myriad ways, that I was not the ‘right’ sort of person, and that the things I did were either not the right sort of things or were not done in the right sort of ways. Certainly, the things I did or read or liked or wrote were not considered to have value. When I first read Alice Munro’s bookWho Do You Think You Are? it was like a punch to the gut, not because I identified strongly with her protagonist, but because this question had been asked of me almost every day of my life.
The best thing that ever happened to me was having the good fortune to attend Queen’s University as an undergraduate student. The best (and possibly worst) thing about Queen’s, at least as it was in the early 1990s, was that, combined with a yawning indifference to the individual circumstances of its students, the institution emitted a palpable aura of acceptance to us as a collective. If you walked its august halls, the University seemed to say (the limestone walls whispering with every step), it was because you deserved to be there. Queen’s didn’t care that I had no social graces, and didn’t know how to talk to people, and had grown up mostly in poverty, and struggled to remain afloat in the great current of ideas. It cared only that I did so, and helped me find footholds in all those rapids.

The worst thing that ever happened to me was attending a graduate program (at another institution) notorious (although I did not know it at the time) for its dysfunction. I will not say much about those days, except to note that when, a summer ago, I finally cleaned out the last of the paperwork (papers I had written, academic files) long stored in our garage, I was horrified to see–as if for the first time–the deeply personal invective that characterised one of my advisors’ responses to almost every piece of work I submitted. The worst thing was realizing that none of what this person had said had, at the time, stood out as inappropriate. I had taken it for granted that it was normal or perhaps even proper for an academic advisor to denigrate and abuse a graduate student.

How did this experience affect me? Going on two decades later, I have published one book that has been well and widely reviewed and won an award and has, I believe, been one of my publisher’s best-selling titles. I am working on two new books and have plans for more still. I have published dozens of articles and essays in popular and scholarly publications.


When I inventory my publication record, the thing that stands out is not the long list of works, but the long span of years during which I did not write.


I began publishing articles in community and regional newspapers when I was fifteen. I was a paid, accredited freelance photojournalist before I was twenty. I am probably the first (and possibly last) person ever to have published a poem in Plan Canada


After that there is a long and telling gap.

It is a gap of years in which, despite all the history that should have indicated otherwise, and all the internal aching to the contrary, I decided I was not a good writer, and had nothing interesting to say, and as a result should not write. And so I did not.


In the fall of 2005 the (different) department in which I was teaching while completing a (very different) graduate program invited me to design a new course, a course entirely of my own choosing and design. And while crafting the outline for that course it occurred to me that the syllabus looked a lot like the outline for a book.

“Do I dare eat a peach?” asks Prufrock in T.S. Eliot’s well-known poem–a poem suggesting that it is not only women who experience imposter syndrome, or something like it.

Me, I chanced a tiny bite. In the spring of 2006, almost by accident, I began writing short pieces for a then well-known (but sadly now defunct) city blog. Short, inconsequential pieces, as I saw them, although I meant every word I wrote. A blog post is not real writing, I reasoned, meaning I wasn’t risking anything by doing so.

Around the same time Coach House Books put out a call for chapter proposals for the second volume of its acclaimed uTOpia series. “Why not?” I thought. “Maybe even someone like me could have something published.

And, well, they said yes.

And me, or someone like me, began to publish semi-regularly in newspapers and magazines and journals.

And then, the publisher of a literary press asked if I would write a book for him.

I began to write again, almost (almost) as if for the first time.


The difference between the writing I did prior to my mid-twenties and the writing I do now is that two voices drive me.

The first is summed up in a kind of double mantra: “You will go further and faster than anyone thought possible,” and “I don’t give a sh*t what anyone else thinks.” When this voice is in my head, I am able to write solidly, intelligently, even powerfully. This voice helps me do my best work.

The other voice asks “Who do you think you are?” over and over. This voice paralyses me until the point at which pure terror–of failing entirely–propels me to write.

[The frightening thing is that sometimes I think the latter voice will push me to produce better work, and so I end up waiting for its inevitable tantrum to run its inevitable course.]


And so.

This is why I take issue with most pronouncements about imposter syndrome, and why I think its cyclical reappearance as a subject of discussion does far more harm than good.

It is an error, I think, to suggest that imposter syndrome is the product only of internal doubt, of an individual lack of confidence rooted in some personal psychological failure.

It is a mistake to think it can be addressed primarily by telling ourselves ‘new stories’ about who we are, via an “I’m okay, you’re okay” kind of mental sleight-of-hand.

I think imposter syndrome, or something like it, is at least as likely to be a response to something that it is not entirely an exaggeration to call trauma.

Researchers seem to find again and again that while men also experience imposter syndrome, it is far likely to affect women. Parallel evidence suggests it is also disproportionately likely to affect people who are racialized or who identify with other minority groups.

In short, imposter syndrome is as likely (and probably far more likely) to reflect structural power imbalances as it is to be a manifestation of individual neuroses.

This is why I have never felt comfortable with saying that I, too, experience imposter syndrome. Because I don’t think that is what it is. There is a material difference between thinking (rationally or irrationally) “I’m not qualified to do this” and someone else–especially someone else determined to assert their power for no reason other than to maintain it–telling you that what you do and therefore who you are is garbage.

I call bullsh*t on that.

Me, I have plenty of inadequacies. I know I am a mediocre public speaker (although I have interesting things to say and am often asked to share them). As a teacher I am best doing one-on-one consultations (at which I am very good) rather than working with large groups (at which I am distinctly average). As a (pseudo-)academic writer I am drawn to the evocative in ways that can come across as (and be) anti-theoretical.

But the one thing no one can ever legitimately say about me is that I cannot write.

That someone in a position of power said it to me, over and over, in deeply personal and abusive ways, says quite a lot about them.


That I internalized the judgement says something about me.

And this is why I do not like it when talented, accomplished people describe their struggles with ‘imposter syndrome.’

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