Imposter Syndrome and You

“Why would anyone pay you money for that?”

“You’re just starting out; you’re going to screw it up.”

“Who do you think you are, claiming to know enough to do this thing?”

Words from your detractors and internet trolls? No, these are the voices in your own head, questioning your ability to achieve whatever it is you are currently striving to achieve, whether that’s writing, art, teaching, gamemastering, woodworking, electrical systems maintenance, audio editing, dog walking, or whatever your goal is as you shift something from the state of passion or hobby to the world of economically-driven marketability.

I know, because those voices frequently pipe up in my own head. Recently, I started out on the path of becoming a professional, paid, Game Master (GM) in the Tabletop Role Playing Game (TTRPG) community thanks to a new online service that matches up players in need of a GM with GMs hiring themselves out to do just that. When I joined the GM chat area a couple of months back, one of the first things I heard is how people are astonished that anyone would actually consider paying them for their GMing skills. Check out my previous article, “Paid-vs-Free Game Master Services” for more on that subject. But the second thing I heard, and continue to hear, is the doubt that my fellow GMs, both the ones who are just starting out as well as the ones who have been running and playing TTRPGs for years (or decades), have about their ability to do the job.

These doubts have a name: Imposter Syndrome.

I’ve suffered from this affliction on numerous occasions. The most telling of these was back when I was teaching. For over twenty-five years, I taught English Composition and Literature classes at the university level. Early on, I was hardly older than my students. On my first day of classes, I had to put the sheaf of papers containing my syllabus and my notes down so that my students wouldn’t see my hands shaking. Over the years, I became much more confident, but every time I would hear another teacher’s lecture (in my field or out of it), I would think, “What am I doing here? These people are so much better at this than me.” Or I would do some reading to catch up on the newest philosophical thought vis-a-vis Composition and think, “Gah! I’ll never have the range of knowledge I need to do this.” Or a student would ask something about Faulkner and I’d have no idea about the answer and I’d think, “Crap, well, I’ve finally been found out. I wonder if the local supermarket is hiring?”

Me, teaching in the way-back-when. Notice the excellent use of finger pointing

That idea of ‘being found out’–the ‘finding out’ part being when the people who are paying you for what you do discover (you feel) that you hardly know more than they do, a realization accompanied by a look of disdain that you are certain they are sure to give you–is at the heart of Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome assails you when you decide, because you just don’t have any more room on your mantle, to put those hand-carved wooden figurines you’ve been creating all winter up for sale on Etsy. “Oh, I’d better mark them at $5,” you think. After all, who would want to pay more than that for something you made?

Or when you doodle some art for a friend who is in need of an online avatar, but even though they offered you $20 for it, you say, “Nah, it’s good; only took me five minutes to make it.”

Or when your cousin wants you to take a set of family photos and pays you market rate and you’re like, “Holy carp! They’re going to be so disappointed in those shots.”

Or when … yeah, well, you know when, because I bet you’ve been there.

So what do we do about it?

Well, one thing is that if someone is willing to pay you for something, let them. Another thing is that you should let them pay you a fair price. This will help you eventually move on to charging a fair price and not feeling bad about it.

I, unfortunately or not, live in a society (the USA) where we are constantly pressured to make money–your individual worth as a human being is, in fact, often judged on how much you make and what kind of job you have–and so, until and unless that changes, we who try to turn our passions into ‘jobs’ must be adamant toward our patrons and toward ourselves about the fact that we are worthy and that this is what we’re worth.

You may have heard the phrase “dress for success,” as in, if you look professional, then people will think you are professional, even if you feel inside like you’re wearing a t-shirt, ratty cargo shorts, and Crocs. Well, that applies to an extent here: look like professionals in your field look (and if that’s t-shirts, ratty cargo shorts, and Crocs, then so be it), but, more importantly, act like you’re a professional and pretty soon you’ll come to believe it along with everyone else. Don’t say things like, “Hey, I just started out at this drawing-caricatures-on-the-beach thing, so don’t be too hard on me,” or “Hey, you’re my first real sale,” or “Wow, I really messed that up; if you want a refund, I wouldn’t blame you.” There’s no need for being fake or lying, but keep telling yourself, “I know this. I’ve got this.” One day, you’ll come to believe it.

My first art show, and my first art sale

Next, or maybe first: Find out what the high end and low end pricing is for whatever service or product it is that you’re offering. Decide where you feel you fall in that range. Then up that number by 25%, because you are almost certainly undervaluing yourself. When you see people paying you that price, believe me, you’re going to start feeling like you’re worth it.

Speaking of which, believe people when they tell you that you’re good at something, or that they got something out of the whatever-session they just had with you, or that everyone in the fam just loved the photos you took. They’re saying that not just to be nice (especially if they’re paying you), but rather because it’s true.

The other day I ran a nicely-paid game for a corporate client (essentially an after-work bonding experience in the Year of Pandemica since they couldn’t head down to the local pub). It was a 2 1/2 hour game (which is not nearly enough time) with complex characters run by people who had mostly never gamed before, but despite my doubts, that’s what the client wanted. Early on, a couple members of the team had to drop out, which I’d been warned about beforehand, but still I was thinking in my head, “If I had just made this more accessible, or not tried to cram so much into so little time, then they would have stayed.” At the 2 1/2 hour mark, though, we weren’t quite done with the adventure, but the remaining players wanted to finish. So we went for another forty-five minutes. At the end of it all, my main thought was, “Welp, screwed that up on so many levels.” But the feedback as they were logging off?

They had a blast.

We will often feel like imposters. I still felt it at the end of 25 years of teaching. I feel it when I’m running games even though I have GM’d TTRPGs for decades, have a podcast wherin we play them, and spend much of my waking time thinking about gaming. In more than a small part, this is because we don’t realize our own knowledge and skill. That avatar doodle I mentioned earlier? That was a real experience with a friend of mine. They made me a thing. It is a thing I could not have made. It is an awesome thing. They made it in, like, ten minutes and so to them it seemed to have less worth for that. For me, the fact that this was something they made in only ten minutes? Awe inspiring.

You are not an imposter.

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