How I Fooled Myself Into Beating Imposter Syndrome
Meet Clarence, the self-doubt toad that sits on my shoulder
A couple years ago, I asked one of my clients for a quarterly review. She wrote back, “I’m not just pleased with how things are going—I’m thrilled.”
Only I misread, and my heart trip-hammered. Could I be getting fired after just three months? What I’d read was this: “I’m just not pleased with how things are going.”
I felt like I’d been sucker-punched — all the blood drained from my head and I immediately began to wonder if they’d let me try and improve before they replaced me. And then I read again and slowly returned from my black hole. I turned to Twitter to help me right myself, and a friend immediately tweeted back:
The self-doubt toad! Yes, I recognized him. You may know him as imposter syndrome. As your inner critic. As writer’s block. As anything that keeps you from moving forward, or that makes you wonder why you’re putting so much energy into a thing you‘re probably innately terrible at.
Ever since Melissa pointed out my self-doubt toad, over a year ago, I’ve been paying more attention to him. I give him space in my classes, introducing him to my students so that they, too, will recognize him when he pops up in their own lives. In interviews about almost anything, I refer to him because imposter’s syndrome can be about anything. He comes up so often that someone made me a drawing of him.
I call him Clarence.
Right around the time I named him, I realized that he didn’t have as loud a voice anymore. And he didn’t speak up nearly as often as he used to. That’s because Melissa’s comment had triggered a change I wasn’t even aware I needed to make.
Before there was Clarence
See, Clarence had always existed in my brain, in one form or another. In the beginning, he looked an awful lot like my mother. But for the past decade or so, Clarence has been a prior me, the one with the six-figure job in advertising and a closet full of kitten heels and suits that fit like a glove; back in the day when a sharp pixie haircut was part of my uniform and a snappy comeback was my most valued commodity. In my early twenties, I developed an affinity for bourbon and Scotch — my inner critic only ever drinks the stuff neat.
My inner critic looked like me. She talked like me. So every single time I looked in the mirror, all I saw was my inner critic. Duh!
Every time I tried something new and failed, MeShun (snort!) looked up languidly from her position on a chaise longue where she was reading Kafka—she would call it a chaise longue—and tipped her head at me. “It’s cute that you tried,” she’d say.
Every time an editor or a friend failed to reply to an email, MeShun put on an unimpressed moue and lifted a champagne flute. “You know, your kind of communication doesn’t always land.”
Even while I was training for events like triathlons or running races, MeShun would make an appearance. If I failed to make time, MeShun would call out as she zipped by on her really expensive road bike, looking great in matching kit, “You’ll never get faster, you know that, right?”
I was probably ready for a change because once Melissa pegged MeShun as a toad, I was more than happy to picture her that way.
Dehumanize the inner critic
I turned to Twitter again, this time to see what other people called their inner critics. Writer and editor Jason Nafziger said he called his “Dad,” and was echoed by a number of other writers. (Blogger Elsa Cade suggested they were “misheard bad parent tapes.”) Anita Martin, who runs the wonderful Postcards and Authors website, suggested they were demons. Writer Andrea Schuster referred to hers as an inner saboteur. Several other folks suggested “gremlins.” Children’s book author Thekla Richter reminded me that the “inner critic” phrasing is part of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, but that writer Steven Pressfield (The War of Art) calls it “resistance.”
Respondents who veered away from referring to the inner critic as a humanoid form are on to something, I think. Viewing it as a force (“resistance”) is a good tactic, but I like to anthropomorphize everything, so a bumbling, warty animal was a key to my being able to quiet the feelings of inadequacy generated by my inner critic.
In her reply to me about the inner critics (“gremlins”) Melissa, the friend who came up with the self-doubt toad in the first place, had some more wisdom. She said, in part, “We all have them… but it’s important to not take 100% responsibility for them, or see them as part of You, your Best Self.”
Picturing Clarence instead of MeShun gave me a little more insulation against the biting things my inner critic had to say. (Picture a toad on a chaise longue. Right? Right.) And it’s impossible to see Clarence as a part of me. He’s just a creature, sitting on my shoulder, saying inane things. Burping, every once in a while. Lazily scratching himself, sloppily, because webbed feet. And he’s easily distracted by images of ponds; fat flies; Proactiv commercials (for the warts, maybe!); nearly everything.
He’s perfect for the purpose he serves: A creature that occasionally says unfounded, bunghole things, and that needs to be knocked off his perch on my head every time he opens his mouth.
Maybe your inner critic needs a new persona, too. Try it out, see how it feels. Or you can borrow Clarence. I don’t need him — for a while, at least.