by Ruth Harris
What? There’s an upside to Impostor Syndrome?
A sane, healthy mid-point exists between being stalled out by Impostor Syndrome and obnoxious, raging egomania so rancid even your dog hates you.
Authentic modesty keeps you real — and productive.
A certain degree of Impostor Syndrome can be the necessary spur that motivates you to work harder and get better.
It can give you the energy to try again — even if you’re on the umpteenth effin draft of the d*mn chapter and you still can’t get it right. (Until you do.)
Impostor Syndrome — call it discontent — can propel you toward trying harder or trying again — persistent effort that might reveal ability even you didn’t know you had.
Or as writer Molly Fischer put it, “Impostor Syndrome gets a bad rap. It’s the flame that burns beneath my ass, the constant low hum of anxiety forcing me to do stuff before anyone notices all the stuff I have not done and feel pretty certain I can’t do.”
- 1) A sane amount of Impostor Syndrome can be a great motivator that will goad you to constantly improve. You will be encouraged to try harder. Try again. Try more effectively.
- 2) A soupçon of Impostor Syndrome is one aspect of having and maintaining a healthy perspective toward yourself and your work.
- 3) Controlled amounts of Impostor Syndrome will allow you to accept — and profit from — constructive criticism.
- 4) Your own personal, leashed, Impostor Syndrome keeps you from developing a bloated ego that will trip you up and get in your way.
Even so, who the bleep are you?
You’ve got an agent, a publisher, you’ve successfully self-published and even hit some bestseller lists. You are querying and receive an impressive number of requests for full manuscripts, but haven’t hit the bull-eye. Yet.
Three cheers! You’ve arrived, you’re about to arrive, and you have reason to feel good about yourself, but you don’t. Why not?
But why the gnawing anxiety?
Why the unsettling feeling that you’re a fake and a phony and that your con will be revealed any moment?
Even though there’s external proof of your achievement.
Why, instead of feeling at ease with your accomplishments, do you attribute your them to random accident, dumb luck or even the outcome of the Red Sox game?
Here’s one answer to the eternal question, why?
It takes the subconscious — where the work *really* comes from — time to process and synthesize ideas and info. It’s not a controllable, linear activity and is often invisible — even to the writer.
What a great idea! Where did that come from?
Did I write that?
No wonder we tend to be prey to Impostor Syndrome.
Psychologists call this irrational response Impostor Syndrome, which they define as a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite credible evidence to the contrary.
Do You Have Impostor Syndrome? Three Tip-offs:
1) “This old thing?”
You can’t take a compliment.
“I loved your book!” your reader says.
You think (or or even say) “It was nothing.”
Or you shrug off another reader’s praise.
“Anyone could have written it.”
Or you fend off approval, and shrug.
“It was nothing. I lucked into it.”
2) I’m a faker and a phony and pretty soon everyone will find out.
You worry you’re not a “real writer” and you’re afraid you will not live up to expectations or the standards you’ve set for yourself.
There’s fear that your next book won’t be as good as your publisher/agent/readers expects.
You imagine your publisher will dump you.
Your agent ditto.
And that readers will trash your book, hate your characters, plot, and setting.
You try to brace yourself for what you’re sure will be an avalanche of rejection, set-backs, and disappointment.
3) I got lucky.
You tell yourself — and others — that your so-called “success” was a fluke, a one-time, one-in-a-million moon shot that will never happen again.
It wasn’t you, but a magical, once-in-a-thousand-years alignment of the stars.
You can’t believe that what you did is actually real.
Or you don’t think you deserve it — not that award, that juicy check, that great review.
You know, just know, that when “they” find out, they will take back their praise, that award, that spot on the bestseller list, that promise of a bright future.
Dr. Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford, traces this syndrome to a common parenting mistake. Well-meaning parents often praise kids with comments like “You’re so smart!” or “You’re so pretty!”
These labels, while intended to be complimentary, can backfire. “You’re smart” implies that “smart” is a you’ve-got-it-or-you-don’t characteristic, an accident of birth.
As a consequence, whenever “the smart one” makes a mistake, gets a B instead of an A, the overpraised child questions her/himself.
“If I got a B on this tough history exam, then maybe I’m not so smart. Mom and Dad must be wrong.”
Which means that their “praise” is wrong — thus establishing the basis for Impostor Syndrome in later life.
It’s not just you.
Accomplished and famous people can fall prey to self-doubt. Screenwriter Chuck Lorre, best-selling writer Neil Gaiman, best-selling writer John Green, U.S. Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, and actress Emma Watson have all reportedly fallen prey to Impostor Syndrome.
Best selling novelist Maya Angelou:
“I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”
“Writing is always full of self-doubt, but the first book Torch is really full of self-doubt, and it was much more of a struggle to keep the faith. By the time I wrote Wild, I was familiar with that feeling of doubt and self-loathing, so I just thought, ‘Okay, this is how it feels to write a book.’”
Sheryl Sandberg, author of the bestseller, Lean In:
“Every time I was called on in class, I was sure that I was about to embarrass myself. Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself—or even excelled—I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up… “
7 negative real-life consequences of Impostor Syndrome
In its most basic form, impostor syndrome results in your doubting yourself and finding yourself trapped in a constant, exhausting internal struggle between your desire for achievement and your efforts not to be “found out.”
