The STOP Syndrome

Writing and posting a chapter of Tales of MU after months of floundering under feelings of across-the-board inadequacy was a bit of a relief and a weight off my shoulders, but weirdly, writing and posting an introductory post about my theories of pretending to be a cavalier that contained nothing I haven’t said on Twitter or D&D forums before was a huge relief and a huge weight off my shoulders.

I went to bed last night feeling supremely confident, light, airy, high on life, and like I could do anything I set my mind to. And also weird, because… WTF? How did such a small, simple thing make me feel so good? I mean, I’m not unfamiliar with the sensation of being pleased with a job well-done, but this was more than that.

In the end, I think it is the fact that it’s a small and simple thing… one that I’ve wanted to do for ages, but didn’t feel capable or worthy of. I had fallen prey to the kind of thinking I’m constantly refuting for others, which we might call the Special Type Of Person syndrome, or STOP syndrome for short.

STOP syndrome is the belief that not just anyone can sit down and do ______ or go out and do ______, that it takes a Special Type Of Person to do that. I can hold forth about D&D because anyone can have opinions, but I can’t sit down and actually write a blog about it in any kind of formal capacity because I am, in some inherent sense, not a D&D blogger. That kind of thing.

The thing is, probably 90% of the people reading this, if they’re reading this in the right frame of mind will look at that, roll their eyes, and go, “Well, that’s ridiculous. It’s not like there’s an accreditation course for writing about pretend dwarves.” And the same 90% of the people reading this, if they’re reading it in another frame of mind, will look at that and go, “Oh, someone has a name for that.”

“I’d like to draw, but I’m not an artist.”

“I’ve always wanted to write fanfic, but I’m not really a writer.”

And so on.

STOP syndrome is not something you necessarily think in so many words, but more often, something you instinctively feel with such depth of feeling that you know it to be true. It’s basically a subset of impostor syndrome, one that, well, stops us from even trying to do a thing in the first place.

The antidote to STOP syndrome may be what I call the Doodle Theory of Doing Art, which is basically that the world is enriched when people doodle, or do whatever the version of “doodling” is for something else. Sing in the shower, whether you’re a singer or not. Doodle on napkins, whether you’re an artist or not. Make up stories, whether you’re an author or not. Nobody is perfect when they start out, and few people are recognizably good, that takes practice… but more than that, a lot of what makes something good is subjective, and even more than that, you don’t have to be good at something for it to be worth doing.

Kids scribble with crayons and sing at the top of their lungs and make up jokes and stories that make no sense because it’s fun to do so, because it’s fun to express themselves and it’s an emotional release and it is rewarding on a distinct and profound level.

It’s a very bad day when I have to convince myself that I am an author, but there are things that I have periodically *known* I’m not (an RPG designer, an anthology editor, etc) at exactly the moments when it was most crushing to feel that. Not just anyone can do those things, it takes a Special Type Of Person to do so…

I think this is another area of life where our focus on “self-esteem” as a society hurts us. “You can do anything you put your mind to because you’re special.” sounds like such a positive message. When we tell a child this, we think we’re telling them two great things: they can do anything they want, and they’re special. But the conjunction there isn’t “and”, it’s “because”. We’re actually telling them something that is contingent, conditional: as long as you’re special, you can do whatever you want. Even if we don’t spell out the “because” and just say, “You can do anything you put your mind to. You’re special.”… the human mind is good at finding connections, even when they’re not meant to be there.

So what we take away from these childhood message is this: there are special people who get to do whatever they want, so you’d better pray you’re one of them.

You can occasionally succeed in making someone feel special, but it is a difficult task to impart someone with the sure and certain knowledge that they are special, in a way that will stand up to the seemingly overwhelming evidence that is their own up-close knowledge of their own shortcomings and the many contrary messages that likely inundate society around them.

This is not even getting into how unevenly society distributes the “you are special, you can do anything” messages. We all get the message that special people can do everything, but some among us get told, in varying degrees and to various ways, that this affirmatively does not include them.

The principles that are varyingly called self-empathy, self-forgiveness, and self-compassion might be the antidote to the deficits of self-esteem, as instead of insisting against all the evidence of our fears and doubts that we are special, they tell us that we don’t have to be. Often, embracing this gives us the space to find the things we like best about ourselves. Recognizing that we are allowed to fail gives us the space to try, which might lead to success.

But ultimately, I think it’s important to know that effort and expression are both worthy endeavors in and of themselves.

The type of person it takes to do a thing is the person who is willing to do it.

That’s all.