A Cure for the Common Impostor Syndrome?

c/o Academia, Scandal, and My Mom

One cold Rhode Island morning the stern but huge-hearted gentleman who ran my MFA acting program sat us all down in the main studio for a “come to Jesus” about self-discipline. The usual: insidious lateness. Skipping class. Generally sleazing by rather than doing the real homework of acting. “Examine your conscience,” he said. And just as I was drowning in a pool of guilt, as I imagined we all were, he wrapped with a warning: “those of you who think I’m talking to you – I’m not. If your inner voice is going haywire right now, you’re not the problem.”

And so it is with Impostor Syndrome.

Earlier this month Katy Waldman at Slate wrote a deliciously meta essay sending up the comically consistent structure of the recent barrage of online articles about the Impostor Effect, and in so doing pulled together the best and oddest theories on the subject of feeling like a fake into a comprehensive and totally fun guide. If you haven’t tripped over this impostor topic yet yourself, go check out the link above. I’ll still be here after.

If you have heard the term before, it was probably accompanied by an involuntary nod of recognition – “I’m such a fraud,” or “I hope no one figures out I don’t actually know what I’m doing” are apt to enter our heads, dare I say, almost as frequently as “I gotta go pee”… even if we’d prefer not to admit (even to ourselves!) that we ever lack confidence. But regardless of the mindgames we may play – and this is the big deal point – all the data shows that it’s usually the opposite of the truth: Jessica Collett, a professor of sociology at Notre Dame, tells us, “researchers find that impostorism is most often found among extremely talented and capable individuals, not people who are true impostors.”

You’re not the problem.

Hard to believe it when we’re wracked with the latest case of “I don’t deserve to be here”-itis or the existentially lousy “who am I kidding? The world doesn’t need another actor” … or filmmaker, or D-girl, or host, or writer writing about impostorism.

And although articles on the subject are often relegated to the lady pages of upstanding journals, we can probably all point to evidence in our own circles that suggests undervaluing our accomplishments is not just a female thing; it’s a habit of those up against the odds, with something to prove. ‘Round abouts Hollywood, that could be just about anyone. Whether we have a powerful job and secretly fear we’re not up for it, or we’re perennially between gigs and secretly fear we’ll never book another and what the hell are we doing with our lives… it’s kinda the same thing. Insecurity. I-am-not-enough-ness.

What would it feel like to eradicate this behavior from our minds? I remember a phone call with my mom when I was still in college. I was turning 21 and not feeling particularly grown up.

Me: Mom, when does being “an adult” start to feel less like an act?

Her (with a soft, knowing chuckle): Never does.

She was a feminist before that was a bad word – or rather, just when it was becoming a good word. She’s managed to teach me the right lesson at the right time all my life. A few years ago, when I was career transitioning and beating myself up over time wasted, she told me, “Honey, everyone wishes they figured something out sooner.”

Everyone wishes they figured something out sooner. I mean… !

In both cases, such a lightness followed her words. That’s really all we can do, isn’t it? Find the lightness when we’re feeling heavy. These impostor voices in our own head… of course the only solution is to stop listening to them. Of course it is. But how we do that is different for each of us: a chat with a friend or a parent who reminds us to laugh at our despondency, yoga or meditation, a run with a dog, overcompensating with an equally preposterous arrogant inner monologue (seriously, I’m pretty sure most douchebaggery in this town can be traced back to the impulse to turn “I don’t deserve to be here” into “I deserve it more than anyone else,” skipping right over the the sweet spot in the middle). But whatever method you choose, choose a method. Smile at yourself when you have thoughts of inadequacy, and move on. Turn the heavy, light.

I dare us to try. No, seriously. This is a dare. Right here, right now: one month Impostor Free. #teamIF

Because the more I look at my own evidence – from friends, from myself, from the interwebs – the more it seems to me that the Impostor Syndrome is really an organic reaction to experiencing something for the first time, even if the “something” is just finally being acknowledged. Or loved. Or negotiating for a higher salary. Or auditioning for a bigger role. Not something wildly outside the realm of what we’ve spent our whole life fighting for – rather just the next logical step. But our bodies don’t care about the logic; they feel the newness. So it’s understandable, absolutely, this feeling that we’re out of our depths. But rather than let newness turn to fear, let’s try turning it into a little celebratory wiggle. It’s progress. Scary awesome progress.

Maybe we should all take a lesson from that Scandal episode. Yeah, you know the one. I had been feeling conflicted about Lisa Kudrow’s character because it’s hard to get behind a woman running for president who keeps wavering on if she really wants it – but if the character was battling her own Impostor Syndrome-y demons, well she exorcised the crap out of ‘em with that epic speech. Watch it (or watch it again) when you have two minutes or when you need a pep talk.

And then just decide. You’re not the problem.

So here goes. One month Impostor Free. Roughly just before Thanksgiving to just before the holidays. ‘Cuz what else you got going on? Hahahaha. But seriously, let’s end the year with a bang. Or a wiggle. Share your favorite method for getting your mind back on track. Tweet me @samarabay or write me privately at samarabay [at] gmail [dot] com if you prefer. #teamIF

To start out with, I’m going to decide that it’s a-ok that I just wrote an article based on an article about articles.

This is going to be a fun month.

A version of this article was first published in Ms. in the Biz.