Everybody gets impostor syndrome, but it’s a disease that hits geeks especially hard. You know how it is: You feel like you couldn’t possibly belong, that you can’t measure up, that everyone will realize you’re a fake. Here’s how to turn impostor syndrome into your own superpower.
This short essay is adapted from a talk I gave a few weeks ago at Penguicon, where I was a guest of honor.... which is a situation that’s pretty much optimized for creating impostor syndrome. But lots of situations can cause impostor syndrome. Anything from being the new kid in a group of awesome people to having to give a presentation, to unlocking achievements, can cause immediate fears of being caught out.
And the feeling that you’re going to be “found out” is a huge part of what’s going on with impostor syndrome. Even if you know there’s no giant skeleton in your closet, or proof out there that you faked all your qualifications or whatever, you find yourself concocting bizarre scenarios where you’re suddenly exposed as a faker. This is because you feel unworthy, or like you’re playing at being a real grown-up.
The sad thing is, you spend years and years thinking, “When will I ever get recognition?” And then when you get it, you immediately start thinking, “When will I get found out?”
And impostor syndrome can be a huge stumbling block, holding you back from doing the things you want or need to do. At its worst, it can cause anxiety that basically stops you from doing anything. My vague sense is that straight white cis-dudes are less likely to suffer from impostor syndrome than everybody else, but it affects absolutely everybody.
And the truth is, if you’re not having impostor syndrome, you’re probably not living up to your full potential.
There’s no magic cure for impostor syndrome — as with a lot of stuff, you just live with it. Overcoming the sense of inadequacy is partly a matter of confidence, and of believing in yourself. It’s about creating a version of yourself that you can be proud of from whole cloth. Or of believing in your goals enough to overcome the doubts.
But impostor syndrome is useful for a few reasons, two of which I’ll mention in passing — and then the third one is kind of the point of this spiel.
First, impostor syndrome keeps you honest. If you ever start to think that you shit ice cream, or that you can do no wrong, impostor syndrome could actually be a useful reality check. And the fear of being caught out as a fraud can keep you from actually BEING a fraud.
Secondly, it can make you more empathetic. All those people around you who are tooting their own horns, and pushing their achievements in your face? They’re all desperately worried that THEY are going to be caught out as well. They’re grappling with, and maybe overcompensating for, the same impostor syndrome you’re feeling.
But the third reason why impostor syndrome is useful, is why I think of it as possibly creating a superpower. The chances are that if you’re reading this on io9, you’re someone who enjoys works of the imagination or scientific innovation. And there’s a good chance that one way or the other, you’re in the business of make-believe. Or inventing things that didn’t exist before.
As painful as it can be, I think impostor syndrome actually trains you to be good at make-believe. You have to practice pretending that you actually belong someplace. People talk about “acting like you own the place,” or “fake it until you make it,” and it’s very much a kind of play-acting. There’s a reason so many of our heroes are people who have to grow into their roles, or pretend to be a hero they’re not at first.
Think of it as a kind of live-action role-playing game (or LARP for short) in which you’re going through situtations and pretending that you deserve to be there and know what you’re doing. As an audience member at my Penguicon talk said, “I’ve been LARPing as a competent person for over five years. I’ve only broken character a few times.”
The root of impostor syndrome is feeling like a con artist. And a storyteller or creator is, in some sense, a con artist or professional trickster — you’re creating your own reality, and tricking people into believing in it. It’s not that different, in principle, from trying to create a reality around yourself where you are a badass who should be allowed to take up space.
But also, just imagining a world that’s very different, and embracing counterfactual elements of that world, takes a lot of imagination. I think that someone who’s always taken for granted that they deserve their status is at a disadvantage when it comes to playing make-believe on a grand scale, becuase they’ve never had to pretend as much in the real world.
Plus it’s only a short leap from pretending to be good enough to imagining other people struggling to be good enough. And that struggle gives you the empathy and experience to tell stories about flawed heroes trying to do their best, in a way that other people can understand.
So when you feel impostor syndrome, maybe instead of either giving in to it or trying to shut it down, you can think of it as strengthening a muscle inside you — your ability to play make-believe — and in turn use that notion to give yourself more confidence. It’s worth a try, anyway.