On Imposter Syndrome

(Image from https://themighty.com/2017/05/what-panic-attacks-feel-like/)

When I was a young (warthog) writer – roughly around high school age, when I first started taking this writing thing seriously – my teacher/mentor figure told me that writers don’t really call themselves “writers”; other people bestow that title on them, like a queen bestowing titles on their subjects. To claim that I was a writer was the height of conceit and pride. Coupled with that way of thinking was the fact that I came from a Catholic high school where obedience to authority was inculcated in our brains since we were very young. As a result, the earliest formation of my writing identity was based on a refusal to acknowledge my own abilities.

(That was such a hard statement to write.)

One of the tenets of Filipino culture is centered on the concept of hiya. Though it may literally translates to “shyness,” i.e. “Nahiya akong ipakita sa kanya yung sinulat ko” or “I felt shy about showing my writing to him/her,” it’s actually more insidious than that. Hiya has probably prevented so many people , and myself as well, from claiming something as their own – whether it’s a talent or an identity or an honor or a prize – simply because they felt ashamed at having been acknowledged as being better at this particular thing than other people. If you’re a Filipino, humility is seen as a positive thing all the time, whether you’re actually humble or not. You’re not conditioned to say exactly what you want to say because it might sound like bragging or conceitedness or “nagbubuhat ng bangko” (an idiom that roughly translates to “lifting your own bench,” or extolling your own virtues). And god forbid that you actually say that you’re good at something: everyone will begin labelling you as mayabang (arrogant) and you’ve pretty much painted a target on your back because now, everyone around you is going to try and pull you down to their level. Crab mentality, you know.

And this is something that was hammered into my head as a young writer – you’re young, you know nothing, you work your way from the bottom of the trash heap. You should be humble, keep your head down, don’t make waves. It also didn’t help that unlike many of my peers, I didn’t have a lot of physical advantages on my side, so all I had was the willingness to work on my writing and the very important college skill of speed-reading. And because I didn’t know any better, and because I entered a writing program that subscribed to a particular path towards a writing career, what I learned was that there was a system and to play by the system was to assure myself of a career.

Now, of course, with the many, many paths towards a writing career that exists right now, a writing degree is no longer the only viable path towards a writing career. In fact, I know more and more people who never had to take a writing class but who still succeeded in their dream of telling stories to a mainstream audience simply because they did what was needed to be done: they read what they wanted, learned the skills on their own, and pursued their own writing. And – this is the most important thing that they had that I didn’t have, and still don’t have – they were able to overcome hiya and claim their own writing identity as something that is concretely, uniquely theirs.

(Though I may feel jealous of them, I admire their bravery even more.)

I have always been my own harshest critic – I think a lot of professional writers need to develop their own internal editor, the small voice in their head that knows when something works, and when something doesn’t work. But most writers also know how to turn it off. I can’t. Whenever I write, there’s this small voice inside my head that gets progressively louder and louder, telling me that I don’t deserve to be read, that what I’m writing is shit, that there are other writers who are much better than me and who will squash me to little itty-bitty pieces. The voice tells me that I don’t have a plan, that I don’t know what I’m doing, and there will come a day when my luck will run out and everyone will tear me to shreds because I didn’t write something that was up to par with what everyone else was doing. According to this small voice, I was, at best, a minor writer who had her 15 minutes of fame, and after that I will no longer be of any value to anyone else.

Of course, my rational brain knows that these are some of my irrational fears; that in the light of the day, all of these anxieties and worries and self-doubt can be overcome. But it’s becoming harder and harder to silence this little voice inside my head. Recently, this became evident to me when a friend of mine (and fellow D&D game group) accompanied me to a roundtable book discussion about, well, my book. I wasn’t nervous about talking in front of a lot of people (hello, teacher) and I wasn’t nervous about talking about writing (because again, hello, teacher). Rather, I was incredibly nervous about talking about MY writing and what I thought about MY writing (or in academic parlance, talking about my poetics) and so in my head, I kept on trying to play down my own actions and decisions and instead kept on talking about the great good luck that I received from the universe. It became such a pattern that afterwards, my friend – who’s known me for more than 15 years – said that it was the first time she’d ever heard someone (me) talk about themselves (me, again) with the intent of bringing myself down. She also said that she never knew that I looked down on myself in that kind of way. That kind of took my aback, because I never really noticed how much I was externalizing these anxieties and fears until then.

I also knew that a lot of these thoughts coincided with the definition of imposter syndrome, which was a term I only learned about in the last couple of years and seems surprisingly encompassing of all these cyclical thoughts that I’ve had about myself, and was reinforced by a system that leaned on hiya as a quality that is admirable and beneficial to one’s self. The incredibly helpful Wikipedia article* summarizes it as “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments, and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’ Despite external evidence of their competence… [they] attribute their success to luck, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be.” I guess living with these thoughts inside my head for almost 18 years can be counted as a psychological pattern. But what struck me later on in this article was this statement: “For individuals with imposter phenomenon, feelings of guilt often result in a fear of success.” And doesn’t that sound like the cyclical concepts of hiya and yabang circling each other like a passive-aggressive ouroborous?

I can feel guilty about almost anything – whether it’s my fault or not. (This also explains the string of bad, awful, no-good romantic relationships in my 20s.) My husband can attest to this. This feeds into guilt over success, or over anything I’ve ever been able to achieve. It gets to the point where it’s fed into my refusal to submit to competitions, or apply for grants and fellowships, or even think about a Ph.D application and proposal. It has literally stopped me from pursuing things I’ve dreamed of doing because that little voice at the back of my head is louder than anything else I’ve heard my entire life.

And I wish I could say that I was able to overcome this and get better at managing this headspace, but the truth is, every single day is a struggle to not think of myself as a failure. I know that in the grand scheme of things, this is the smallest and most minor of inconveniences, especially with the way the world seems be circling around a sinkhole, but this is the headspace and it’s not the best place to be in. But I’m still alive and I’m still getting through every single day and doing what I want to do, and what I need to do, because that’s the only way to claim one’s self: by taking it one moment at a time.

* Yes, I know that Wikipedia is an unreliable source for academic essays. This is a blog post. I hope that distinction is clear. 😉

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