Imposter Syndrome and authors: how being so hard on yourself is hurting your writing  

At some point, these people are going to realise I am a phoney, I thought sadly, as I flipped back through the pages of my newly published anthology. The cover shone with that new book sheen, the pages were crisp and the spine bore my name. All of my lifelong desires sat there in my hands, dreams manifested into reality, metaphysical to physical via one papery oblong form: my book. I was finally a published author!  

And yet.

And yet, all I could do was leaf through the pages with a heart heavy as a stone, desperately scanning the words for errors, wincing at phrases I suddenly found uncomfortable or clumsy, and squirming as I thought of a better way to write this sentence, or that paragraph. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps, just perhaps, I did not deserve this book. That my hard work was misplaced, and somehow inauthentic. The thought became a certainty, and the certainty gestated, morphed, split the sheath of its skin, emerged, larger, hungrier, and slowly became a huge, terrifying beast that chewed hungrily at the back of my mind: you aren’t good enough, it said, as it ate, ravenous. Give up now. Everyone will laugh at you.

You will fail.

This, my friends, is called Imposter Syndrome, and boy, it’s a bitch.

How do you know if you have Imposter Syndrome?  

A caveat (everything I write is riddled with caveats, this post is no exception): I am not a psychologist or mental health expert, I am a writer with an interest in the topic. So the following is a personal take on a commonly spoken about psychological phenomena that affects writers, and is not intended to sound official, or to be grounded in anything other than anecdote.

So, with this aside, how do you know if you are suffering from Imposter Syndrome?

Let me tell you how it feels from this end. There is an amazing scene in an episode of Family guy where Peter Griffin finds himself in front of an electric keyboard in a music shop.

imposter syndrome is a bitchThe keyboard comes with a pre-loaded demo mode (remember those? Oh, Casio). He presses the button, and mimes playing a happy tune. He’s enjoying himself, having fun, no harm done. A guy wanders up, watches him, impressed, and then collapses into self-righteous anger as he realises Peter is not, in fact, playing the keyboard, only miming. This guy then becomes a running joke, following Peter around all episode, shouting ‘Hey, you’re a phoney! This guy’s a GREAT BIG FAT PHONEY!’

Questionable use of pop-culture to illustrate my point aside, this is what imposter syndrome feels like, to me. It feels like an angry, disappointed dude with a megaphone trailing around after you on a twenty-four seven basis, shouting about your failures to anyone who will hear. That guy is, in reality, your subconscious, I think, working through the fear that inevitably comes with being a creative person who gives birth to things out in public, onto the big wide world stage, the logical progression of which is critique, both good and bad.

But don’t let my take on this lead you in anyway. I asked my friends, peers and followers on Twitter to describe how it felt in a single sentence,

and this is what they said:

imposter syndrome explained

Now, just read through all of those. It’s utterly heartbreaking, isn’t it?

(FYI, if you’ve gotten this far in the post and are having any thoughts along the lines of ‘oh cheer up,’ or ‘oh my god these people are just snowflakes’ or ‘fuck sake, aren’t there more important things going on in the world?’ then you can gladly leave the room, the door is over there, watch it doesn’t hit you on the arse as you go. Seriously. Go on. ‘Bye.)

The full tweet is here, if you want to read all of the responses, as there were too many to show in this post .

The point I’m trying to make is that Imposter Syndrome affects everyone differently, and also: you are not alone. This is very important, because sometimes, the act of discussing how you feel with others who feel the same is hugely cathartic and helpful. Some of the tweets above are from writers and creators in my circle that I admire enormously, and even the big hitters, the literary megastars, the celebrities and moghuls experience these feelings, as so eloquently described by the mighty Neil Gaiman himself.

Understanding that you aren’t alone is, and can be, very useful in tackling Imposter Syndrome.

