You’re Just Being Nice


I danced in a show on Saturday night.  All by myself, to a song that I love (Come With Me Now, by Kongos) and I had an absolutely wonderful time.  Afterward, people were telling me that I did a great job, and that they enjoyed my performance.  A man I’d never seen before in my life made a point of telling me how much fun my performance had been.  I smiled and thanked all of them – who doesn’t love hearing that their art was successful?  The complication is that inside I was telling myself they were just being nice.  Because like so many of us, I can’t believe that anything I do is really any good.

There’s an actual syndrome – impostor syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments.  I don’t know that I suffer from an actual syndrome, but I know that it’s hard for me to accept that the art I create is worthy of attention and praise.  Even when I come up with great moves to a song I love and wear a costume that makes me feel beautiful, somehow that feeling that I’m not good enough creeps up on me anyway.

Same thing happens with writing.  The night before Mad Kestrel was released to the stores, I lay in my bed, worrying that I needed to call back all the books and rewrite the end, which was followed by fears that I’d only been published because the publisher was being kind to me.  How ridiculous does that sound?  No publisher has the money to throw at someone just to be nice (well, not unless that person is Steven King, and really, that’s still an excellent business risk.)  And yet, in my wonky brain, it made better sense than that I was good enough to be published.

Now please don’t assume this is a sneaky way for me to beg for compliments.  It’s not, and honestly, I probably wouldn’t believe the compliments if I was begging.  The reason I bring it up at all is that I think lots of us, at all levels of creative endeavor, feel this way.  So instead of suffering alone, let’s talk about it.  When have you had to deal with a situation like this?  Were you stunned after an open reading that went better than you expected?  Did you get great reviews you didn’t know how to be grateful for?  Talk to me.



7 comments to You’re Just Being Nice

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Imposter syndrome is a big deal in the sciences, too, and, at least among astronomers, is talked about a great deal as part of the effort to figure out the persistence of gender imbalance in the higher echelons. But it is a funny, sneaky thing. Just like you said, “I don’t know that *I* suffer from an actual syndrome” (emphasis added), it’s easy to find reasons why imposter syndrome doesn’t apply to you because you’re an *actual* fraud, whereas all those other worried people are truly intelligent and successful and *they’re* the ones with the syndrome. I, of course, have a difficult time listing the reasons why I know I’m an actual fraud, because then you’ll know I’m an actual fraud, too.

    However, I will say, that feelings of imposteryness, are much harder to combat when it comes to endeavors that don’t have clear measures of success. (You might think that the sciences would have clear measures of success, but I will just say that trying to feel smart enough is a *lot* like trying to achieve artistic success, especially since there’s the large *peer-review*, i.e. people’s ‘opinion’, aspect to the sciences.) Now that I’m out of academia, I know that I’m successful first-and-foremost when the code I write runs bug free and does all of the beautiful things that have been asked of me to make it do. That concreteness is really nice. It’s not the end-all-be-all – I still want *challenging* projects that I will in fact fail at for a bit before I get it right – but it provides a background stability that gives me better confidence for tackling those challenging projects.

    But yeah, trying to find concrete measures of success for something like dancing or writing is really hard. Because not everyone even *should* like what you produce. And worse, even if you find someone who truly, deeply adores it, it might not be up to your own standards of good, which of course you can’t evaluate critically because it’s *yours* and you already know too much about it. I try to hang onto the little things: revising my book and finding a chapter that surprises me with how good it is – it’s not all my chapters, obviously, but that it *can* happen means that I *can* achieve my own measures of good; or when my husband said he was annoyed that he had to read a different book instead of finishing mine.

    Sorry to be so rambley, but yes, many of us know *exactly* what you mean.

  • If I offer a compliment, I mean it; I never offer one “just to be nice”. I guess that’s why if I get a compliment, I assume the giver means what they say.

  • Here’s an example of how something like the imposter syndrome affects me. I released my fifth novel in February and gave away around 50 copies–a few to family and people who helped me write the book (beta readers, my editor, etc.). Most went to reviewers and book festival organizers. Now I’m sitting around stewing about why so-and-so hasn’t posted a review. Maybe s/he didn’t like the book and doesn’t want to tell me. A review rating on Amazon of 4.7 not withstanding, I still wake up in the morning and berate myself for not taking another month or two to make it better so that X, Y, and Z would have posted 5+++ reviews.

  • Razziecat

    It’s natural to want to hear compliments. Many of us have been raised to not be pushy, to be humble and quiet; and if you’re shy and/or bullied when you’re growing up, it’s even harder to accept compliments because getting attention makes you uncomfortable. I’ve worked at my day job for 36 years and it was only a few years ago that it truly sank in for me: I’m good at what I do. I may not be the best there is, but I’m very good, and there’s nothing wrong with taking pride in that.

    As for compliments on my writing, let me just say that nothing so far equals the incredible feeling when someone on this website tells me that a snippet or paragraph I’ve posted here is good. 😀

  • What Razzie said. However, I think Impostor Syndrome hits me the hardest (at least currently) when I’m alone and working on the Biz side of things, which currently still involves submitting to agents. And when waiting for a response for one who’s asked to see more, like say, a full, there’s the dance between “they asked to see more, that means I have a chance and they’ll love it” and “they’ll hate it and my novel is terrible and no one will ever love my story”. It’s not a pleasant dance. I think I pulled a muscle in my gut.

    And I’ve reached a point where I may have to start a new dance very soon, one where I’ve already been flirting with the steps to stave off the agony of the other dance: the Small Press. Which isn’t such a bad thing. It’s just different. The hardest part of that dance, I think, is the mental reframing involved.

  • Ugh. I hate that feeling. The worst thing about that feeling for me? It just feels normal. I end up dismissing perfectly smart people who say nice things because they must be wrong about me. So I’m disbelieving people who have (I think) good taste. It also is just a normal response. Like, “oh, they said they liked it. Aren’t they nice people.” NOT “aren’t they SMART people,” or “Wow, it must have been good.”

    I don’t think it is a coincidence that this crops up in women a lot. Like Laura and Razzie said, a lot of us were raised to defer–to defer compliments, to defer our desires for other people’s. There are lots of moments in the culture where people like a bold guy. A sport’s figure (like a boxer) who says “I’m going to beat his A$$” is fine. But a woman who says “I’m fabulous” (and isn’t talking about her looks–and even that is fraught) is often jumped on because “good” women are humble, quiet, etc. *snort*

    That’s not to say men don’t feel this too. I’m sure they do and it is just as real. But there is something else in the “women aren’t self praising” feel that I think is cultural, too.

    And yeah, not having simple standards can make this worse. But even clear standards don’t always work. “I’ll know I’m good when I publish with X house.” Like Misty said, she published, and she still worried it was because people were being “nice.”

    I did a reading last week, and afterwards people told me they enjoyed it. I figured they were being nice. (Not helpful to this feeling was the colleague who read after I did, a poet, who was AMAZING.) But at least I’ve trained myself to NOT deflect the comments. No more “no, it was nothing…” or anything. Now I say, “Thank you. I’m glad you like it.”

  • It seems to me that maybe we need to all watch each other for signs of impostor behavior, and when we see it happening, we can shake our fingers at each other and chase the impostor demons away. 🙂