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Impostor Syndrome: Fighting it in Fandom

I’m no stranger to mental health issues—Like many, I’ve struggled on-and-off with depression and varying levels of anxiety. Fortunately, through the support of friends, family, and therapists, I’ve been able to work towards a point where these issues are manageable… but the brain is a funny thing.

For example, despite numerous successful side projects (including being paid to write a book) and working as a software engineer for more than a decade, my brain somehow reaches a point where I doubt my accomplishments and believe that I am a fraud: that I have deceived others into thinking I’m more intelligent than I am, and that most of what I’ve done is by luck.1 🙃

Fortunately, this phenomenon has a name, impostor syndrome, and while it isn’t a mental disorder, it definitely lies somewhere in the realm of mental health. Even better—and if this experience sounds familiar to you—studies show that more than 70% of people experience it at some point in their career!

If you’ve never experienced impostor syndrome (congratulations!) or if you need a refresher, Dietrich Squinkifier has developed a browser game so that you can get a taste of what it’s like. It’s a short game, and I’d recommend giving it a shot. I’ll wait. 😉

Welcome back! I’m hoping that gives a bit more context (and possibly a wider perspective on other important issues).

What’s interesting to me is that, while a lot of literature around impostor syndrome is focused on careers (and competency in careers), I think it applies to a lot of fan activity and hobbies as well, especially as fan work and hobbies continue to be commodified.2 There’s definitely a lot of discourse about folks’ feelings of not being a ‘true fan’ (whatever that means) because they don’t participate enough, or because they don’t do as much in their hobby compared to their friends and peers.

Honestly, impostor syndrome is fascinating, but if you’ve ever read advice on how to deal with it, the suggestions can be a bit underwhelming. Take for example this article from Time.com3 whose advice can be reduced to:

  • Put things into perspective, and critically examine your thoughts
  • Reframe your thoughts
  • Share how you’re feeling with others
  • Accept that feeling doubt from time to time is normal

…Which is all true and useful advice, but maybe not practical enough to be helpful if you’re experiencing impostor syndrome? 🤦‍♂️

I’m hoping that I can provide some specific tips to dispel some of the feelings of inadequacy around impostor syndrome!

Hype Yourself Up

If you’ve ever sought counselling, you may have heard of something called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Broadly, it is a problem-oriented form of therapy that focuses on challenging and changing unhelpful cognitive patterns. How? Largely by self-reflection to identify problematic thoughts and behaviours, and then building up bodies of evidence to either support or dispel the beliefs.4

What does that have to do with impostor syndrome? It’s hard to think you’re a fraud when you have evidence that shows you are not!5 😏

Still, that’s easier said than done, right?

Enter the hype doc: a collection of your achievements, accolades, projects… all of the cool stuff you’ve done! No one knows the work you’ve done better than you, and no one can hype it up more than you. Update it regularly, and put it in whatever format works best for you, whether that be a spreadsheet, a doc, a journal or notebook, just write down all the things!

Important detail: this isn’t a resume! This is something just for you. It doesn’t have to be career-related, or even have significance to other folks; it just has to mean something to you. My personal hype doc includes things like:

It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering things like “published a best-seller” or “cured cancer”. Just having a list of things that you’ve completed provides evidence to dispel the idea that you haven’t earned your achievements. 📃

Take Chances, Get Messy, Make Mistakes!

Would it surprise you to learn that failure is an option? 🤔

A somewhat paradoxical way to shake out those fake feelings is to take on a new challenge and allow yourself to fail.

This works for a few different reasons:

  • Taking a risk requires courage, and that you face the fear that you might fall short of your or others’ expectations
  • Failure provides an opportunity for learning and growth; not only do you learn what not to do, but you have a clearer idea of how things work
  • Failing normalizes failure! Though it might feel bad, it helps to put into context that most failures aren’t the end of the world and are in fact necessary to progress!

Are there circumstances where failure is not an option? Absolutely! But for most of our personal hobbies, and even a lot of our work lives, it’s totally ok to make mistakes.

