Imagine you’ve been invited to a dinner party. On the invitation, the words ‘We can’t wait to see you!’ are printed in big, bold letters, embossed in gold foil for good measure. On arrival at the party, you’re greeted warmly by your hosts, and you feel welcomed, wanted, and validated.
I can do this, you think, and you hold onto that feeling as you take your seat at a long, fancy table laid out with cut glass champagne flutes and silver cutlery. Wow, you enthuse, this is great! I’m sitting at the table, about to eat the fine food and enjoy the even finer company! I finally fit in!
And it’s a wonderful feeling.
Until, that is, you look around you, and you see the other dinner party guests. The glamorous, intelligent, gorgeous, witty, celebrated, funny guests who all look like they belong in that room, seated at that table.
As for you, it becomes quickly apparent you do not belong. You don’t deserve your seat at this soiree of talent. You are nowhere near as successful, talented, or brilliant as these people. You are, in fact, an imposter, and any minute now someone is going to turn to you and say ‘Excuse me? Aren’t you at the wrong dinner party?’
You shrink into yourself and withdraw, hoping nobody will notice your presence, and remain that way until the end of the evening. What’s more, your internal critic will not let you forget this feeling until the next party invitation, which you turn down, due to your unworthiness.
Welcome, my friend, to Imposter Syndrome.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
My favourite imposter syndrome (sometimes known as ‘impostor phenomenon’ or ‘perceived fraudulence’) definition is: ‘Chronic feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, and fraudulence despite objective success’. Or, in basic terms, feeling terrible about your own abilities despite there being actual, real evidence of your qualifications and talent.
Of course, it’s different for everyone. Feelings of self-doubt are entirely unique to the person experiencing them, and there is no universally accepted singular definition of what severe Imposter Syndrome is or feels like. But what it boils down to for me is a skewed opinion of my own worth - either in a personal sense, or a literary sense, or both (fun times) depending on my mood.
I regularly battle with feelings of worthlessness and of not ‘belonging at the table’, despite outward appearances of being confident, competent and, although I dislike this word for its vagueness, ‘successful’.
My particular brand of crippling Imposter Syndrome is extremely unpredictable and can be triggered by a number of things: award nomination announcements (why wasn’t I nominated? I must not be good enough), book deal announcements (why haven’t I scored a three-book deal with a Big Five publisher yet? I must not be marketable enough), collaboration announcements (why wasn’t I invited to contribute to that anthology? I must not be credible enough), to simply reading someone else’s work (dear God, why can’t I write this well? I may as well stop right now, I’m a hack).
It doesn’t help that these days, especially with the onus on authors and creatives to be able to effectively market themselves in such a competitive industry, this game can sometimes feel like a ‘popularity contest’ that you haven’t ranked highly in.
That sense of not belonging is compounded when we work in an industry where our work can be partly judged by our own likeability or public persona, which is, for the majority of us, an understandable source of Imposter Syndrome anxiety. Because often, when I think I Do Not Belong Here, I conflate it with People Do Not Like Me, which is Imposter Syndrome at its worst as it makes me question my absolute value as a person.
How Does Imposter Syndrome Affect Writers?
While researching this article, I thought it would be an idea to ask some of my Twitter followers how Imposter Syndrome felt, and the answers were a little heart-breaking. You can read the responses here, and when you do, notice how many times the following words and phrases are used:
Fraud Fake Not legitimate Not earned Not deserved Luck Fooled everyone Fear Self-doubt Worth Get found out
It paints a sad picture of how a common syndrome can radically affect a creative career, in some cases stalling it before it has a chance to flourish.
What’s more, if you think the more ‘successful’, ‘legitimate’ and ‘proper’ creatives you look up to do not suffer from Imposter Syndrome, you’d be wrong. Oscar winning actor Tom Hanks once said “‘No matter what we\'ve done, there comes a point where you think, \'How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?\'\"
In a similar vein, Jodie Foster also said she thought winning her Oscar was a ‘fluke’. “I thought everybody would find out, and they’d take the Oscar back,” she continued.
