The Great Imposter Complex

My favourite Facebook comment thread in the whole world by far is a conversation I stumbled upon about three months which was happening between a bunch of highly respected, serious South African journalists about how many times in their lives they have known absolutely fuckall about the topic they were supposed to be writing about and had to totally bluff their way through it. And it was amazing for me to hear because I feel that about 70% of the time – that I have no idea what I’m doing, that it’s by some bizarre fluke that I’m actually paid to write, and that it’s only a matter of time before somebody finds out the truth – that I’m a total fraud and will definitely be stripped of my title soon because what the hell do I know about anything?

The stories they told were funny – one had to interview this young scientist who had come up with a theory which disproved Steven Hawking (really), and she had to nod knowingly and pretend to understand what the poor man was saying when he might as well have been speaking Khazakstanian in dialect through a hosepipe on the moon. Another who is such an astonishingly gifted writer her words regularly stun me talked about how she’ll be in an interview with someone who is just about to deliver the one pearl of truth she’s been waiting for for the past hour and which, like Lebowski says, will hold the entire interview together, she interrupts and starts talking about herself and the moment is lost, never to be retrieved.

I do that regularly, and then get home with my little dictaphone and want to slap myself with my plakkie as I play it back again and again trying to guess what the top chef in the whole wide world was just about to say when I stopped him to tell him my very important story about gathering mushrooms in a forest in Sweden. My worst interview ever in my life was also my first, and it was with Alanis Morissette at the height of her crossness and fame, and instead of spending the night before doing proper research I went for a braai with my new boyfriend thinking that I’m great with people, I’ll just improvise and wing it, except by the time we got to the Bellville Velodrome on Saturday afternoon I was in such a state of terror and anxiety I started crying and begging to be taken home.

And worst-case scenario in the world (I think this was pre that India song where she thanks all the poor people for giving her an enlightenment poes klap and endeavours to be nicer), she sat so far away from me I had to squint to see her and shout my crappy questions in a half-hysterical falsetto, hoping my voice would travel far enough, and she answered every single thing with a monosyllable. Every single thing, friends. At one point (she was just starting her covers phase) I sang – I actually sang – Sting’s King of Pain to her. To Alanis Morissette. To this day I have no idea what possessed me. I think I was trying to break the ice or something. She just took another sip of her lukewarm chamoMEEL tea and stared at me with big eyes. The horror.

Anyhoo. I’ve become better at interviews, but not better at feeling like I really am a writer just because I write. I’m finishing off my second book which is about the Banhoek Valley and historic Cape Dutch homes, and for the past year and a half my photographer has been introducing me as the ‘author’. And every time, without fail, my head whips around to see Margaret Atwood walk into the room because I’m not an author, silly. Ja, I write stuff, but ‘authors’ – well, they’ve clever and everything. And I think it’s something a lot of us suffer from, whether we admit to it or not. I used to have a conversation with a surgeon friend about whether he was a surgeon yet. And while he was performing operations all day long, it took him a while before he became a surgeon to himself. At what moment (if ever) do you become the thing other people think you are, and how much fakery do you have to put in to get there?

I once read an amazing thing JM Coetzee said – that with every book he submits he’s terrified they’re going to find out the truth – that he’s been a fraud all along and his books are rubbish. Those words really hit home for me – that such a brilliant, talented individual who has proven himself time and time again can actually doubt himself is astonishing, and makes me feel less ridiculous when I have these insecure thoughts. I wonder why it’s so hard to give ourselves credit where credit is due, and find it almost impossible to say, ‘hey – I did that well. I must be pretty good.’ Maybe part of getting there is having more conversations like that one on Facebook where people admit to feeling the same way, and we all stop pretending to be on top of things when we aren’t and just go, fuck it, I am clueless right now, buddy. It would certainly make the world a friendlier place.

25 thoughts on “The Great Imposter Complex

  1. I have the highest respect for people who are honest to the extreme…a vary rare trait indeed. At least one always knows where one stands with them, and it causes one to do introspection as to just how really clever/honest/successful one is!

  2. I keep wondering when “they” will find out I am not really qualified to be doing what I do (albeit relatively well – who would have thunk it!) As Winnie the Pooh said: “Promise me you’ll alwyas remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” Very wise Bear!!! Love your work Susan!

  3. There’s even a psychological term for this: imposter syndrome. I reckon everyone suffers from it, at some stage – unless they are suffering from some other psychological disfunction that gives them a superiority complex. When I first became editor of one of our national magazines, I thought they’d had to choose second-best for some reason and I feared they’d soon discover their mistake. But I held the position for 11 years, so I must have been doing something right.

    Interviewing and reporting are hard because you have to put yourself aside; creative, narrative writing is much easier. That’s why I, along with loads of other people, enjoy your blog. Keep it up.

  4. Great post. I can completely relate to this. I have the same reaction when anyone refers to me as an artist – and I know other painters who feel the same way.

    I’ve also encountered imposter syndrome in the business world, and it does take some time to get over it. It seems to be more of an issue for women in that context, and I suspect that’s not because of any different treatment of women in business – but almost entirely in our own heads.

    I’m in two minds about whether it’s a good thing or not. Of course, it can be such an issue that it shows, which could end up giving the impression of lack of experience/competence. That’s never good. However, I think a bit of professional humility keeps you keen to continue learning.

