Recently I was
working studiously on my book manuscript watching minipig videos on YouTube when a familiar wave of self-recrimination and doubt washed over me. This wasn’t my garden-variety (for me) anxiety and panic attacks, but something of an altogether different nature.
It was the general sense, quite plainly, that I was a fraud, that I wasn’t smart enough or a good enough writer to complete the projects I have set out for myself or, ultimately, create the life I want to live.
I knew what this thing was called, which almost made it worse (you know, how your cough seems really mild until WebMD tells you 27 things it might be a symptom of?). It’s called Impostor Syndrome, coined in 1978 by the psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes to describe high-achieving (female) Oberlin College students who felt like they didn’t deserve the successes they had in life.
But is this thing really a psychological syndrome? Because, like, I *really* don’t need another damn syndrome. Or is impostor syndrome, in itself, an impostor?
First off, a story. In 1894, for the very first time, a French translation of the poetry of lady-lovin’ Greek poetess Bilitis (a contemporary of Sappho!) was published in Paris. The volume included an introduction to her life by a respected archaeologist and an index of the previously-unpublished poems featured in French for the first time.
The volume’s translator was Pierre Louÿs, who up until that point was somewhat known for his own erotic poetry. Louÿs went on to rub shoulders with the likes of Oscar Wilde and Claude Debussy–the latter even wrote companion music to Louÿs’ Chansons de Bilitis. It was a crowning literary achievement! Right?
Well, yes and no. It was, and still is, a great example of French poetry (particularly erotic poetry) of the time. But the thing is, it’s written in very Baudelaire-esque prose poems, a form about as natively French as a crusty baguette. And that respected archaeologist who helped craft the narrative of Bilitis’ life? His name was “Herr G. Heim”, which loosely translates to English as “Mr. S. Ecret.”
Yep. Pierre Louÿs invented the whole damn thing. He’s a French guy who made up a Lesbian poet. (I’m tempted to do the whole thing in reverse and be “the lesbian poet who made up a French guy”, but I digress.)
So why am I telling you all this?
Most people who have success have to deal with “impostor syndrome” at some point in their lives. It’s not a syndrome, but a near-universal experience, and it’s certainly not relegated only to women.
As L.V. Anderson writes in a Slate article from April 2016, Pauline R. Clance has backpedaled. Big time. She regrets calling it a syndrome, and concedes that it happens to everyone (including, according to Wikipedia at this writing, “Tom Hanks Chuck Lorre,Neil Gaiman,John Green,Tommy Cooper, Sheryl Sandberg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Emma Watson.”)
Even if we’re all really a bunch of frauds, sometimes being a fraud has almost no consequences. In 1922, Pierre Louÿs was made “Officier de la Légion d’honneur” in France in recognition of his work as a man of letters, and his work continues to be influential today. One of the earliest lesbian women’s organizations in the United States co-opted the name and became “The Daughters of Bilitis” in 1955, because it was obscure enough of a reference that most people wouldn’t know what they were talking about. Point is, even a fraud like Louÿs or a “fraud” like you or I can enjoy enormous success if one can learn to turn off one’s own self-doubt. Which is hard. Damn.
I’ve been writing this with minipig videos playing in the background. They seem to snort derisively every time I type “fraud”.