The Limits of Success

Someone asked me about “imposter syndrome” today on Twitter, so I linked over to the piece I wrote about it a couple of years back. Not surprisingly, this being Twitter, some folks had criticisms of the piece; one of the most cogent came from Lindsay Ellis, who essayed it in a multitweet thread which begins here, and which I encourage everyone to read.

John Scalzi, writing today about “The Limits of My Knowledge, Professionally (and Otherwise)” in response to criticism about his answer to a question on Twitter about imposter syndrome.

I suffer imposter syndrome all the time. Imposter syndrome is gut-wrenching feelings of inadequacy and being an imposter and guilt for receiving what I don’t think I deserve. With every success and any praise, my coping mechanisms immediately engage to combat and cut them off. I try to change the subject, point out the other person’s own recent successes, become excessively self-effacing, find some way to destabilize the social interaction, sometimes even say “No.” I have to be really careful not to anger or insult the person praising me and offering congratulations.

You might say “But, wait, didn’t you just post about your latest success on social media? Didn’t you just thank me for my congratulations? I haven’t noticed you doing any of those things you list above.”

I’m aware of how people announce and celebrate success. I’m trying hard to be normal about this. I can go through the motions. I have a poker face. I don’t plan to stop writing or stop submitting just because I have imposter syndrome.

I manage.

Afterward, though, you might notice I keep to myself, perhaps even vanish for a few days. That’s when I’m experiencing stomach-churning guilt and pressure in my chest. This goes beyond humility or self-effacement; imposter syndrome really fucking hurts. And imposter syndrome ramps up with every milestone I reach. I was not prepared for how much worse it would get once I started writing regularly, getting published, participating in public readings, teaching…

See that sentence I just wrote? I’m already thinking “I didn’t write all that much last week, it’s been months since I was last published, can I really call three public readings in five years ‘participating’, and I don’t really start teaching until April. Why am I lying to everyone? Who the fuck do I think I am? Why am I writing this blog post when I have another writing-related task that needs to be completed by Sunday? Writer? I’m barely a person.”

I understand why John Scalzi has never felt it. I know where it comes from for me. I have no clue how to stop feeling like an imposter, except to accept it, and keep pushing forward anyway, which is terrible and useless advice, because my stomach and chest still hurt like hell and I’m afraid I won’t even be able to push the publish button for this post…

Richard Leis

Richard Leis

Richard Leis (he/him/his) lives in Tucson, Arizona where he writes poetry and fiction, attends and teaches writing workshops at the Writers Studio Tucson, and works for HiRISE, a team in the Lunar & Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona with a camera in orbit around Mars onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

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