I always expected that by now I would be thriving in my career as an author. I can almost picture myself signing books and giving profound talks and presentations.
The odd thing is that despite carrying that burning desire all my life to be a writer, communications studies was not my first choice when I started university.
I attended my first year of university in Nairobi, Kenya and then moved to Winnipeg in June 2010. I joined the University of Winnipeg (U of W) in September that same year to continue my studies in business administration and graduated with my degree four years later, in October 2014. I chose to study business administration without much thought. My family felt that it was a good program, so I went along with it.
This February, I turned 30. After my birthday, I spent a healthy amount of time evaluating my choices. I asked myself what is really holding me back. I had always known that I wanted to be a writer, but I had never pursued that dream.
I returned to the U of W this past September to pursue a bachelor of arts in communications.
My longing to become an author persists. I often wake up in the middle of the night with a desperate urge to write (such as tonight).
But other times, I cannot sleep for fear that I am inadequate, that I am unable to realize my dream.
I want to write and give talks, but what if while I stand and talk in front of an audience, they all see right through me? What if they realize that I am a hoax?
The truth is I work really hard to sharpen my skills.
I have a side hustle editing, proofreading and tutoring writing. I run a blog sharing random stories and exploring my thoughts. I have tutored at the writing centre at the university. I have taken many writing and rhetoric courses and continue to do so. I am part of the Manitoba Writers’ Guild, where I interact with other writers to support each others’ crafts.
So why is it so hard for me to sell my skills for pay? I struggle to call myself a writer. When people contact me to edit or proofread their papers, I have a tough time telling them my rates. When clients ask me to do more than we had originally agreed, I struggle to ask for more pay.
It turns out I have a case of imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome refers to those strong emotions that sometimes arise to make someone feel like a fraud despite evidence of their success.
The term was coined by two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, in 1978.
I will call it the imposter phenomenon (IP) from here on. Medical professionals are not the greatest fans of IP being referred to as a syndrome, as it is not clinically diagnosed.
A couple of days ago, I took the Clance IP test, an imposter phenomenon test, and scored a whopping 78 points out of 100.
To say the least, I was surprised by my score. I had just spent most of the year trying to make more deliberate choices in order to achieve my goal of becoming a writer and a speaker. And all along, I had still managed to miss something vital: owning my success.
After doing some further research, I learned that certain environmental factors can contribute to feelings of imposterism.
The culture of genius and belonging to minority groups are examples of such environments. I was raised in a family of extremely high achievers. I am also a Black woman. When I was growing up, I would take home my report card and worry that it was not good enough. No matter how well I did, I constantly felt (and still feel) that I could have done better.
It was not until I moved to Winnipeg that I started finding myself in classrooms where I was the only Black student. I also quickly discovered that my accent created a challenge for others to understand me. It caught me by surprise. I mean, I had spoken English all my life. Now, suddenly, no one understood me. I began to doubt my ability to make a career out of writing in North America.
Now, at the end of the university term, I am sure I am not the only person who may be struggling with IP. So how do people combat these feelings?
A good place to start is reflecting on the probable causes of IP and then understanding its cost. In my case, IP has cost me many work opportunities. Had I been proactive about finding writing jobs, promoting my work and being forward enough to bring it up in conversations, I could have converted many casual interactions into consultations, maybe clients.
The thing about IP is that it causes people to cling on to failure and forget every success. Writing down or reciting accomplishments helps to boost confidence.
Above all, perhaps the best way to combat IP is learning to accept ourselves as we are. If a person stops wondering about what others think about them, then these feelings of self-doubt may start to decrease.
Only you fully understand what you have sacrificed to be where you are. Forget about your classmate who seems to have all the answers. Your fears of rejection, of being out of place or of social judgement are completely natural. You may not be able to eliminate doubts or fears entirely, but you get to choose how to respond when they surface. I challenge you from this point on to always remember that you are enough.
Valerie is a Kenyan-Canadian writer. She loves Winnipeg but struggles with the winter. She gets through the season by reading any books she gets her hands on and drinking too much tea.
Published in Volume 74, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 21, 2019)