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Imposter Syndrome and You – A Guide

Imposter Syndrome – What is it?

Imposter Syndrome – “First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s, impostor phenomenon occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.” (https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud)

Imposter Syndrome. That sinking feeling that you don’t belong in a group, that they are just humouring you by letting you sit at the table. The little lying voice in the back of your mind that says you aren’t good enough, you aren’t smart enough, you don’t belong.

Sound familiar?

Every single creative person I’ve met has experienced this at some point in their life. I get it, writing is hard. Making a plot cohesive, a character likeable but flawed… it’s tougher than it sounds on the surface. It’s easy for feelings of inadequacy to pop up when you start running into roadblocks, when goals aren’t met. 

It doesn’t matter if you know that little voice lies, the little tentacles imposter syndrome sinks into you are insidious and hard to shake. The emotions of failure are there, and they are a lot harder to disentangle. But it can be done! Let’s look at the five types of imposter syndrome, what each looks like to a writer, and how to overcome them.

The Five Types of Imposter Syndrome

In her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Valerie Young proposed five subtypes of Imposter Syndrome.

The Perfectionist

    That person who is never satisfied with the quality of their work, who has trouble focusing on the good they’ve produced, being only able to see the flaws. They set high goals for themselves, then beat themselves up for not meeting them. They feel like an imposter because to them, their work is garbage.

    In writing, this is the person who isn’t ready to share a piece until it’s on it’s 7th draft and has been through a dozen revisions. They won’t feel like a ‘real writer’’ until they’ve published a dozen novels, been traditionally published, won an award, or some other self imposed goal.

How to overcome being a Perfectionist Imposter

Learn to let go. It’s hard, but you’ve got to let a project go out into the world, whether that tiny voice is telling you it’s ready or not. I’m not saying to toss a rough draft out into the world, of course not. But after a revision or two it’s time to let someone you trust read your piece and let you know their honest opinion. If they tell you there are things to be fixed, don’t take that as a personal attack. Writing is a process, you know this. So let it be a process, and remember that there is such a thing as ‘good enough’.

The Superwoman/man

    This person sits in a meeting and volunteers for every extra task, just to prove to themselves that they’ve earned their spot at the table. They compare themselves to others constantly and measure success by looking at how much more they are doing compared to others.

    In writing this may be the person who is focused on quantity – number of books, number of rewards, number of five star reviews. They push themselves to unhealthy limits to write another scene, another paragraph. They volunteer for guest blog posts when they’ve got a deadline looming, because they need to feel like they are producing enough content to be valid.

How to overcome being a Superwoman/man Imposter

    Work/Life Balance. It’s not just a fancy phrase. This kind of writer needs to set boundaries for themselves and hold to them. Evaluate the workload and ask yourself if sometimes is really worth taking on. But most importantly remember – You are more than your output. Celebrate your achievements, no matter how big or small. Take a step back and ask yourself – If you don’t take on this project, is it really failing? Talk it out with a friend or partner if you have trouble being objective about how much you are taking on.

The Natural Genius

    Hello, former ‘gifted children’. And hello people who expect to pick up a new skill with minimal effort. This person is used to handling things on their own with minimal help, and resents it when someone steps in to try and teach them. They focus on the “how” and “when” of skill acquisition – how fast they took, when will they see results. They feel like an imposter when it takes ‘too long’ to achieve their goals, or when they aren’t seeing fast results in a new project.

    In writing, the natural expert sets high standards for their work, and gets frustrated when their novel isn’t the same quality as those winning all the awards. They expect their writing to not need much revision, and are likely to abandon a piece when they find it needs lots of work. 

How to overcome being a Natural Genius Imposter

    Go easy on yourself.  Writing is a skill, a tough one, and you need to take pity on yourself and not expect to learn how to write in a month. Find a writing group that can support you when you are feeling down, and can share tips on how to improve in a non-judgemental way. It’s a marathon, not a race.

The Soloist

    This person cares about the “who”. Who is doing the work? You, with no help. It only counts if you finished a project all by yourself, right? The only way to prove your worth? If you get help, the other person might as well get full credit. This person sees getting help as a sure sign of failure, and will turn it out if offered.

For writing, this is the person who won’t ask for brainstorming help when they are stuck, and who has difficulty taking feedback on their writing. The soloist may be likely to self publish. And self edit, with a self-made cover, no beta readers. Any help is bad, right?

How to overcome being a Soloist Imposter

    Talk it out. Learn to reach out to others, to share and pool both knowledge and resources. It may bruise your ego at first, but you will find that everyone else is on the same learning path as you, and that we all have natural strengths and weaknesses when it comes to writing. We can help each other! Writing may seem like a solo activity, but finding a good writing group will take your work to a whole new level.

The Expert

    This person wants to know anything. Not knowing something is a mark of shame. They are paralyzed by a fear of not knowing that they might not start in the first place. They study, take another course, another credential, all in an effort to be an expert.

In writing, this is the person who signs up for all the workshops, who has a library of craft books, all read and annotated. They are thinking of going back for an MFA, just to really prove to themselves that they know their stuff. They may also suffer from Worldbuilders disease. Can they really start writing until they know the full history of a war that ended 800 years ago, which is only mentioned once in passing?

How to overcome being an Expert Imposter

    Just start. While it’s true that there is always something else to learn, it’s not true that you need to know it all right now. Have you heard of Pantsing? It’s a term that came out of National Novel Writing Month, it means ‘to write by the seat of your pants’, ie. to start writing without outlining. And guess what? Not only are many successful authors pantsers, but you can’t tell a pantsed novel from a fully planned one! I’m not saying you have to throw out all your notes, I’m saying it is possible to write without having knowledge of everything in your story. Just start writing!

General Tips for Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

  • Talk to people! – Not just about your feeling of being an imposter, but about the problems you are having with writing, ask for help, offer support, pool your knowledge. We all have weaknesses, you probably have knowledge that can help someone else, and vice versa.
  • Acknowledge your feelings – They aren’t just phantoms in your mind, while they may not be rational, they are real. Ask yourself why you are feeling like an imposter, and you can start to change your feelings to something less harmful.
  • Correct your thinking – When you find yourself in your loop – ‘I’m not learning fast enough’, ‘if I ask for help I’m a failure’ – recognize those thoughts and stop them in their tracks. Recognizing them is the first step to eliminating them, so try and pay attention when you start to feel down.
  • Celebrate the successes – Celebrate all your successes, from your writing accomplishments to your work life. But also celebrate recognizing your emotional state, celebrate the efforts you are making to change your own mind. It takes strength to do that, and deserves to be celebrated!
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