    Always good to know that others feel the same way, though. It stops me feeling like a complete idiot. Thanks for sharing your Alanis story. It made me smile. I once told someone at a business networking event that my greatest challenge was “learning to tango in three weeks”. (I had misread the question) The poor man got a terrified look on his face and fled to the other side of the room.

  5. Please let me know when your book is ready; I live next to the Banhoek valley in a Cape Dutch house and am very curious about it. Thank you!

  6. Totally hear you. Funnily enough I feel more comfortable as a writer than a photographer, which is what I really am – and which is, undeniably, my bigger talent. But perhaps that’s why. I love challenges, but in my own time – I’m constantly terrified that I’ll get a dream assignment that I just can’t handle. Speaking of embarrassing, I once went out on a job with two cameras, only to discover that I had no memory cards. Luckily it started raining, so after taking a few unsavable snaps I concluded – looking very disappointed – that the weather was no good for what we wanted and we’d have to try again the next day.

  7. It happens a lot amongst creative people, whether they be writers or artists. That sense of not being worthy enough. And what will make it worse is when some old bat comes along and asks “when are you going to get a real job, dear?” Recently I was part of a team that winged it spectacularly in a setting where everyone else clearly knew WTF was going on. Bouts of terror interspersed with “of course we know what we are doing…, don’t we?” Oddly enough, we walked away with first prize….I’m still waiting for someone to say “nah, you weren’t actually the best, just kidding…”

  8. Oh em gee! Spot on! My friend called it “fear of being found out” that youre a fraud even though youre doing a good job and your being validated often about what youre doing. Sometimes we just dont believe in ourselves. In 2010 I quit my teaching job because I felt like a COMPLETE fraud and that I was wasting the poor peoples money and by leaving they would be able to hire someone who actually knows what they’re doing! I still insisted on resigning even after they sat me down and begged me to stay as they thought they had done something to cause me to leave. After working in communications for a year, which i majored in… I found myself wanting to teach again as I realised that I didnt suck as much as I thought. I was blessed to find another teaching job and felt a bit more secure in what I was doing the 2nd time around.

    Also, sometimes when I meet a new guy who is into me, I fear that sooner or later he will realise that im not as fab as he thinks I am and will lose interest… but somehow he ends up staying and putting up with me. Lol ugh!!

  9. The people I like the most feel the same way you do (and I do, almost always)…the people that seem to completely rub me up the wrong way are those that know everything about everything…and love telling you as much! Shotto on another great MUST-be-a-fluke post :)

  10. This may sound odd , but if everyone who suffers from the ‘impostor syndrome’ [which includes me] could drop the ‘I’ness of it all , and see for a moment that the real truths come from somewhere bigger than we are . A good interview is like when musicians click together onstage and magic happens – it is grace . If you did one thing on entering an interview it would be that you were open to grace. Or to Grace – the one with a capital C sounds right, I’m an artist and craftsman – and I know that when Grace enters my process , the sum of my work is greater than any ‘I’ involved.
    You are a wonderful writer Susan , blessed often with Grace I believe !

  11. I relate to this and I suspect most women (in particular) would …

    I thought this article on the subject was good (particularly the part re one of impostorism’s frustrating ironies is that true frauds and idiots rarely seem to experience it!) but also noted the study’s observation that the downshifting of women was more to do with impostorism than wanting a family-friendly lifestyle. I genuinely believe this to be true from my own and friends’ experiences.

    And I do think it is good for us to talk about it and also try to work out how to deal with it. But at the same time we can’t just sit around gibbering about how crap we all are at our jobs as we need to get on with things, make calls, be competent – even if inside we are feeling less so. I love what JM Coetzee says but at the same time I wouldn’t want him to be going on and on about it all the time because, fgs, he IS a writer! It would be like us all asking if our bums were big in this the whole time ;-)

  12. very amusing, but oh so true. no matter what age you are, you’re always wondering when they’ll find out who you really are!

  13. After 14 years and three children, still wondering when the kids will find out I’m just a fake mom pretending to be the real deal, and as for being someones’ wife, well wait till he works that one out…

  14. I want to tell you how much I enjoy your blog. You capture very typical South African things in just the right words with the perfect balance of humour and seriousness. You feel like a friend!

  15. Lovely! Especially the Alanis interview part….sounds like something I’d do! Has me in fits of giggles. Dont you think as women we’re so bad at backing ourselves? You’re so not alone…..and having just discovered your blog I can truly say, you ARE a writer and a bloody good one at that!

  16. Hello there! This blog post couldn’t be written any better!
    Reading through this post reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He always kept talking about this. I’ll send this article to him.
    Fairly certain he will have a great read. I appreciate you for sharing!

  17. It’s so cool that you wrote about this – thanks. I’ve met world-class surgeons who feel that way. Yikes! I’m constantly battling with the demon “Not Good Enough’. I even wrote about it on my blog.

    And on the same brilliant topic, see this awesome interview by Brene Brown with author Elizabeth Gilbert. They talk about fear and vulnerability and daring greatly.

    And if you don’t know yet of Brene Brown or her book Daring Greatly you should definitely check it out. I suspect it’s right up your street.

    (Btw, I tried to comment on your recent ‘Memo’ post but no comment box available.)

    Now how informative was THAT comment??!!! Whew!

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