Success, Imposter Syndrome, and Labels

A few weeks ago, a person I hold in high regard told me that I am successful.

I laughed off the remark and went on my merry way.

It wasn’t the first time someone had said this to me. I had heard it many times from my family and friends. But here was someone I professionally admired telling me that I was a success, and I didn’t feel even close to deserving that kind of a remark from a person like that.

My reflex was to tell myself that he was just being a sycophant, but I know that such a tendency is very far from the blunt honesty he is known for.

So why does being called a success bother me so much?

Here’s the thing…I don’t take compliments well. I detest being the centre of attention, and I am always pushing myself to be more, to do more. But I’ve never saw myself as a success. I am still working on my thesis after all, and I do some work as a music journalist (as much as I can and as time allows), but I feel that I am hardly a success.

I’ve always felt like a fraud, an imposter who is just playing at being something. Calling myself a journalist still feels like an awkward sham when I’ve had the pleasure of being taught by people who have incredible careers as mainstream journalists. Calling myself a scholar…well compared to the masters who I study, I feel even more of a phoney.

Self-help mantras would tell me that I’m making my own path, doing what suits me best, and that that’s ok. But no matter how many times I send out the vibes in the universe and repeat to myself that I am a writer, scholar, and journalist, I still feel a far cry from those I admire.

Then there’s the idea that you fake it till you make it, right? Maybe. But then I’m totally dismissing how I feel. I can “fake it” all I want, but at the end of the day I’ll still look in the mirror and tell myself I’m not those things.

It wasn’t till a friend made an off-handed comment that I realized what was going on. Imposter syndrome had seeped its way into my very psyche.

It’s something we all struggle with time to time. As a writer, I first danced with it when I told people what I did for a living. Even though I had been published, I dismissed the fact that I was indeed a success to some measure, attributing my lack of confidence at calling myself a writer because I had only been published in a small time online magazine. That success didn’t feel substantial enough or significant enough. In some corner of my mind, I held onto the belief that I will only be a successful writer when I publish something in a well-known publication that millions read.

But as I began working as a music journalist, I began to see how my writing mattered. True, I don’t have a mass readership, but for the indie musicians who I cover, my words brought some measure of joy. Isn’t that success?

As a scholar, I’ve had a couple academic book reviews published and am almost done my thesis. Still a far cry from the world-renowned scholar lecturing to an overflowing hall of hungry minds, which my imagination conjured up as a measure of scholarly success. But for those who I talk to about my work, who one day it may impact, they are supportive and excited about the work I’m doing. I’ve inspired some people, and isn’t that success?

Maybe I’m just trying to justify to myself who I am based on what I do. Maybe I’m seeking a measure of validation. But really, regardless of the label put on me, it will never change what I do…and that is write. In fact, its only the format I write in that determines the label I fit under.

Still, in my mind I will never be good enough to be called a success by my mentor. I don’t feel deserving of the starry eyes that my close friends give me when I tell them which musicians I’ve chatted with. And when my family brags about all I’ve done in the last couple of years, I shy away and dismiss their praise.

I tell myself I’m being humble.

Maybe I am an imposter…by passing off praise and indicators of success, no matter how tiny, I’m telling myself that I am a nobody, who does nothing, and impacts no one. I’m an imposter of ambivalence, trying to convince myself I’m one thing when I’m actually another.

Now isn’t that a thought?

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