Aparna Nancherla Is at War with Her Brain

The comedian’s new mental health-focused memoir chronicles her lifelong battle against her greatest foe—herself.

There is a common thread between impostor syndrome and probiotic yogurt according to comedian Aparna Nancherla: they both “primarily get marketed toward women and minorities.” Though not an official psychiatric diagnosis, many people claim to ‘have it.’

Aparna Nancherla’s new book tackles imposter syndrome—including her own. Courtesy Aparna Nancherla

The internet is awash in memes in which people use the phrase to explain their inability to accept compliments, trust success or feel deserving of the spaces they occupy in academic and professional settings. The term is adapted from Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes’s 1978 article, “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,” in the medical journal Psychotherapy: Theory Research and Practice. It identified an internal psychological experience of fraudulence—specifically in high-achieving women in high-pressure work and educational environments—but has since escaped from psych journals into pop culture, invading public discourse and giving millions of people the language to express all-too-relatable feelings of self-doubt. For Nancherla, impostor syndrome has been a lifelong nemesis. It’s also now the subject of her first book,  Unreliable Narrator: Me, Myself, and Impostor Syndrome.

Nancherla was diagnosed with depression at age nineteen and credits the diagnosis—and the accompanying antidepressants—with not only saving her life but also inspiring her entry into comedy. She has a charmingly cartoonish voice and is known to pair confessional, self-deprecating jokes with bone-dry monotone delivery that makes her stand-up sets feel both surgical and whimsical. A classic from an old appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert: “I found out my therapist was raising her rates,” she sets up, following with, “So… I guess I’m cured.” She is best known for a stand-up career that includes several acclaimed comedy specials and for the distinction—thanks to a 2013 Conan appearance—of being the first South Asian woman to do a comedy set on U.S. late-night television.

Audiences also recognize her from voice acting roles in major TV comedies like Fox’s Bob’s Burgers (as Tina’s middle-school classmate) and The Great North (as a 10-year-old boy). In Netflix’s Bojack Horseman, she voiced the titular horse’s teen half-sister Hollyhock. Her resume also includes live-action roles in HBO’s Search Party, Comedy Central’s Corporate and FX’s What We Do In The Shadows.

SEE ALSO: The ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ Creators on Keeping Their Show Small in an Era of Excess

While audiences have listened to and enjoyed Nancherla’s voice for years, her relationship with that voice has often been the subject of strife. In Unreliable Narrator, she describes her inner voice as “a version of Siri set to destroy mode” and details self-negating thoughts she has had about herself from childhood to the present day, including her struggles to overcome “aggressive timidity,” mental health issues including depression (which she nicknames Brenda for the book), and issues with success, which often had an inverse relationship with her mental health. She eventually found a hard-won place in the extrovert-biased comedy world as a petite and unshowy Indian-American, and in her essays, she lays bare exactly what it takes to “face the rawness of existence” and arrive somewhere near self-acceptance. “I’m not punching up or punching down,” she writes, “I’m punching the mirror.”

I recently spoke to Nancherla about the visibility paradox, accepting a lack of resolution in life and why she’s okay with not being the loudest person at the party.

You begin the book with an explanation of impostor syndrome and the recent pushback against the term. Why did you lead with that, and what was your goal with this memoir?

I wanted to start by framing the whole conversation as I’ve seen it currently evolve in the larger social arena, just to say both sides of it. When I started the book, I thought it was a set of feelings that are known to be experienced in this way, but then as I was reading, more articles came out that pushed back against it and considered why it was pushed towards women and minorities so much. I wanted to frame the overall debate that’s currently playing out.

It was funny because when I started reading articles that were pushing back against it, I thought maybe I was making a huge mistake. Like, is this not even a real thing anymore? In the end, it played into my own impostor syndrome in writing a book. The goal for me was to just be honest about how those feelings have shown up in my life, regardless of how they’ve been reflected in the larger sphere. Even the articles I read that pushed back against it acknowledged that the experience is still real.

