Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Coping with Impostor Syndrome

by Laura Mahal

Most of us, at some point, doubt our abilities—as artists, athletes, parents, or community leaders—causing us to experience something known as “Impostor Syndrome.” 

We wonder if we deserve the accolades rained upon us . . . Are we, in fact, nothing but a fraud? A shyster, who has managed to convince others that we’re more than we can ever hope to be? 

It’s a common enough feeling. Statistically, seventy percent of us will experience this in our lifetimes. 

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Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great. I have written eleven books, but each time I think, "Uh oh, they're going to find me out."

--- Maya Angelou

Fame is not a shield. 

The list of celebrities and writers who have suffered from Impostor Syndrome is long: from Neil Gaiman to Maya Angelou, Emma Watson to Kate Winslet, Tina Fey to Tom Hanks.  

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I think the most creative people veer between ambition and anxiety, 
self-doubt, and confidence . . . We all go through that. 

--- Daniel Radcliffe

How does one fight the overwhelming tide of self-doubt, guilt, and despair that starts to shut down our abilities to function? 

  1. Look at how far you’ve come. Think about where your writing was a year or two ago, versus now. Have you attended conferences? Taken classes? Chances are you’ve advanced your skill set. 

  2. Find your people. A critique group can lift you up when you’re feeling down, and give you a “kick in the pants” as needed. Published authors frequently relay that having a community is key to their success. Don't try to go it alone.

  3. Don’t equate your rate of acceptances / requests to anyone else’s journey. Some people are more prolific. Some are less confident about putting their work into the world. All of us can find a seat at the table—as long as we never retire our pen or hurl our laptop across the room. 

  4. Keep a spreadsheet as to what you’ve written and where you’ve submitted. Celebrate rejections as well as acceptances. Did an agent take the time to email you a personalized “pass”? That a certain piece isn’t for them, but they’d like you to send more work? Then do it! Write more. Query again. Definitely keep a "compliment file."

  5. Do your best to internalize what others are telling you. Perhaps you excel at characterization but are weaker at grounding readers. Needing to work on aspects of your writing does not translate to “You’re never going to make it in this industry, so you might as well give up.” If you do hear that, take a walk, meditate, or enjoy a microbrew. Then hit the “cancel” button and reset your self-esteem. 

  6. “Fake it ‘til you make it.” This advice is not for everyone. In some cases, it could amplify a case of Impostor Syndrome. For others, it’s a great strategy. It all comes down to pushing past the voices in your head that are chipping away at your confidence. 

Writers are in this for the long haul. We go through periods where everything flows from a golden pen. At other times, we scribble in circles, the ink dried up & blotchy. We must Write On.

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The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: 'I'm a fraud! Oh God, they're on to me! I'm a fraud!'  So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it and then slide through the idea of fraud.

--- Tina Fey

There are dozens of TED talks on this subject: TED Talks: Impostor Syndrome 

More tips on How to Banish Impostor Syndrome

On why it's often even harder for minorities: When You're Treated as an Impostor

How have you dealt with Impostor Syndrome? Please leave a comment with your experiences or advice.


Steven Dunn said...

In my undergrad, I had to do the things of a writer, it was guided (which was cool). But I’d just come off of 10 years of lazing around in the Navy, also a guided thing that was easy. So I realized that my entire adult life so far was doing these easy guided things (for me, not speaking for anyone else). After I graduated in 2014, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t lying to myself about wanting to be a writer (I’ve lied to myself a lot prior), so to keep myself honest, I collected weekly data for two years on my activities: hours spent reading, writing, editing, supporting the community. And a lot of this was inspired by seeing people doing cool stuff and going hard for themselves and others. I think I’m just saying Thank You to this thing and its people for helping me be honest with myself and others.

David Sharp said...

A great checklist! Thanks for sharing, Laura.

It's so difficult not to look at that next hill and say, "That's it. When I get there, I will have arrived." The paradoxical truth is that there is no arrival, and yet we are constantly arriving in minor increments.

Wonderful post!

Laura Mahal said...

Thanks, Steven and David.

Steven, that's an amazing strategy. I would never have thought to keep track of the hours I've spent editing my own work, reviewing materials for my critique group, or reaching out to fellow writers to offer encouragement. Not to mention the time I've spent "researching" (in the library or on the Internet), or reading talented authors who inspire me to raise my game. I'm going to track these things for a few months. No doubt I really do put a great deal of time into this profession, as do my peers. And congratulations, Steven, on your many recent successes!

You as well, David. My book club picked Lost on a Page as our selection for August. They are excited to read your work, and I to share it with them, because I already know it's awesome.

shenke said...
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shenke said...

This a truism for us all! Imposter syndrome ebbs and it flows like the river winds through the canyon, but in any case, it always leads back to the source.

We are human, we are flawed, and dad-gummies (stole that from my grandmother who said ‘gummit’) we still arrive at the same place if we keep persevering. I just heard someone talk about water in particular, and how we as writers are much like the water. We move, we spread ourselves thin, and at some point we even could become a massive turbulent rapid, but in the end water gets where it wants to go!

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