“True equality is embracing mediocrity”: Aparna Nancherla on imposter syndrome and fear of failure

Aparna Nancherla is different from what you expect from most comedians. You might expect them to be the loudest person in the room, someone who is always looking for laughs but instead, Nancherla is soft-spoken, insightful and most of all very centered but also funny in ways that catch you off guard. Not at all the imposter she labels herself in her new memoir “Unreliable Narrator.”

However, the “Bojack Horseman” actress’ experiences as a female comedian of color with anxiety and depression are heavily present throughout the entire memoir. Nancherla explained in a recent “Salon Talks” that when she realized her predominately white upbringing in Virginia was harmful to her mental health she found comedy to be an outlet. She began to use her struggles and all her experience in her comedy writing and stand-up: “When I found comedy and when I got more creative, really leading with maybe all the things I had struggled with actually felt like kind of a relief.”

As one of the few mainstream female comics of color, Nancherla’s journey into the deepest fears, failures and successes in her life and her brain make for insight into what it is like to grind for success and achieve it in a predominately white field while continuing to feel like an imposter or a fraud. A fate that most non-white people feel and struggle to articulate in the workforce but Nancherla does it beautifully and humorously, of course — she is a comedy writer after all. Most of all, she soothes us and herself in this memoir, telling us that “we’re often stuck in the middles or the between [of life]” and even in the height of our successes, we can falter. Nancherla wants us to know that we will be OK as long as we go through it with a sense of humor and self — just like she did.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What does imposter syndrome mean to you?

When I was writing the book, I looked it up like a responsible writer, and to me what imposter syndrome means, and I think it kind of matches what the definition was, is just feeling kind of a persistent sense of self-doubt and fraudulence about any of your accomplishments or any skills attributed to you. I think it’s just feeling like what other people expect of you versus what you actually feel capable of never quite match up. Any opportunities I’ve gotten, I just feel like I think there’s been a horrible mistake. I shouldn’t be here. 

The book was just my attempt to dig into that and be like, “Where did this come from? Why has it only maybe gotten worse over my career?” It almost feels like the more success I’ve gotten, the worse that sense of self has gotten. I wanted to kind of dig into that.

Why do you think it is very popular in the zeitgeist right now? It’s a word that’s very buzzy, very trendy. 

“If I’m going to go forward in my career, I really have to address this head on.”

I don’t want to brag, but I feel like it’s something I’ve had for a long time before it was popular to talk about. I think maybe just with social media, a lot of things have become more in the conversation, whether that’s conversations about mental health; specifically there’s a lot around anxiety and depression, or just burnout I feel like comes up a lot these days, and then self-care, putting yourself first. 

I think imposter syndrome kind of falls into those messier human feelings that we don’t always have forward-facing. They’re kind of going on in the background, and no one’s really aware of how it’s going on behind the scenes versus how you’re presenting. So, I think social media has kind of really put the insides on the outside, for lack of a better way of saying it.

When you look inward, when you really start to deconstruct what imposter syndrome is, where do you even start? 

I started quite literally with my childhood and growing up as a kid of immigrants — my parents were both doctors who immigrated from India — and just growing up in an upper middle class, middle class predominantly white suburb, just feeling like an outsider in a kind of literal way of not looking like my peers, but then also feeling out of step culturally of maybe not knowing the trends or not knowing the cool way to dress. I think [I was] always approaching things with kind of an outsider mentality. Then on top of that, being a pretty shy, introverted, anxious kid just added another layer of maybe feeling constantly like a fish out of water, whether that be among my South Asian community or my more white mixed community.

I would have to say the same as someone who grew up in a predominantly white space. It can be incredibly difficult as a woman of color to navigate those spaces. Could you just speak more to how that made you feel and how that made you feel like a fish out of water?

My parents were immigrants, and as a first-gen kid, there was very much a mentality of when I was growing up in the ’80s and early ’90s of just assimilation and wanting to blend in, not wanting to make waves, having your identity, but not putting it too forward. Kind of being, for as damaging as it is, the model minority stereotype of being like, “I’m going to do all the right things. I’m going to have a great resume, get into a good school.” I think I was always just working so hard to fit into this mold that I really wasn’t listening to what was going on inside, or in a way I was suppressing it. It was like when I found comedy and when I got more creative, really leading with maybe all the things I had struggled with actually felt like kind of a relief, just to put it all out there and be like, “This is what’s going on inside.”

