On Impostor Syndrome and Moving Your Own Goalposts

“Is this it? Did I do it? Am I real yet?”

 

Pinocchio is a strange little story. I’m not talking about the original cautionary Carlo Collodi story (which ends in the marionette’s horrible murder by the Cat and the Fox), although that has its own issues. I’m talking about the beloved Disney franchise from 1940 that, like all Disney reimaginings, has only the vaguest similarities to the story on which it’s based.

At its heart, it’s a story about the desire for authenticity. Pinocchio is a puppet trying to become a “real boy”—in his case by proving he doesn’t need Jiminy Cricket to be his conscience for him. Setting aside all the later resonances the story would have in science fiction yet to be written (I mean, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep / Blade Runner, anyone?), it’s also a story that’s had (and continues to have) a lot of resonances for me, and probably for a lot of you, too.

In my head, Pinocchio spends his whole post-puppet life still wondering when he’s going to  get to be a real boy. He goes to school, grows up, falls in love, has a job, has kids, gets old—the whole time asking himself “Is this it? Did I do it? Am I real yet?”

In my head, Pinocchio’s story has such a profoundly strange start that he develops an inability to judge himself the way he judges his peers. He has an insurmountable insecurity that prevents him from seeing his own accomplishments.

In my head, you see, Pinocchio has Impostor Syndrome.

We talk about it a lot in academic circles. There’s something so abusive about the hoop-jumping in the industry—well, you’ve got a master’s degree but you don’t have a doctorate; well, you have a doctorate, but you don’t have enough publications; well you’ve got publications but you don’t have a tenure-track position (god forbid you’ve gone “alt-ac”!)—that makes a lot of us (maybe most of us?) feel as though we’ve never accomplished enough, that we’re never good enough, that we’re never really worthy of respect the way others are.

Millennials are the same way, I think—at least, middle-class white ones who, like me, grew up in the suburbs. When are you going to stop playing around with those part-time/freelance/underpaying gigs and get a real job? Oh you don’t have a car? Are you really an adult if you’re still renting? You need to buy a house, preferably in the suburbs. Oh you don’t have a kid yet? When are you going to stop wasting your time and settle down?

Economics be damned, right?

And I do it to myself as a writer, too. I have a short story published. I have another under contract, and another under consideration. I’ve got a novel published. I’ve got another under contract. I’m writing a sequel to the first one. And I literally didn’t call myself an author until last week, because it sounded too accomplished. Like it couldn’t possibly describe me. My novels are published by a small press, not the “big five.” I don’t have an agent. I don’t do conventions. I don’t even qualify for membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America because I haven’t made enough money.

If an author writes a book and they don’t make a living doing it, are they really even an author?

To put it bluntly: Yes. Yes they fucking are.

Impostor Syndrome gets in your head and tells you that your own goalposts are a desert mirage. No matter how close you get, they’re still in the distance. You put your nose to the grindstone and every time you look up they’re still just as far away. But if you keep your eyes fixed on them, you don’t notice all the things you’ve actually achieved.

I just got a PhD. The same week I defended it, I signed a book contract for my second novel. I have an alt-ac job herding cats managing volunteer editors for a peer-reviewed journal about a topic that interests me, and that I think contributes to the world’s knowledge.

So if that’s all true, if I’ve really done all these things that I can objectively identify as accomplishments, then why can’t I feel like I’m “there” yet?

Why am I still asking myself what it’s like to be a real boy?

Imposter Syndrome is messed up, and it’s so, so common. I bet a lot of you reading this feel the same way, and if you don’t, I bet you know someone who does. So here’s what I want you to do:

Tell someone today how great you think their accomplishments are. Don’t let your friends hide genuine, internalized, feelings of low self-worth behind ironic self-deprecating humour. Stand up for your friends against their greatest critics: themselves.

And if someone tells you to be proud of something you’ve done? Listen to them. If there’s one thing I know, even if I don’t know who you are, it’s that you almost certainly have something to be proud of.

I know it’s not a perfect solution, but right now it’s the best I’ve got.

Signed: The Remixer

***

Featured image is of the Fox from Pinocchio edited to be describing “real boys” as taller than Pinocchio.