by Lucy E.M. Black
Several years ago, a student trying to get my attention called out to me by shouting, “Hey, you!” I turned around smartly and responded in the prim, authoritarian voice administrators are trained to use for such occasions, “You may address me as Mrs. Black, or Principal Black, or Madam Principal but I do not respond to ‘Hey, you.’ ” Even as I spoke the words, I thought about how strange they sounded. Not the theatrical and oh-so prim scolding so much as the fact that I actually was a principal. Somehow, the board had entrusted me with a multi-million-dollar facility and the care of staff and students. I wasn’t new to the role at the time. In fact, this little exchange took place near the end of my career, after my having served for many years as a high school administrator.
It was one of those momentary exchanges in life that have stayed with me. And I have had reason to think of it again lately with the upcoming release of my new novel. This will be my third book release, and my books follow dozens of short stories and articles published in magazines and journals in four countries. I also work regularly on contract as a freelance writer. And yet, when introducing myself in pre-Covid days, I typically stated that I was a retired teacher. I actively downplayed my accomplishments as an educator and refrained completely from mentioning my writing career. It was usually my partner who chimed in, telling people about my books and writing life.
The truth is, I have spent much of my life feeling like an imposter. I know that I have worked hard to accomplish those things that I have done, and I know that I have a highly developed and specialized skill set. But it still feels rather incredible, presumptuous even, to call myself an author. Real authors are people like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Michael Ondaatje. I can’t possibly categorize myself with an identity also used to describe the “greats” of writing. Since I’m not as gifted, skilled, or successful, I don’t deserve to be called an author. At least that’s what the little voice in my head whispers to me.
I believe that the voice of self-doubt is what others commonly refer to as “imposter syndrome.” Although I have no clinical training, I know that the monologue of self-doubt has been my constant companion for much of my life. And I hope that my reading, which was done in order to better understand my own hesitancies and insecurities, may resonate with others, too.
The concept of imposter syndrome has been around for a long time. According to Arlin Cuncic, writing for the California Cognitive Behavioral Institute, “the term was first used by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s. When the concept of IS was introduced, it was originally thought to apply mostly to high-achieving women. Since then, it has been recognized as more widely experienced” (https://theccbi.com/what-is-imposter-syndrome, accessed 11 June 2021). The term first used by Imes and Clance was “imposter phenomena,” but “imposter syndrome” has become the more commonly used descriptor.
Simply put, imposter syndrome describes those individuals who believe that they are phonies or frauds in particular contexts and that “they are undeserving of their achievements and the high esteem in which they are, in fact, generally held. They feel that they aren’t as competent or intelligent as others might think—and that soon enough, people will discover the truth about them” (www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/imposter-syndrome, accessed 11 June 2021). People with imposter syndrome often believe that their successes are a matter of good luck and that they don’t really belong. As a result, they often pressure themselves into becoming over-achievers in order to prevent people from exposing them as deficient. Some of the characteristics of people with imposterism include: self-doubt, an unrealistic assessment of their own competence or skill set, attributing success to external factors, fear of failing, over-achieving, and agonizing over the smallest mistakes and flaws in their own performance.
Dr. Angelica Attard describes five manifestations of imposter syndrome: people who present with perfectionist tendencies, individuals who develop a superhero persona, those who study hard to make themselves experts in a field, people who emulate what appears to be an effortless genius performance, and soloists who insist that they work alone (Imposter Syndrome Defined: 5 Fascinating Research Findings (positivepsychology.com), accessed 12 June 2021). Individuals can easily be caught in a vicious performative cycle when their fear of failure and exposure prompts them to accelerate their efforts, which in turn leads to increasing levels of anxiety. The anxiety then will further stoke their feelings of inadequacy.
There are a number of mindfulness activities and self-compassion-based exercises that can help to alleviate self-doubt in order to help individuals develop a healthy self-concept. Positive self-talk, storytelling, and confidence-boosting activities are among those things that are said to be most helpful. Underlying such initiatives is the importance of self-awareness and positive thinking. There are many useful online articles readily available, as well as some fabulous TED talks and other resources (i.e., The Surprising Solution to the Imposter Syndrome, Lou Solomon, TEDx Charlotte, posted 30 Nov. 2016, https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=ted+talk+imposter+syndrome&docid=). If imposter syndrome sounds like the little voice in your head, or if you recognize it in someone you care about, I’d urge you to investigate some of the available supports and resources. There is no shame in learning to recognize and celebrate your own gifts.
Photo credit by: Steve Johnson @artbystevej (US Indiana).
Lucy E.M. Black is the author of The Marzipan Fruit Basket, a collection of short stories (Inanna Publications) and Eleanor Courtown, a work of historical fiction (Seraphim Editions). Her award-winning short stories have been published in Britain, Ireland, the US, and Canada in literary journals and magazines. She is a dynamic workshop presenter, experienced interviewer and freelance writer. She lives with her partner in a small lakeside town north-east of Toronto. Her new novel, Stella’s Carpet (Now or Never Publishing), will be released in October 2021.