If we return to my tweet above, seasoned horror stalwart Ramsey Campbell, who has been writing for over fifty years and won a metric ton of awards, stated “I often feel as if I’ve brought nothing to my field but imitations of better work,” which is mind-blowing to me, as someone who looks up to Campbell and his lifetime of achievements.
The point is, Imposter Syndrome doesn’t seem to discriminate when it comes to choosing a victim. It can hit at any point throughout your career and have a dramatic effect on your ability to write, focus, and feel motivated. Whilst it is perhaps unrealistic to expect to avoid Imposter Syndrome completely, there are ways to begin to overcome it or at least manage the effects if you are suffering.
How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome
Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix, no Imposter Syndrome treatment out there in the shape of a pill or a jab. Overcoming Imposter Syndrome starts exactly where it lives…in the mind! Let’s beginning with learning to recognise it.
Much like the advice we gave for how to handle writer burnout, the first step to dealing with any problem is to identify what that problem is. That means asking yourself a few questions:
Do you constantly compare yourself to others? Do you sometimes find it difficult to celebrate the success of your peers? Do you experience self-doubt more regularly than most? Do you self-sabotage? Do you have a poor understanding of your own skills and competence? Are you consistently hard on yourself? Do you attribute success to external things like luck, or being in the right place at the right time? Are you constantly afraid of letting people down or failing to live up to expectations? Do you set extremely high goals for yourself and get disappointed when you can’t meet them?
These could all be examples of Imposter Syndrome, which can be driven by a number of things: existing personality traits, a competitive environment, stress, and even your upbringing and childhood experiences. Recognising that you’re struggling and being able to put a name to your symptoms can be empowering and enable you to take the next step after recognition: tackling the problem.
But how do you treat Imposter Syndrome? Well, there are a number of things you can do.
Stop Thinking About it
Quite literally, stop.
I know, I know. If it was that easy, you wouldn’t be here, right? Telling someone to ‘stop thinking about it’ when they are in the middle of an anxiety attack or genuine crisis is not the most sympathetic thing a person can do and trust me - I’ve been on the receiving end of many well-meaning comments along those lines.
But bear with me, because in dark times when I question my place at The Table, I’ve found that the quickest and most successful way out of my funk is to literally stop thinking about it. Stop dead, switch that part of my brain right off. I’m aware that spiralling into self-doubt is not helpful, and while it is understandable and natural and not really something we invite or anticipate, I also know that thinking about my own inadequacies obsessively is a poor use of my time and limited energy. So, I try to stop. I try to identify when I’m trapped in a downward spiral.
There are a number of ways I do this, but most of them involve me physically changing my situation by going for a walk, going into another room, getting away from my desk and making a coffee, listening to music, taking a shower, sometimes even having a nap or putting a movie on to distract myself from the looming sense of worthlessness. Once I have broken the cognitive loop and given my brain a desperately needed break, I find it is easier to move onto other, healthier ways of thinking.
This one involves you making a deliberate and mental shift in your thinking every time fraud syndrome strikes. I call it reframing, and it can be as simple as reversing the narrative when you catch yourself having thoughts of self-doubt, for example: instead of thinking ‘I don’t belong at this table,’ you deliberately decide to adjust your thinking to ‘I deserve my place at this table, because I have worked hard for it’. And just to be clear: we all deserve a place at the table, despite what you may hear, have been taught, or be led to believe. This article talks about how women and women of colour suffer more from Imposter Syndrome than other peers due to societal imbalances and prejudice and is an interesting (if somewhat depressing) read.
While positive thinking cannot, sadly, help with systemic discrimination in the workplace or within your chosen career, it can help lighten your mental burden a little if you are prone to being consistently hard on yourself. Even if you know, deep down, that you don’t believe the more positive statements you are forcing yourself to say, over time, continuously retraining your internal narrative can have a rather dramatic effect on your ability to shrug off Imposter Syndrome.