I noticed while reading the book that you were really up on the literature. Is staying up to date on the conversations around mental health important to you?

I am someone who lives very much in my own head, and I am a big reader so when I read other people’s words, it’s a way for me to connect with the larger world. Sometimes that’s a way for me to widen the scope beyond just what I think or how I make sense of things. It felt like an honest thing: “This helped me see things a certain way or frame the argument to myself.” It helps to lean on outside voices.

You’ve become famous for exploring mental health issues in your comedy and here you write about how that has been a double-edged sword. Why was that the case, and how was exploring those topics in a book different and maybe better for you?

Part of the reason I wanted to write a book was I had previously explored my experiences with anxiety and depression in my stand-up—with stand-up, it’s a little bit more presentational and polished. You’re setting things up as a joke where there’s a payoff, and you only have so much real estate to get your point across. Mental health is such a gray area topic where there’s such a range of how you experience it and often a lack of resolution. If you’re experiencing it over the course of a lifetime, it’s not like you necessarily are cured or figure it out completely.

I wanted to be able to express my struggle with it in a medium where I could be more amorphous in how I was talking about it. It’s less of that polished joke and more of me getting into the stuff I struggle with in a less resolved way. That is also what attracted me to the idea of writing a book. When you are writing longform about these messier topics, it ends up being a lot more difficult mentally to write about. I was able to capture that aspect where it is less easy and not as clean. The conclusion isn’t as firm, I guess.

I was struck by your definition of stand-up comedy as an “art of control.” You also write that the public eye is “a gaze you can’t control.” How do you deal with the tension between those two things?

It’s a constant struggle for me between wanting to be seen and then maybe feeling overexposed if I am seen. It ends up being a paradox that I walk where I get very anxious before I perform, and it causes a lot of stress, but then there is this sense of relief and catharsis in being able to express myself in front of people and feel like they’re understanding me and that we’re on the same page.

I guess ‘controlled’ would be the way to say it in that it’s a mediated reaction between you and other people, but you’re very much in charge of what you’re saying, how you’re being perceived to a certain degree and what you expect out of them from the interaction. In that sense, it just feels more manageable to me than a conversation at a party or something where the rules are there, but they’re not as tightly enforced as stand-up where it’s just so much more presentational and concrete.

Has being able to narrativize your life through comedy helped you exercise control in a way that another profession might not have?

I think so. It’s helped me make sense of certain things. I know it’s not just me. I talked to other stand-up comedians about how sometimes it becomes a slippery slope where, as something is happening to you, you’re already thinking, “How can I frame this into a story later that I can tell on stage?” It sometimes turns into a chicken and egg of what is the performance and what is actually my real life. But I’ve worked pretty hard in the past few years to have a separate life outside of comedy because I feel like if it gets too blurred for me it becomes unhealthy, like I can’t separate who I am from stand-up and the career stuff. It feels important to not have that subsume everything.

You also stepped away from Twitter for a bit recently. Is social media pullback part of that, too?

I don’t think there’s a healthy way that I can do it. As soon as I’m on [social media], I’m already focusing on all the negative things or asking, “Why didn’t this get more engagement or why is this person so popular?” My brain immediately turns it into a contest that I can never win. I think it’s better if I remove this from my life. It isn’t an unquestionably good thing in that I’m not saying, “I’m better now, and I never struggle with comparison or that kind of thinking,” but for me, it just created space that I needed in my brain. I’ll post now as needed, and I will sometimes feel out of the loop in not being as engaged on those platforms. They are still pretty big parts of the industry I’m in, but it afforded me some room I needed mentally.

In the chapter “Talking about Nothing,” you mention how your identity as a comedian at first felt incongruous to you and your audience because you didn’t “present” as one race “in ethnicity, in volume, in general vibe.”  Which aspect of your identity was hardest to bring into harmony with comedy?

