What joy to wake at home, after dreaming we moved out because we had no business living in a place this nice. The dream followed an exchange about the humiliation of trying to look like the cool girls in high school and getting it wrong.
Other memories flood back. Wondering, in my twenties, when I would start to feel like a grown-up instead of pretending. Shocked, in my thirties, to be approached by an acquaintance told by her therapist to interview successful women. Recently reluctant to join a group of writers, unsure I’d belong in spite of writing for a living for over twenty years.
“Impostor syndrome" was coined in the 1970s for high-achieving women’s fear of being unmasked as a fraud. Studies also find it common among men, with a difference. Women are socialized to be modest and faulted for overconfidence. Men, socialized not to look vulnerable, are under pressure to hide self-doubt. If you feel like an impostor, you’re in good company:
Albert Einstein, late in life: “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
Maya Angelou: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find me out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”
Neil Gaiman, on a gathering of notables: “I felt that at any moment they would realize that I didn’t qualify to be there, among those people who had really done things.” Another attendee, the first man on the moon, questioned his own invitation; he’d done nothing special, just gone where he was sent. Gaiman goes on: “If Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.