Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
This essay contains discussions of forms of abuse
I’m not important.
It’s the little black dress of self-deception: easy to accessorize, appropriate for a variety of settings, goes with everything.
I’m not important, and nobody cares about my work.
I’m not important, and nobody knows who I am.
I’m not important, so it doesn’t matter what I do.
It’s an absolutely sterling lie, and it’s incredibly dangerous.
Have you ever met a Bernese Mountain Dog? They are extremely large. Even when they’re puppies, they’re enormous. Once, I had the opportunity to meet a Bernese Mountain Dog puppy. She was ten weeks old, and she already weighed about thirty-five pounds. She was the same size as a full-grown corgi, and she had the teeth to match. She did what puppies do. She jumped around, and she pounced on her toys, and she took my hand into her mouth and she chomped on it.
It hurt like hell.
I think about that puppy all the time, both because she was an extremely cute, extremely fluffy puppy, and because she didn’t realize that she was big. She didn’t mean to hurt me, but I still bled. The harm she caused was real, regardless of the intention. She thought she was small. She thought she was playing. She didn’t realize that she could hurt me.
We tell ourselves that we’re not important for a lot of reasons, many of which boil down to self-protection. Irrelevance and anonymity can carry a sense of safety: If no one cares what I say or do, then I can defang performance anxiety. If I already know how irrelevant I am, then no one can accuse me of having an overinflated ego. If I don’t matter, then there are no expectations for me to meet, which means I can afford to take risks.
If I practice telling myself that I’m not important, then it won’t hurt as much when someone else tells me that same thing.
We can convince ourselves that impostor syndrome is useful in these ways; meanwhile, it drives creators into hiding and makes us doubt ourselves. It drips venom into our ears about how our work is nothing, and we are nothing, and we will never be enough. It enforces gatekeeping and perpetuates homogeneity. It makes us doubt our abilities and our authority, and it wrings the joy from our work.
It crushes us.
And if we aren’t careful, it can make us dangerous.
Abuse dynamics are not the sole territory of cruel, manipulative people who have power and feel entitled to use it the wrong way. Even when we are loathe to cause harm — even when we are terrified to ever hurt anyone — unchecked impostor syndrome can undermine our ability to navigate interactions safely. A person with authority who doesn’t recognize their own power poses a danger to those who do. There is a voice that whispers you’re not important and nobody cares what you do — and a person who lets that voice guide their behavior is a person who will fail to protect those who are vulnerable in their company.
There is a sense of safety in assuming that we are small. We seek the safe harbor of anonymity, forgetting that there is no such thing as a person who is beyond vulnerability, and that there is no such thing as a person who is beyond the ability to do harm. Ultimately, that false sense of safety comes at a price — a price that is paid by those we put at risk.
Publishing is a field of goalposts that shift so often they may as well be sentient. Who has power? Who has responsibility? It’s hard to sort out those dynamics even without the obstacles presented by impostor syndrome. It’s difficult in part because publishing relationships are designed to be more collaborative and interactive than hierarchical.
Agent and client, author and editor, creator and consumer — all of these relationships are integral to the function of the publishing industry, and they don’t even cover the personal friendships, fandom connections, and extended professional networks that make up the world we work in. Add to this complex continuum of relationships the destructive potential inherent in comparing one’s career to the careers of others, and a sense of scale feels impossible to grasp.
The unpleasantness of even asking the question “who holds the power here” makes it all too easy to give in to that sterling lie: I’m not important, so it doesn’t matter what I do. Only by rejecting that lie — by honestly examining the power dynamics in our professional relationships — can we begin to recognize who feels like they can say “no” to us. By looking at ourselves as though we do have power even if we don’t feel powerful, we can avoid becoming harmful to those who feel like saying “no” to us is a risk.
Impostor syndrome says that you are not important. That, impostor syndrome says, is why your idol didn’t remember you. That’s why you didn’t make the sale. That’s why nobody cares about your work, or your thoughts, or your actions.
But the day will come when you meet someone who idolizes you. Someone who thinks you can help them realize a dream. Someone whose life was changed by your work, who cares what you think, who cares what you do.
Even if you don’t see yourself as important, you will be important to that person. They will not know or care what your impostor syndrome tells you. No matter what that small, cruel voice tells you about yourself, you will still have the power to make that person feel small or scared or unsafe.
In that moment — and in every other moment — allowing your impostor syndrome to dictate your actions is worse than irresponsible. It’s dangerous. There is no excuse for hurting the person over whom you hold power; the harm you can cause is real, regardless of your intentions. Whether you think you deserve it or not, you have a responsibility to that person. Whether you recognize your position or not, you have a mandate to behave with professionalism that strives to be beyond reproach.
You have that mandate, and so do I, because what we do matters. It matters because our voices are important. It matters because we have so much to say. It matters because we have so much to contribute to the world.
It matters because we have so much more power than we realize.
It’s hard to look at ourselves and think that we could be considered powerful by anyone at all. But there is power in each of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. The ability to write or sell or publish or edit or illustrate a story — that’s power. Participating in the publishing industry at all is, in and of itself, powerful: It’s the power to shape careers, to change lives, to give hope, to create communities.
And the power to create is mirrored by the power to destroy. If we have the power to help, we also have the power to harm. If we have the power to make people feel seen, then we have the power to make them feel small. If we have the power to lift them up, then we have the power to knock them down.
We have a responsibility to our fans. We have a responsibility to our fellow creators. We have a responsibility to the people who are in the places we have been, who look up to us for reasons we may not understand.
We have a responsibility to use our power wisely, and kindly, and thoughtfully.
It doesn’t matter if we think we deserve to have the power we’re given.
It matters what we do with it.