I know sometimes people are like, “Oh, is it scary to talk about?” But honestly, it felt scarier to me in the beginning of my life not talking about it and just keeping everything inside and then having to put on this sort of false front. It kind of feels easier to be like, “No matter what you think of me now, you also know what’s going on inside.” That feels more honest.

You really do get to that place of a very personal story about your anxiety and depression. What makes you want to have that be the focus of a book like this or your stand-up?

“I think we have to remember posting an anxiety meme is not the same as going to therapy.”

Both with talking about anxiety and depression in my stand-up and with writing this book, they both came out of struggling with those things very acutely in my real life. When I start talking about my stand-up, I was struggling a lot with performance anxiety and getting on stage, and then there would be a depression as a result of not being able to perform as easily as I would like. 

Then, the same thing with this book. I had gotten some success professionally, and I feel like the self-doubt only got worse, and it was kind of that thing of like, “Oh, when I get to this point in my career or when I achieve this goal, I’ll have figured it all out and it will all have been worth it, the grind.” But if anything, I felt more confused and more in my head. Really the book was kind of my attempt to dive into that and be like, “Why is this happening?” If I’m going to go forward in my career, I really have to address this head on.

Absolutely, and I feel like some of what you’ve mentioned is because of late-stage capitalism, which is what you talk about in your book. Do you find it makes it increasingly difficult to talk about mental health? 

I think it just creates a lot more messiness around being authentic because it’s like once authenticity becomes a buzzword or a brand, then what is real authenticity versus authenticity performing on your social media? I think that gets really messy, and for me, I’ve had to draw a line between talking about mental health or more messy things like body image or self-doubt in my act as a creative and as a writer versus my experience of them in my real life, which is a very different thing. Not that they’re not interconnected, obviously I’m writing about what I experience, but I might do a joke about anxiety on stage, but that’s not me doing that polished performance of it isn’t necessarily how it’s showing up in my real life and I might still be struggling with it in a very real way, even right before I get on stage. I just have to keep them separate. I think we have to remember posting an anxiety meme is not the same as going to therapy.

Is that how you feel like you can get to the nuances of the larger conversations surrounding mental health?

Yeah. I think that was also partly why I wrote a book, just because with stand-up, you only have so much real estate to make your point. You have to be punchy about it, and you have to be kind of clever and a little removed. I felt like with a book, I could get messier and kind of go into the nuances and maybe not always have that clean resolution.

You have this chapter specifically about your “failure resume.” You also talk about how failure is inherently anti-capitalist and anti-American. Why do you feel that way?

I just feel like there’s so much messaging around winning, and always any struggle is kind of framed as a, “This is what happened before, and now I figured it out,” or like, “Now look at me. I’m so successful.” There’s never any discussion around, “I did all the right things and I’m still having a hard time,” or, “I’m still stuck and I don’t know what to do.” I just feel like that’s more the truth of what it is to live a human life. We’re often stuck in the middles or the betweens, or even like for me, when I was successful, that was the time I was struggling the most mentally. It’s important to be more open about the fact that it’s very complex to have a human brain and we’re not always winning and succeeding, we’re always on that path to winning and succeeding.

Right. Like sometimes it’s OK to be the loser that fails.

Yeah and I also feel like as a woman of color, there’s so much placed on exceptionalism.


Where it’s like you have to stand out to be noticed to get those opportunities, and I’m just like, I feel like true equality is embracing mediocrity.

It’s exhausting having to be perfect and to have it all together all the time. It feels like a performance. Would you say that?

Yeah, yeah. I think it’s exhausting, and I think it kind of fractures your sense of self into what other people are seeing versus what is actually your life and you as a person, and I think it’s important to be able to have somewhat of a coherent sense of self, especially in a world that is so confusing and problematic in a lot of ways.

Of course, yeah. And what would you say is your favorite failure from the list?

My favorite failure? I cannot pick a favorite. I think early on, one of my first attempted jobs was to try to sell knives door to door, and it wasn’t my path. It wasn’t my path. The fact that there was a point in my life where I was like, “This is going to be my calling, just selling cutlery door to door.”

