"How Do I Deal with Imposter Syndrome?"

Who knew pigeons would be so relevant?

Dear Milo,

Any tips or thoughts about dealing with Imposter Syndrome?


Among Us Pun Among Us

Medford, MA

Dear Among Us Pun Among Us,

In early 2016, I was selected for the Novel Incubator Program of GrubStreet. It was one of the first big breaks for my writing career that I’d been striving toward for several years. In the program, 10 early-stage novelists meet in a weekly 3-hour class for a full year. The big draws of the program are the guidance of instructor and known novel whisperer Michelle Hoover, learning the mechanics of novel writing that’s rarely taught in MFA programs, and having your full novel workshopped 2 ½ times over the program.

It was an amazing opportunity. Problem was, I was convinced I’d been accepted on error. It wasn’t my first experience with Imposter Syndrome by a long shot, but it was the first time that I felt it was asking me, “But what are you going to do about it?” If I declined the acceptance, I’d be missing out on something awesome. But if I accepted, I was certain I’d embarrass myself beyond repair. They would find out that I was, in fact, an imposter, and I’d be laughed out of the program.

But before we go further, first things first. From what I know, Imposter Syndrome isn’t currently recognized as a mental health disorder, but it does appear to have some sort of psychological basis to it. As such, I’m stating that I’m not a mental health expert, so I’m attempting to not engage in that part of this discussion. If anybody reading this is dealing with Imposter Syndrome to the point that it’s negatively impacting your daily life, please talk with a knowledgeable therapist or consenting loved one.

Imposter Syndrome is rampant through the writing community. Or, at least, it is in my community circles. At least three-quarters of the queer writers I talk with bring up Imposter Syndrome and how to deal with it.

My theory—based on practically nothing—is that Imposter Syndrome is so prevalent because the United States devalues writers. Add in the devaluing of marginalized people as a whole, the publishing industry’s encouragement of competition, and the pseudo-reality of a successful writer life on social media, and we’ve got a bit of a self-esteem problem. (See my post on carroting for some more on those latter bits.)

But back to my story. I took some time to think it over and ultimately decided to move forward with attending the program. Despite my anxiety, I’d reduced my concerns to their basic elements: gain valuable knowledge and be shamed, or don’t and not. If my biggest worry was being laughed at, I realized I’d already been laughed at plenty in life. May as well get something useful out of it in the process.

Screw it. Somebody in the program had made a clerical error, but I was going to do the unethical thing. I was going to accept, not tell anyone about the mistake, and stay in for as long as possible before they found me out. At worst, I’d gain insight into novel writing that was rarely found elsewhere before the jig was up and they kicked me out. But perhaps I’d manage to stay in long enough that, even when they realized their mistake, it’d be too late.

I approached it like a golden lab crashing a wedding buffet. I wasn’t supposed to be there, but damn if I wasn’t going to cram my mouth with as much food as possible while they yanked me off the table. I’d eventually be booted out in shame, but my stomach would be full. I’d have an adventure and a story to tell.