Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Ever had this experience?

Acquaintance: So what do you do for a living?
Writer: I am a writer.
Acquaintance: Oh yeah? Cool. But … what do you do for a real job?

Yeah, us too. And it’s those kinds of encounters that feed writers’ persistent fear that someone somehow will discover that we’re not “real” writers and that—regardless of how many books, stories, poems, or articles we write and publish and how much time we invest in our craft—we will be exposed as frauds. No matter our experience, our accomplishments, or even our ability to support ourselves with our writing, we still wait for someone to call us out by shouting, “Hey! This one is a faker.” Then suddenly pitchforks, torches, and an angry mob of “real” writers will descend upon us, mock our manuscripts, and write “FAKE” on our foreheads with a blue Sharpie. For the rest of our days, wherever we go, we will be shunned with turned backs, heckling, and the occasional rotten cabbage.

What is imposter syndrome?

There’s actually a name for the phenomenon in which talented, successful people fear they will be exposed as frauds: imposter syndrome. The term was coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who found it was prevalent in most successful women.

Since then, imposter syndrome has been widely attributed to both men and women across all age-groups and professions, though authors and entrepreneurs seem particularly prone. Regardless of how much they accomplish, many still believe that they don’t deserve the success they have.

No one knows the source of imposter syndrome. Some experts have suggested it’s rooted in mental health conditions such as anxiety or neuroticism. Others have pointed to childhood issues stemming from parents who may have been highly demanding, exacting, and critical of their child’s performance in school or in the home.

Psychologists have linked imposter syndrome to two dominant characteristics: high achievement and perfectionism. Both of these are what make writers and entrepreneurs so successful. Yet they are also the same qualities that give volume to the secret voice that whispers, “Your success is just luck. Your accomplishments are not special. Anyone can do what you do.”

The best of careers, the worst of careers

You know the emotional costs of being a writer: the crippling doubt, the financial uncertainties, the demand to produce, the pressures to be published and a bestseller … never mind the knowledge that what you write on paper is never as good as what you have in your head. It is a vocation that can be as cruel as it is rewarding. It certainly doesn’t help that writing is a profession that—while highly respected by many—is the object of derision and even jealousy for others.

Is it any wonder we second-guess ourselves?

To silence the mean voice in your head, the first step is to say the words out loud, to admit, “I am suffering from imposter syndrome,” even to yourself. Then take a deep breath and give yourself permission to recognize it—and not beat yourself up about it.

It is, after all, our own brains sending us hateful messages. And the best weapon against hate is always love … and some nifty psychological tools.

1. Spend time with other writers.

One of the reasons writing for a living can be challenging is that it is, by its very nature, a solitary activity. While it’s easy to get caught up in the whirl of stories, voices, and imaginary conversations in our heads, we are still just talking to ourselves. Find yourself a community where you can talk shop and share successes and setbacks with other people who don’t exist only in your mind. Whether that’s a writers’ group at your local library or a community on social media (check out the #WritingCommunity on Twitter), find your people. Knowing that we’re all facing similar challenges can boost everyone’s level of confidence.

2. Identify negative thought patterns.

How often has someone complimented you on a piece you’ve written and you’ve responded with something like, “Oh, it was nothing. It just threw it together.” Or you’re sharing something new and you begin with “I wrote this thing,” like it’s so loathsome that you can’t even name it. Not acknowledging your work and your successes is a negative thought pattern. Notice when you aren’t proud of your own work or when you find yourself downplaying your effort, and then reframe the thought into something more positive. It might feel awkward or even painful to say, “I stayed up all night working on this feature story and I feel like it’s pretty solid” or to answer a compliment with a simple “Thank you. I worked really hard on it,” but if you make a conscious effort, soon positive responses will become just as normal and automatic as the negative ones are now.

And most important: never, ever listen to that voice or person who suggests you’re not a real writer, and that writing isn’t a legitimate job. Recognize that whatever motivated them to say that is about them, not you.

3. Remind yourself of your accomplishments.

Sometimes our brains have a terrible tendency to give the not-so-nice thoughts more power than the “Yay me!” thoughts. When this happens, find a way to remind yourself. Place notes near your desk, write on your bathroom mirror, and hang clips of pieces you’ve published. Use social media to share good news with your writing buddies. After all, you’re happy to celebrate their successes, so sharing yours gives them an opportunity to reciprocate.

4. Find a coach, a mentor, or a therapist.

Everyone has doubts. But when those doubts prevent you from writing and start creating a terrible mess in your head, it helps to talk it out with someone who not only understands but can help you find your path and address what’s keeping you from getting to where you want to be. Imposter syndrome has an irritating ability to exacerbate our most common mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

5. Stop apologizing for loving your job.

Don’t let anyone tell you that your job is less worthy because you enjoy it. Don’t let anyone convince you that you are less because you took a talent and made it a marketable skill—through reading, hard work, and years of experience. And never believe anyone who suggests that success can be measured only by how many books you sell or the size of your royalty checks.

You are enough. And you are better than you know.

Now get back to work.

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