Katerina Bryant on the origins of 'imposter syndrome' and how to believe in your words.
It’s unlikely that, as a person of the internet, you haven’t come across the term ‘Imposter Syndrome’. Whether a syndrome or otherwise, imposterism is the idea that you’re a fraud, an untalented schmuck who has managed to con their way into a successful career. We’ve all felt it – you’re the only person in the room who hasn’t read War and Peace or that your grasp on commas is not what it should be. While acknowledging your weaknesses is one thing, imposterism is the idea that you don’t belong because of your inadequacies.
Originally, imposter syndrome was seen as an experience limited to professional women but after further research, psychology professor Pauline Rose Clance has said everyone is likely to feel like an imposter at some point. Imposter syndrome is a phenomenon that runs rampant throughout the writing community, seemingly crushing emerging and established writers alike.
Phenomenal poet and writer Maya Angelou has discussed her experiences with imposter syndrome publically, saying, “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.’” Despite her overwhelming success she’s not alone in her fears. Tina Fey has said she, too, has experienced imposter syndrome vacillating between “a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud’’ and ‘extreme egomania’”. Neil Gaiman says he also has been touched by “the unshakeable conviction that you are getting away with something.”
Psychologist/imposter syndrome expert, Pauline Rose Clance has even said that in a way it can be a positive trait. “Most high-IP (imposter phenomenon) people that I have worked with are liked and respected and they’re competent,” she says in an interview with Slate, “The humility that IP people have can be appealing.”
So while you may feel like a fraud, it’s likely you’re more than competent and at the same time, conveying a humility that endears you to your peers. Imposterism can also allow writers to garner their energy and humility and channel it into improving their work.
Yet, constant self-doubt and questioning your writing can be debilitating. Nothing keeps a word count down like believing you can’t write. Imposterism rears its ugly head especially when it comes to tasks that demand confidence, like pitching a book to a publisher or giving a lecture to fellow writers. So here are a few strategies to conquer that feeling of being the only person in the room who doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
1. Remember you’re not alone
Name it for what it is – something that everyone will experience at one time or another. Your concerns, especially if they lean towards harsh self-doubt, aren’t productive. “Many people can live with it, and it changes as they get experience in a job,” says Clance. “Often knowing that a lot of other people experience it is helpful.”
2. Make yourself a success file
JK Rowling pinned her first rejection letter to her kitchen wall, telling her Twitter followers that, “it gave me something in common with all my fave writers!” Stephen King has said something similar: “By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing”. While these stories of writers persevering in the face of rejection are certainly inspiring, pinning rejection letters around your home isn’t the kindest thing to do to yourself. Especially if you’re struggling with imposter syndrome.
A great solution, and one that many writers have begun to do, is creating a success file (or what I call a ‘fuzzy good feelings file’). It can be physical or a folder on your computer, but collect the comments that have made you smile you’ve received from mentors, friends and peers. When you’re feeling particularly fraudulent, have a look at the successes you’ve achieved so far.
3. Talk to your parent/partner/friends/dog/writers group
Find your support network, whether that’s a fellow writer or a friend, and keep them close. Voice your concerns, of course, but also listen to your support networks. They probably feel the same way. So practise telling each other you’re being ridiculous and move on.
If you feel like you don’t have anyone you can reach out to, at Writers Bloc we specialise in creating and connecting community. Sign up to our workshop function where you can share your work and receive feedback and support from your peers.
4. Prove yourself wrong
Perhaps, despite all of the positive thoughts you’re channelling, a bursting kind file and your writer friend on speed dial, you might still feel like a fraud at that next mixer you force yourself to go to. That’s okay. As long as you keep writing, one day you’ll prove yourself wrong.
Have you struggled with imposter syndrome? Let us know how you've overcome self-doubt in the comments. And if you're keen on community, sign up to the Bloc workshop function to receive feedback on your work and connect with fellow writers.
Katerina Bryant is a writer based in Adelaide. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Griffith Review, Kill Your Darlings and The Lifted Brow, amongst others. She edits nonfiction for Voiceworks and Antic New Writing. Her essay, ‘A Pig in Mud’ was shortlisted for the 2016 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. She tweets at @katerina_bry.