Worldcon 76: The Personal Responsibility Of Being On A Panel That Addresses Imposter Syndrome & Mental Health

Welcome to my "Worldcon 76" series, where I'll be breaking down my time at the world's longest-running science fiction and fantasy convention.

 

Caveat: I am not a medical professional. What I'm going to talk about reflects my personal experiences and observations.  

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At Worldcon 76, I was fortunate to be a speaker on a panel addressing imposter syndrome. Here's the description of the panel:

IMPOSTER SYNDROME: YOU DO DESERVE TO BE HERE

Imposter syndrome can often feel like being a side character in a horror movie: you know the monster is gonna get you, but you don't know when. Many authors--from just starting out to long-time pros--experience imposter syndrome, especially people who are marginalized. We wonder if we "really" belong; we wonder if everyone else knows we're faking-it-til-making-it; but when will someone call our bluff? Imposter syndrome is common and we can continue our work despite the doubts. So, how do we deal with it? What techniques do you employ to make it to the end credits?

The panel was excellently moderated and touched on a number of points that people with imposter syndrome can use to move forward. Some of the techniques discussed to help "make it to the end credits" included using writing as a cathartic release, viewing your insecurities as monsters that you can conquer, #buildaladder by adding rungs - no matter how small - to help you climb out of your darkness, learn to say "thank you" and to accept praise, or to reward yourself with something positive, like "cake". 

Another great bit of advice related to how one can approach writing their own biography. Singing your own praises can be hard, and it can sometimes lead to a downward spiral of depression as you question each accomplishment and wonder if it was a fluke. So instead, try pretending that you are writing about someone else. Sounds pretty straightforward and obvious, but imposter syndrome is many things but logical.

However, there were also some negative comments made about imposter syndrome and mental health that came up during the panel that I called out and which I'd like to respond at more length. Before I continue, I ask that you please look over the panel description once more. To me, I feel like the description is not worded in a way to suggest an academic mental exercise of what imposter syndrome is; rather, it described a safe space where people can go to realize that they are not alone and that they DO indeed belong. 

Yes, I realize that a panel is not a support group, but to me, it is inappropriate to dismiss the very real suffering of mental health by telling callous anecdotes, even if you mean well. You're not helping. On the contrary, you very well may be making things worse. So here are a few points that I think people need to keep in mind when discussing sensitive topics relating to mental health.

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Do not assume that if someone FAILS TO seek treatment it means They enjoy feeling that way 

In America's awful system, people don't have a right to healthcare. And even when you do have healthcare, it can sometimes take weeks to see a doctor and the "out-of-pocket cost for care is often too high for this to be a realistic option for most consumers." That brings me to my next point: Privilege. Not everyone can afford to pick up the bill for whatever costs the insurance decides not to pay, or to buy their medication without the very real risk of not having enough money for tomorrow. This is not the fault of the individual; this is the fault of a system that deems that in order to receive healthcare you must be able to pay for it and then some. The bottom line is that everyone needs to remember that not all people "have equal care to treatment and service."

 

Everyone experiences mental health differently  

Just because you were able to "get over it" does not excuse you from telling someone suffering from mental health to "get over it" as well. I've got mad respect for you if you managed to come out on top and never look back, but in your journey to become that stronger you, do not erase or superimpose your experiences on others. It can do more harm than good because there is not a "one-size-fits-all cure" for mental illness. The best way to help is to be supportive and to know your own limits as the person giving the support. 

 

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Do not mistake support with Attention seeking

I'll give a personal example. As the clock ticked closer to panel time, I started to question if I had the right to be a speaker. Ironic, really, but not surprising, though I had hoped I would be able to at least keep from being paralyzed. Nope. Sometimes I can pull myself out of these moments, sometimes I can't. That afternoon was a huge "can't," so I turned to my support: the hub.

The hub could have easily told me I was overreacting (because I started to cry) and that everything would be fine and to just get over it, but he didn't. He chose to be that support, to be empathetic, and that empathy is what kept me from caving in.  

 

Do Not generalize mental health with jerks

The heart of the issue that came up during the panel was the question of when does support become extortion. It's a very valid question, but not one that should be answered with the broad generalization that anyone not seeking professional help is just an attention seeker. That type of response is not helpful and can feed the negative stigma associated with mental health.

My response: Do not confuse toxic friendships and relationships with someone suffering from mental illness. I know this is easier said than done, but I really feel like this piece by Miss Misery breaks down the difference between someone just needing extra support and jerks:

The dilemma, in my mind, boils down to this: when you’re ill, the minimum amount of help you need may be more than the maximum amount your loved ones can give. Are you a jerk for asking for that help?

I think the answer to these questions is definitely no, it doesn’t make you a jerk just to ask for extra sympathy and attention where your mental illness is concerned. However, to avoid being inconsiderate or thoughtless, one key condition must be met: you must make an honest and genuine effort to minimize how much you take from your caregivers. A sick person demands patience; a sick person who’s also a jerk demands unnecessary patience. For example, someone who has been conditioned that their caregivers will get them anything they want and abuses that privilege is probably behaving like a jerk.

The key concept that separates jerks from the truly needy, then, is lack of consideration for the person in the support roleFor example, when a mentally unsteady person frequently needs to talk to a family member about their problems, they’re just doing what they have to in order to survive. That doesn’t make them a jerk; it’s just an unfortunate circumstance wherein someone has to suffer.

Being someone's support, or caregiver, is not a glamorous job. There's a reason I have thanked my hub in my books as the person who "spends time with me in the abyss." If you struggle with understanding the difference between actual jerks and someone just needing extra support in order to survive, then please go read Miss Misery's post: "People With Mental Illness Are Jerks."

 

Do not contribute to the negative stigma of mental health 

A public platform, like a panel at a convention, is a powerful tool to help bring awareness and is not the place to be dismissive or make broad generalizations about mental health. Panelists should not be judgmental and should instead demonstrate understanding and awareness of people's suffering. 

 

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This post was supposed to have gone out on Monday, but I found myself struggling with finishing it because, well, imposter syndrome. Blogging, vlogging, and being on a panel (in particular a panel about imposter syndrome) are rungs I have added to my ladder and have helped me own my own voice so I can publicly speak about my struggles. But my dread at writing this piece was also a reminder of why I needed to finish writing it. I'm going to end this post with an open plea, not just to Worldcon but to anyone who attends any convention:

Dear convention-goers and panelists, if you do not feel anything for the topic being discussed (especially one pertaining to mental health) or do not feel you can contribute in an empathetic way, then PLEASE recuse yourself from the panel and let someone else - someone who can contribute positively to the discourse and help dispel stigma - take your place. Thank you.

Sincerely, 

E.M. Markoff

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Btw, in case you're wondering why I went with pictures of The Assistant to supplement this post, it's because he also plays a very supportive role in my mental health =^_^=

 

Final post in the series, "Worldcon 76: Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading (video) + Convention Wrap-up"  or some such title.

E.M. Markoff is the award-winning Latinx author of stories about damaged heroes and imperfect villains. Her works include To Nurture & Kill and The Deadbringer, which Booklist described as "A fantastic action-adventure, tinged with Mexican folklore, that will appeal to fans of A Game of Thrones."