Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Post I Haven't Been Writing

The issue is the impostor syndrome. Or, more precisely, my impostor syndrome, which is, according to Wikipedia, hopelessly textbook.

What first got me thinking about the issue, though I hadn't named it as such, was an experience with S and our friend B, the food writer. B, who is insanely picky, has been hugely enamored of S basically since she met him, before she even tasted his food. When she finally went to the restaurant, she was beyond ecstatic. Really, everyone loves the restaurant, but B LOVES the restaurant. Only that one night is the only time she's ever eaten S's food (we've tried to have them over, but really we are all such food nuts--except, remember, I'm faking--that we just end up going out to eat at different restaurants--like the fabulous new hipster Chinese restaurant in Trendy Neighborhood, but that's a different post).

Anyway, B's mad embrace of S's expertise on what appeared to be little solid evidence nagged at me. Why? Because I feel that people often develop what seem to be inflated opinions of my expertise and capacity on very little evidence, and I am always quite certain that if they looked a little closer, they would realize that I am in no way all that.

So one day I brought this up with B. "How do you know," I asked, "that S is such a great chef, when you've only eaten his food once?" And B got quite offended. She pointed out that she is an expert on food, which she is, and that, as an expert, she knows what's good, and she knows it fast. "After all," she pointed out, "don't you immediately recognize the good stuff in your area of expertise?" (OK, that's not exactly what she said, because she named my area of expertise, but, you know, the anonymity schtick and all.) And she's right, I do. I can tell immediately if someone is any good, and I'm almost always correct. So why don't I trust other people's snap judgments of me, especially when I respect the people, which generally I do? Well, the answer to that would be the topic of this post.

Another issue, along these lines, is the people who think they are so great at what they do, but who I think suck a lot. And there are a lot of those people. And they make me wonder about my own self-assessments: if they are so obviously misguided in thinking themselves capable, or even highly capable, doesn't it seem possible, indeed likely, that were I to think myself capable, I would be similarly misguided? Yes, even I can see the fallacious logic there, even through the tortuous prose, but still, that's how I feel.

Then the other day, I was talking to Lucy about my work, and she described what I was doing in a very complimentary way. "No, no, no," I said, "that's not what I'm doing at all. Really, I'm doing this," "this" being very much a minimization of my accomplishment, in comparison to Lucy's "that." Lucy, in her Lucy way, laughed at me and said, "OK, I'll just leave you to your impostor syndrome," and changed the subject. Light bulb! That's what I'm doing! I'm living my impostor syndrome, every single day, and let me tell you, it's a little wearing.

Because these days I am really scrambling to fulfill my commitments to a lot of different consulting projects. And I know, or perhaps I should say, I am hyperaware, often to the point of near-despair, of everything I am not doing as well as I could be, and yet I am accomplishing everything that needs to be done, and the feedback I'm getting is very positive (OK, it's kind of over-the-top positive, but to say that feels like tooting my own horn in a way that truly makes me nauseous). And yet all I can think is NOT, "Wow, I have a ton of work, and yet I am accomplishing it successfully, go me!" but "Oh man, as soon as they find out all the ways I'm slacking, it will be all over." And yet, in 43 years of a fair amount of success, I've never been found out, despite my ever-present, and I mean ever-present, fear that I will be, so shouldn't I, to co-opt a phrase I used recently while giving advice to a friend, pretend to be a member of the reality-based community and accept that I'm fine?

And that, my friends, is what it's like to live with a bad case of impostor syndrome, on top of an acute case of self-consciousness.


Dawn said...

Here's what I'm learning: The people who are mediocre but everyone thinks are fabulous are often just better at promoting themselves. People believe hype (I get sucked in by hype a lot) and showing up confident is about all it takes for people to say, "You do a good job." Besides which judgment is so arbitrary and I don't know how much it matters to have someone say "you're great!" unless they're in the position to further your greatness so then judgment just doesn't matter all that much. So I see everything split in two: the work for the sake of work that has value in the working and what *I* get out of it; then the practical side of it, which is success/prestige/money. The success/prestige/money is more in my control than I realize (promotion, showing up, submitting anyway, whatever).

I'm not explaining it well. But the more I look at what passes for great work, the more confident I feel that I ain't that bad in my work life or in my writing life. And the promotion? I can show up for that.

jackie said...

Um, YES. I feel this way a lot. I am juggling writing and teaching, and I know that I'm not giving either one %100, which makes it very difficult for me to accept compliments. The dept chair I'm teaching for this spring, who was my professor as an undergrad, asked me the other day, in all seriousness, why I don't think of myself as a brilliant, high-achieving teacher/scholar. And my answer is basically what you've said here-- I'm an imposter, and he just hasn't figured it out yet!