The consequence is that you can find yourself stuck in a cruel cycle of self-sabotage.
- 1) Every 4 or 5-star review, every word of praise can buoy your ego — or cause you to dread that others will discover the “real truth” about your abilities.
- 2) Each negative review causes you to feel as if your con has been discovered, and you wither from fear of public humiliation.
- 3) In an acute form, Impostor Syndrome can result in a complete refusal to engage creatively. You feel blocked, and you are unable to write.
- 4) In another variation, impostor syndrome may cause you to get stuck in an endless, destructive up-and-down mood swings in which self-confidence is replaced by self-doubt and so on. You ride the roller coaster until you’re exhausted. You’re burned out and feel trapped, paralyzed, and unable to move on.
- 5) Your insecurity and fear of being exposed causes you to strive for “perfection.” You edit perfectly good work over and over. And over again because you see problems where they don’t exist or because whatever you’ve done is never “good enough.”
- 6) You trudge from beta readers to your crit group to your editor. Each makes different — and conflicting — comments. The result is that you don’t know who — or what — to believe. You no longer know what to do or where to begin, and your confusion ends in inhibition that prevents from you finishing your book or from starting the next one.
- 7) You miss opportunities because you feel inadequate. You’re convinced you won’t measure up. You’re invited to speak at a writers’ conference but turn down the invitation, thus missing the chance to meet other writers who admire your work or become supportive, an agent who might become your fiercest advocate, or even Mr. or Ms. Right.
7 positive ways to deal with Impostor Syndrome.
Impostor Syndrome doesn’t just afflict writers. It lurks everywhere from fancy executive suites to honor roll students to the 100 most successful lists. It’s not often discussed because each “winner,” fearing discovery, feels s/he is keeping a shameful secret.
You might feel alone and isolated but don’t forget that feeling like an impostor doesn’t necessarily have much to do with what you have or haven’t done. It has to do with how you feel, and there are ways to help yourself escape the clutches of dreaded Impostor Syndrome because IS can be turned into confidence. IS is not something you’re stuck with and you’re not its helpless prisoner.
Controlled Impostor Syndrome will lead to productivity
Perfectionism associated with IS can be the foundation of high quality and, well resolved, will help you attend thoughtfully to your crit group’s or ed’s suggestions.
Besides just a touch of IS will help you be rehearse more often, over-research so that you will better prepared for that speech/ interview/ personal appearance / autograph session.
1) Ask for help from another writer.
- Struggling with the learning curve?
- Don’t know what you’re doing?
- Feel like a dope?
- A loser?
- Check it out with another writer. They might have struggled with some of the same issues that are undermining you and can often provide helpful perspective.
2) Help another writer.
- You’ll be surprised by how much you know. When you reach out to help another writer who complains of being blocked or stuck or unsure, you gain perspective and can even realize how far you’ve come.
- Forgive me, for I have sinned.
- Or, have I?
- Admit your doubts to a trusted friend, spouse or roommate. Someone with an outside perspective can very often offer a bracing jolt of balance and reality.
4) Read your 5-star reviews.
- People have read your book/short story/novella and (quite a few of them) love it and understand exactly what you were trying to say. They “get” you and their praise can mitigate the raw edges of self-doubt.
5) Read your 1-star reviews.
- One-star reviews offer a bracing counter-narrative that can help you keep it real. Sometimes, someone who didn’t like your book will even offer helpful comments. If their comments resonate with something you yourself have been wondering about, use their observations to revise or rethink.
6) Give yourself permission to stink up the place.
- So what you wrote is lousy? So what?
- David Carr, editor and mentor, advised: “Keep typing until it turns into writing.”
- Don’t forget that if you don’t write it, you can’t fix it.
- The author Anne Lamott titles every new work “Sh*tty First Draft.”
- Ernest Hemingway said “All first drafts are shit.”
- And you think you’re better than they are? C’mon. Get real.
7) Face down Impostor Syndrome and take charge.
- If your struggle with Impostor Syndrome feels permanent—
- If your self-doubt lasts over a lengthy period of time—
- Or if writer insecurity is crippling your energy or creativity—
- Now is the time a consultation with a therapist/counsellor/coach can make a significant difference.
- It’s your career. Putting Impostor Syndrome into healthy perspective is worth the investment.
- Isn’t it?
Beware: Impostor Syndrome can make you vulnerable to scammers
The feeling that “I’m a fraud” can open a writer to wanting to place his career in the hands of one of those persistent scammers who promise the moon & help to get there. Don’t let yourself fall into the thinking pattern: “I’m a failure, a fraud, but ScamX will give me the assurance I so desperately need.”
It won’t. It will only lighten your wallet and leave you feeling worse than before. Join a writers support group like the ones listed here. You’ll find Impostor Syndrome hits us all at one point or another.
What about you, scriveners? Do you think you have Impostor Syndrome? Do you worry you’re not a real writer? (Click here for more on being a “real writer” .) Do you see how your self-doubt can make you a better writer? If you had Impostor Syndrome some time in the past, how did you fight it?
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