I did laugh when I read that someone had cut their finger, was it?

Yeah. It was so sad. You’re supposed to try to sell a complete set, and I could only sell, I’d sold two single knives and both to my dad’s coworkers, and one of them cut their hand really badly on one of them, and they’re a surgeon, so it was not good.

One of my other favorite essays in this book is when you talk about beauty and the beauty politics surrounding your identity and just all of the different phases of seeing yourself throughout your childhood. Do you feel that women of color have had to conform to this beauty standard and idealism, to really just be that person and to be someone that everyone sees as this perfect person?

Yeah. I really think it is, in that sense, representation or what you’re surrounded by really informs your sense of what’s beautiful and what the standards are around you. Because again, I was sort of in a predominantly white cultural space growing up, and I think I really internalized those beauty standards. 

“Any opportunities I’ve gotten, I just feel like I think there’s been a horrible mistake.”

I remember I went to a pretty white college, and it was in New England, and I remember one of my dormmates freshman year, she had moved here from New York City, which is pretty diverse, pretty big melting pot. I remember she was saying, “This is the first time I’ve felt ugly in my life, walking around this campus.” So, that just kind of shifted like, “Oh, not everyone felt that way growing up.” It kind of is very much what is reflected around you. So, I’m hoping now, it does seem like there’s more of a wave of body positivity with younger generations. I mean I know Instagram can be just as toxic for messaging about bodies, but I’m hoping just representation-wise overall there’s healthier, more balanced messaging around body image.

Yeah, absolutely. I feel like capitalism has a way of shaping the way that we see ourselves because we’re being sold an idea. Would you say that’s an unattainable idea?

Yeah. I mean, I think for you to continue buying into products and the market, it is like always you’ll never quite get there. If there’s ever a product invented where it’s like, “And this is it, you don’t have to do anything after this,” I feel like capitalism will have failed. I think part of it is the climbing the ladder.

Yeah, absolutely. As you talk further about mental health in this book, you label yourself as a high-functioning depressed person. What coping mechanisms have you found?

I have a lot of privilege as a self-employed creative. I feel like I can take a lot of time and space for myself that not everyone has the ability to do, whether because of their job requirements or money reasons. I would advise [people] to just try to find a way to make that space for yourself in whatever way you can, whether that’s taking a break or taking a walk when you need to. I think just basic things like fresh air and drinking enough water sound just like very pat answers, but they really do make a big difference. I feel like they can sometimes be the first things to go when you’re stressed and you’re just like, “Water’s not going to help me. Everything’s on fire.” But then you have some water and you’re like, “Okay, I feel a little better about everything being on fire.”

Would you say that going towards comedy has helped alleviate that kind of sense of depression and anxiety, or is it something that sometimes amplifies it?

“Comedy for me is a way to kind of translate my brain to the rest of the world.”

I think it can go both ways. I think the good thing about comedy for me is I live very much inside my head and I can get caught up in my own negative messaging, but comedy for me is a way to kind of translate my brain to the rest of the world. In that way, when I see other people connecting to it, that gets me out of my own head, and I’m like, “Oh, wait, other people are having this exact same experience, and I just forgot because I was so lost in my own thoughts.” So, that’s the good side. 

Then the bad side is sometimes with stand-up, it’s like you’re sort of on trial at all times in terms of the crowd’s opinion of you or how you’re being perceived at any given moment. You don’t always have control over that. It is you are kind of setting yourself up for scrutiny at all times more so than maybe another line of work.

You’ve written for stand-up and now you’ve written a book. How are the experiences different? 

That was a struggle in writing the book, because I think with stand-up you get that immediate feedback. I was big on Twitter for a bunch of years, and there you get even more immediate feedback. Writing the book was definitely exercising a new muscle of just being by myself a lot more and just sitting with things and being like, “Is this good? I don’t know. I sort of need someone else’s opinion.” So, I think it was a new feat for me. We’ll see how I did. It was my first book, so we’ll see.

After this book, what do you have coming up? What do you feel like is the next step for you after writing this great memoir?

I am doing some stand-up tour dates around promoting the book. With the writers and actors strikes, who knows what’s next around the corner? For me, building a stand-up hour, now that I’ve spent all this time in a cave writing a book, I’m sort of ready to emerge and do my writing in front of people again for a while.

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