Instead of focussing on the things you can’t do, it forces you to recognise the things you can. Put simply: if you switch your focus actively from the negative to the positive, the chances are you’ll feel better in yourself and more confident in your own abilities as a result.
Recognise the Difference Between Being Humble and Self-Loathing
Us writers are a very self-aware bunch, but sadly many of us have grown up in a world where self-deprecation is more acceptable than tooting our own horn. This industry is especially harsh on anyone crowing too loudly. But there’s a fine line between being wry about yourself and continuously running yourself down. Indulging in some affirmative behaviour might not come naturally, and feels awkward at the best of times, but it has benefits.
Meditation and Mantras
Positive thinking is often the starting point in a healthier self-fulfilling cycle – but these aren’t easy to do alone so try a meditation app or looking up some positive/self-affirming mantras.
Establish Healthy Habits
If you are prone to anxiety-induced self-doubt, cutting back on stimulants (coffee, sugar, alcohol) and getting as much sleep and exercise in as you can, will calm the body…and the mind. Maybe combine yoga and running with a podcast on positivity or author success stories to inspire you (if they don’t make you feel worse)!
Track Your Successes
I know it’s weird, but I track everything. Every single thing. Pages read in Kindle Unlimited. Royalties earned. Copies sold. New followers on social media. Subscribers to my newsletter. Reviews on Goodreads or Amazon.
For some, this might be extreme and perhaps a tad pitiful, but for me, the metrics serve as reference points for when I’m wildly spiralling into the depths of despair. In particular, I like to make a point of looking at how far I’ve come since I began my journey as a writer. The benefit of statistics is that it is extremely easy to see at a glance how much progress you’ve made.
When my first book came out it sold tiny numbers of copies in its first few months, (although I still considered it amazing that anyone bought a copy at all). Over the years the book has performed steadily, until the number of copies sold tipped over into the thousands. This was a benchmark that was hard for my brain to argue with - looking at demonstrable growth helped with my feelings of inadequacy.
In times of severe self-doubt, focusing on measurables rather than the sensation of being under qualified or fraudulent made a big difference. Also: spreadsheets and graphs are amazing confidence boosters and I’ll die on that small, unimpressive hill.
Build a Network of Other Creatives
This is probably the most important one for me. Surrounding yourself with supportive creatives who understand what Imposter Syndrome feels like and can not only commiserate, but also bash you around the head affectionately with a pillow and tell you how silly you are being, is everything.
You are more likely to be understood by another person within your industry than by other friends and relatives, who perhaps won’t understand as much about the stresses and pressures of a creative career as you would like them to.
There’s a wonderful community of folk out there who are more than happy to hold you up when you’re feeling down, and I have become a lot less shy about asking my peers for support with severe imposter syndrome, which they are happy to give.
It’s vital, when you are stuck on a project that is making you think negatively about yourself, to keep writing. Some find that having more than one project on the go at once helps as you always have something left to pin your hopes on.
You may also wish to get other authors and reviewers whom you trust to beta-read your latest works (if and when they have time). It certainly helps me with self-doubt, because their fair, balanced feedback not only motivates me, but also helps to improve my writing - which is a win-win.
Take Your Seat at the Table
Hopefully, knowing you’re not alone when it comes to the struggles of Imposter Syndrome is helpful, as is the knowledge that it’s an unfortunate but natural part of a demanding writing career full of highs and lows, stresses and uncertainties.
Being able to cognitively drag your brain away from negative thoughts and learning to lean on like-minded people, as well as employ positive self-talk and thinking wherever possible, should help you through the darkest days and hopefully, diminish the symptoms a little.
And remember: the feelings of worthlessness do not tally up with the actual evidence of your abilities. That nasty voice in your head can’t be trusted. So the best thing to do is ignore it and keep writing. You’ve earned your spot at the table - it’s time for you to pull up a chair and get comfortable.
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