Michael. Christopher. John. Jamal. Ethan. Oliver. Jack.
My friend, Angie, tells me to name it. She tells me to give this doubt a name and tell it to shut the fuck up. She is much bolder than I can ever hope to be, but each time she calls there is a reminder and a questioning about what name I’ve chosen for it. Impostor Syndrome. She says it is a man and suggests the name Derek. I haven’t been able to whittle down a list of my own. I know I do not want to name him after an ex nor do I want to pick a moniker I actually like. I don’t want to be kind to this voice. I want to be able to cuss and spit at it when it gets too loud to ignore.
It seems fitting that Impostor Syndrome was first identified by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, the year I was born. This syndrome tells us that we are frauds, that what we have accomplished is simply the result of luck. Imposter Syndrome cripples me. That devil on my shoulder leans in really closely and says to give up. It perches just in the corner of my vision and says I’m too old to try. That I don’t have a large enough network for anyone to care. It tells me that I’m not as talented as I think I am. It chatters and chatters until sometimes I give up.
I was small talking at a party in Boston when it hit me most recently. Gripping a glass of champagne and Chambord, I was worrying about how my body was draped in my seat. I was fretting about whether someone would ask me a question about a book I’ve never read or ask if I knew someone whose name rang nary a bell. I was asking myself how I ended up in the affluent Back Bay neighborhood still coming down from the high of presenting in front of a room full of people. No matter how many times scenes such as this have occurred, there is always the specter at the edge of my social self that is waiting to swoop in and expose me as a fraud. Each of these times, before I could fully allow myself to live in the moment of what was happening to me, I was already sharpening the reasons I shouldn’t be there, why these experiences shouldn’t be true.
I’m not very sure how to push that voice back to the recesses of my mind. There are days I can mute it, culling it to a corner far enough away that I can see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. Those are the days I submit, the days I write until my back aches from sitting, and the days I shuffle the pages of my book back and forth until the picture becomes clear. I try to hold onto them through depression that makes it hard to function and anxiety that makes me a bit nauseous when I have to step out of my shell and network. That doubt makes me convinced people can hear the shaking of my voice and notice just how often I avert my eyes.
At Grub Street’s Muse and The Marketplace conference this year, Patrice Gopo and Grace Talusan gave a talk on envy. I sat in the back row because my energy was waning. It was the last day and I was struggling to tuck in the green edges of my jealousy and fear. So much talk of agents and manuscripts and cover design issues and I felt like I was drowning. I felt like at any point someone was going to peek into the room, beckon me with a finger and strip the presenter lanyard from my neck. I thought they’d say, “I’m sorry, Ms. Dixon. There’s been a mistake.” It didn’t happen and if I’m being honest with myself, I’m fairly convinced it will never occur.
Even if almost 70% of people experience Imposter Syndrome in their lifetimes, in the midst of it everything seems lonely and echoing. You are convinced that somehow everything before you is a lie or at best a half-truth. You begin to believe that someone has done you a favor, that you are a charity case, that maybe the person meant to be there had a similar name. Each of these things does your talents and accomplishments a disservice. Nothing in this syndrome gives you room to understand that there are reasons you have walked through these doors. It partners with anxiety and perfectionism and will not let you speak up or out. It is cruel and it is very real.
This doubt, heaped upon our shoulders internally and externally, rears its head in all walks of life. It is not exclusive to writers nor any other profession. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that traps you in an echo chamber of voices telling you what you’re doing is wrong and why you don’t belong. And we must acknowledge just how social media exacerbates this, watching the highlight reels of others’ lives on repeat and wondering when it will be our turn.
So how do we learn to live with, or maybe even conquer, that voice rattling around in our heads? We take stock of what it’s saying. We can never be afraid to admit that sometimes that voice may actually be relaying something that we need to pay attention to. That perhaps a portion of it may stem from some very real lack of preparation or fear. I don’t want to sell you any false hope here.
Maybe we should listen to Derek. He could be telling us that maybe we didn’t put as much effort as we should have into the project or just maybe we skimmed that chapter instead of reading it for meaning and that’s the reason we are afraid to approach a discussion about its significance. What Derek should not compel us to do is make his voice the only one we hear.
Derek, or any manifestation of him, should only be a shout in the distance that sometimes reminds us that outside perspective is needed. What is more important is our voices, the ones that brought us exactly to the place we currently doubt or fear. Our voices should be the ones of reason even if they are trembling. Even if they are weak. We should tell Derek to close his mouth and listen. We should make him listen by any means we can. By listing what we are unsure of, why we feel this way, and how we can overcome what seems to be standing in our paths.
Maybe acknowledging Derek is the first step in dismantling a larger issue. Is what he is saying repetitious? Does he seem to be a broken record telling us over and over something we’ve yet to heed? As writers we know where patterns appear. We know through lines. We know when a shift in perspective is needed. So, we acknowledge it and seek out where this voice needs editing. Perhaps it will shrink into a small parcel of words we can easily swallow and forget ever existed or perhaps we take the boom of Derek’s voice and distill it down into a few lines we can carry a bit easier. Do whatever it takes, just don’t allow him to take your voice. Don’t allow him to make you leave the page or leave the room. Derek wasn’t invited there, if anything he is simply riding your coattails because he can’t stand on his own.
Athena Dixon. Born and raised in Northeast Ohio, Athena Dixon is a poet, essayist, and editor. She is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Linden Avenue Literary Journal, which she launched in 2012. Athena‘s work has appeared in various publications both online and in print. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee (2016, 2017), a Best of the Net nominee (2017), a Callaloo fellow (Oxford 2017), and a V.O.N.A. fellow (2018). Additionally, she has presented at AWP (Boston 2013) and HippoCamp (2016, 2017, 2018). She is the author of No God In This Room, a poetry chapbook , published by Argus House Press. Her work also appears in The Breakbeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic (Haymarket Books). She writes, edits, and resides in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in So To Speak Literary Journal, Narratively, Great Lakes Review, The Grief Diaries, Compose Journal, and elsewhere.