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Living A female filmmaker's advice on dealing with impostor syndrome

Mar. 21, 2017
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As a young woman filmmaker, there is one question I ask myself more than any other. That question is: “Where’s the bathroom?” Because chances are I have already had too much coffee.

But another question comes in a close second, and that question is: “Am I for real?” Not as in “Do I exist,” you understand. I’m pretty convinced I do. I contain blood, bones, and (debatably) thought. Plus, I subscribe to a monthly bag of cosmetics, and if that’s not proof of existence, I don’t know what is.

No, the question is, “Am I really a filmmaker?” This is called impostor syndrome. Before we delve into what impostor syndrome is, let's make sure we’ve covered what it isn’t:

  • If you think you are a cube of seasoned ham, this is NOT impostor syndrome. This is Antipasto Syndrome.

  • If you habitually affix yourself to your wall, this is Poster Syndrome.

  • If you constantly face-plant in a plateful of linguini, this is Pasta Syndrome. (Full disclosure: I have this too.)

  • Lastly, if you go around convinced you wrote the novel Howards End, this is E.M. Forster Syndrome.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, back to impostor syndrome, which the Caltech Counseling Center defines as “feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true … feelings of intellectual fraudulence.

Indeed, my question (“Am I really a filmmaker?”) seems silly. Because let’s face it: I make films. I made a 24-episode comedy series about a girl with a disease which causes a puppet to grow out of her hand, and I just produced the first leg of a short film in Paris, France.  

So I should, I suspect, “feel” like a filmmaker. But I don’t, not always. No matter how much I accomplish, I still wonder sometimes if I’m “for real.” I’m a big believer in the principle “fake it till you make it,” but sometimes I could swear I’m still stuck on step 1 of 2.

Now, some would say this is endemic to being a woman. While I’m on the fence about that, I do think it’s endemic to working in the arts. This is, after all, a profession that requires insane amounts of hustle, ego, and energy you don’t always have; rhinoceros-hide against constant rejection; unwavering belief in yourself despite being regularly told you don’t deserve to be paid; and the very real specter of your next dinner being Lucky Charms eaten out of the box at 3am.

And sometimes you triumph spectacularly. Other times, you fail with equal flair. It’s the ultimate crapshoot. What’s more, often you can’t tell whether you’re closing in on success or rocketing away from it at warp speed. The more you think about it, the less it makes sense, and the more you need another box of Lucky Charms. Yet not even they can protect you from the feelings of fraudulence.

But back to women. Are we indeed more prone to impostor syndrome? And if so, why? If you ask me, the answer is similar to why people say women aren’t funny (don’t get me started). The answer is, women feel they can’t fail. All of it – impostor syndrome, pulling your funny-punches – is a response to a deeply ingrained societal urge to look good. All the time.  When girls are raised to please all others before themselves, they understandably never dare to look silly. Those who do risk condemnation for being not “feminine” enough, serious enough, or valid enough. Which is why, in my opinion, those who dare to look silly are incredibly brave. 

Or – as in my case – they’re not brave, and they simply cannot do things any other way. Certain people – female, male, hybrid unicorn-tortoise-pretzel-person – need to be funny, to make stuff, to risk being called ridiculous, and risk being written off as somehow invalid, simply in order to live.

But that doesn’t make impostor syndrome go away. So how do we combat it? I say the first step is to believe in yourself, even when you don’t. What do I mean by that? Basically, I mean build foundational self-worth, and that’ll be there for you whether or not you feel great about yourself or your work at any given moment. Maybe you feel like crap one day (…or one year), but there’s something to be said in having mattress of self-worth to bounce on beneath. 

So here are my tips, for women starting out in my field, or for anyone:

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask people for what you want. Ask them. Better yet, tell them.

  2. Plan ahead. Plan ahead 500% as much as you think you’ll need to, because even then, you’ll only be about half-prepared.

  3. For God’s sake, don’t take yourself seriously. Don’t take anybody around you seriously either. They are probably all wearing rocket ship-print underpants.

And lastly, just remember that you are for real. You are you; you are not a cube of seasoned ham. At least, I don’t think you are. I don’t claim to know your personal life.