Failure is how we advance; it is a necessary step to free us from thinking we are impostors! 🗽

If you think you’re a fake and you fail, but then everything still works out fine, the only outcomes are that you’re ok with being an impostor, or perhaps your thoughts on being a fraud were misplaced.

You Can Only Control Yourself

Absent of evidence, what makes impostor syndrome challenging to deal with is that so much of it isn’t quantifiable. There is this complex Gordian knot of feelings around personal expectations, expectations of others, and expectations from others (of self) that are a mess to untangle. What’s key to note in all of this is that all of these feelings center on one thing, your perceptions.

And it might seem impossible, but you can change your perceptions… at least, with practice. That’s because the human brain is surprisingly capable of learning, and because you control your brain, you control your thoughts! 😲

Let’s look at some examples, and I’ve touched on some of these ideas in my previous post.

You feel like you aren’t meeting your own standards 😥

  • Lower your standards! You don’t need to be perfect to be worthy of achieving things. If the bar is too high… you’ll always be disappointed.
  • Is the problem that you’re making mistakes? Everyone makes mistakes! If the mistakes are only impacting you… go easy on yourself.
  • No one is great at everything! Think about and focus on the things that you are uniquely good at.
  • Perfection is the enemy of done, so finish what you’re doing and move on.5
  • Failure counts as done, and failure is ok.5

You feel like you aren’t living up to others expectations 😖

  • You can find out if the problem is a problem! Talk to the people whose expectations you feel you aren’t living up to! Then you have evidence, or better yet, you can set expectations. These can be hard conversations but are immensely liberating.
  • “Pretending you know what you’re doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so just accept that you know what you’re doing even if you don’t and do it.” 5
  • If there isn’t a mismatch of expectations, remind yourself that you get to set what’s important in your life. You don’t need to live according to others’ expectations.
  • It could be that you actually aren’t living up to expectations. If that’s the case, congratulations! You are no longer an imposter. Remind yourself that progress and learning take time, and ask for constructive criticism from others (assuming you aren’t getting it already).
Depiction of the Done Manifesto
A depiction of the Done Manifesto

You feel less than others 😭

  • Don’t compare your life / self / work to others! You generally only see others’ best sides, and that’s weighed against your own self-doubt—guess which one will win out? You don’t know others’ lives or struggles, and things may not be as easy for them as it seems.

I highly recommend taking a minute or two to read the Done Manifesto. It’s 13 ideas (sentences) that have helped me to reframe work, which has been helpful when I feel like an impostor.

Seek Help

I’m definitely not an expert on this, though I’ve experienced it a lot, and the person who knows about your struggles best is you.

There are lots of resources out there, but not all of them are accessible to everyone:

  • A therapist: this has by far been the most helpful resource for me, but is also likely the least accessible for many
  • Build a personal support network: Practice vulnerability and really open up to close friends, family, and co-workers; let them know about your struggles, and you might be surprised how many others also struggle
  • Self-reflection: Better understanding yourself is always helpful, but sometimes requires some outside help and guidance.
  • Learn about existing tools and strategies: There are tons of resources on mental health and impostor syndrome. I had a lot of help for this post from—a non-profit whose mission is “to decrease the stigma, and increase the support for, mental health in the game enthusiast community and inside the game industry”—and Good Therapy, but many other resources exist

Dealing with any mental health issue is hard on your own, and its important to remember that we’re not in this alone. We’re all in this together. 😃

  1. There’s definitely a whole conversation about luck, wealth, and privilege in software development but that’s not the point I’m trying to make today.
  2. Elizabeth Minkel and Flourish Klink know way more about this than I do, and I’d highly recommend following their podcast, Fansplaining for more on the commodification of fandom—especially their episode on fandom and capitalism or Henry Jenkins’ (a media scholar) interview with them
  3. I’m aware there are better resources than for impostor syndrome. This is purely for illustrative purposes.
  4. I am not a therapist.
  5. Just read the Done Manifesto already!