I never felt like I quite fit into that mold. I didn’t openly talk about my parents to the degree that other comedians did—or my home experience or how I was raised as a kid. That made me feel like, “Oh, I don’t think I know how to fit into the mold of what is expected of me.” And because I already had an idea of the stuff I wanted to discuss and the stuff that interested me, I just led with that figuring the rest would fall into place. But it does feel like, since I’ve been in comedy the needle has moved in that people are much more open about talking about identity and it’s become less of a weird niche thing. It’s just sort of, “Oh, and you also happen to be this identity and that frames your lens that you see the world through.”

One thing I like about your comedy is not just that you’re talking about mental health but also that the people who are the face of comedy about depression, like Bo Burnham or Maria Bamford, are all white, and you’re a woman of color talking about it. I think people are connecting with that, too.

That’s a good example of when people were like, “You’re talking about mental health, that’s really great,” I immediately thought, “Oh yeah, Maria Bamford or Bo Burnham, they’ve already been doing that, and they’ve been doing it really well.” I conveniently forget that I’m not completely the same as them and I’m more just another person talking about their mental illness.

You write that America is an extrovert-biased country. When do you think you first realized that, and how has it affected the way you, an introvert, live and work here?

I think I learned that pretty early on. South Asian culture is also kind of extrovert-biased so I just always lived as a fish in water where it was assumed that the norms included being outgoing and saying the first thing that comes off the top of your head. I always felt like I didn’t know how to meet those requirements. Even before I knew the word ‘introvert,’ I thought, “Oh, you don’t talk enough for what other people seem to expect or want, and you’re never loud enough.” Very early on I had this idea that whatever I was wasn’t quite enough for what other people were expecting.

As a kid, my mom pushed me to be more outgoing and assertive. She was worried about how I was going to survive in this culture that expects these things. I did end up in stand-up, which is a very public-facing career, but I do think I only in the past few years have realized it’s okay to not always want to do the things other people do in terms of socializing. And it’s okay to not always be the loudest person at the party—not that I ever was, but there would always be a lot of self-loathing about not being that. Only recently have I realized it’s okay that not everyone is like that or has to push themselves to be like that.

My mom is also an immigrant—African, not South Asian. You talked about these “growth exercises” your mom would make you do, like practicing speaking confidently while ordering pizza over the phone, which is something my mom also made me do. I would order my weekly Pizza Hut, and she would stand next to me and say, “Don’t be meek. Use your loud voice.”

Oh my gosh. You’re the first person I’ve ever met who has related to this particular experience.

I read that passage and thought “That’s my exact experience.” And it’s so funny because we’re Ethiopian and Ethiopian culture is not extroverted the way you’re describing South Asian culture. I think my mom was responding to America. “In America, I want you to have the loud voice, so we’re going to practice.”

So funny. Thank you for sharing my burden.

In the book, you point out that nothing summons impostor syndrome faster than trying to write a book about it. How are you feeling about the project now? You’ve talked a bit about how the things you’re going through are ongoing, not things you can solve, so this is me checking in.

That’s kind of the funny thing, because in some delusional part of my brain, I thought, “I’m going to write about it, and then I’m going to figure it out, and then I can put this chapter of my life behind me.” But writing about it, if anything, just stirred the pot even more. Suddenly I felt like even more of a fraud. The book was really hard to write, but then in writing it, I felt I captured myself in whatever stage I was in when I wrote it. Everyone evolves when they’re writing books, and everything is a snapshot of where you were at that point.

I still have a lot of ambivalence towards the book, and when I read it it will still bring up a lot of conflicting feelings. People always ask, “Are you excited it’s coming out?” And don’t know. I feel relieved that it’s written, but there’s still a lot of doubt seeded into it. And I would even say disgust. Not what a publicist wants you to say [laughs], but there’s a lot of conflicting emotion that naturally went into it that I still feel towards it. It’s a little bit like, “Okay, it’s coming out. It’s kind of the world’s problem now.”

Aparna Nancherla Is at War with Her Brain