Putting yourself on the page: why imposter syndrome stalks writers

So why do we seem to get it so bad? Well, I guess it’s not rocket-science. The very nature of being a writer is that you open yourself up to critique. That in itself makes your chances of becoming overwhelmed with these feelings much more likely. Combine this with the ready-made pressures of our digital society, where carefully curated social media personalities are our new currency, and the constant strain of living up to that hype is exhausting. You are essentially opening the door for anxiety just by trying to be who you want to be. Add to this the immediate cruelty of others, who can, with a casually composed tweet, tear down a person’s confidence in seconds, and it’s understandable why those in creative industries sometimes buckle under the weight of everything.

There is a flipside to this, however, which helps me sometimes: if you don’t put yourself out there, then you don’t feel like an imposter, because you have created nothing around which this feeling can feed.

To break it down even further (in a moment I am going to start thanking you all for attending my TED talk):

If you do nothing, take no risks at all, then you might feel ‘safe’ from the fear of failure. But your burning desire to write or draw or sing or act or cook or create anything at all just cannot be squashed, and this is something that we forget, all the time. We need to write, and that is BRILLIANT. Why don’t we appreciate this, more? You fucking wrote something! You put it out there, for people to see! That is a wonderful, sparkling, nuclear flash of brilliance and it should be enjoyed for what it is- your creativity spreading its wings. Regardless of how it feels, afterwards, the important thing is that you did it in the first place. Many others, don’t. Remember that.

This is all well and good, but Imposter Syndrome is a complicated demon. For writers, it presents itself in a number of ways that really fuck with our actual, you know, writing:

  • Procrastination
  • Obsessive self-editing and critique
  • Writing yourself into a loop
  • Abandoning projects
  • Having difficulty plotting
  • Losing a character’s ‘voice’
  • Continually comparing your work to your contemporaries
  • Chastising yourself for being unoriginal
  • Eating too many biscuits
  • Drinking gin angrily (to be honest, I know no other way)

So how do you defeat imposter syndrome? Killing the monster in your brain

Have you seen the Babadook? If not, the film is about a small boy and his mother battling with grief. They are terrorised by the Babadook, a horrifying fictional boogeyman that eats away at their sanity and reason, ruins their day to day lives, their relationship with others, and stops them from moving forward. Sound familiar?

the babadook as a metaphor for grief The Babadook, in this instance, is a metaphor for grief and trauma, but what interests me about this example is how the Mother character, Amelia, defeats the beast destroying her future (spoiler alert).

She doesn’t.

What? I hear you think? What are you blithering on about now, Amor? (Blither is a grossly underused non-word and I love it).

What happens at the end is a dramatic confrontation, sure. Amelia faces the Babadook head on, and her fear and trauma turns to rage, and a desperate need for survival. After this, however, there is a plot-twist. We see Amelia and her son Samuel happy once again, healing, going on with their lives. And then we see that Amelia has not banished the Babadook from her life, but rather, it now lives, locked in the basement, where she visits it, feeds it, and there is a truce, a bit like Simon Pegg playing video games with Nick Frost at the end of Shaun of the Dead (we were getting a little serious, after all).

I guess what I am trying to say is that this feeling will probably, for many of us, never go away. Every success will feed it further, and every failure validate it thus.

But, it is possible to acknowledge this as part of the life-cycle of a writer. It’s possible to acknowledge that it comes with the territory, is part of the day job, and may never ever go away. So, with that realisation, comes the next stage: if I can’t defeat the monster in my brain, can I at least lock him away, out of sight, in the basement? Might that be enough to get me through?

Still with me? Good, in that case, I’ll finish this existential ramble by listing my ways of tackling Imposter Syndrome in the hope that they might help you, too:

  • Go and find your champions.

I don’t mean your Nan. My Nan is my biggest champion, but I’ve been trained from birth to roll my eyes every time she throws praise my way (I’m British, afterall, we don’t do compliments very well, which I guess is part of the problem). BUT there will be a core team of people who are on your side, and who think you are great, so go and find them and get that ego massaged a little. Explain the predicament you are in, and try and enjoy their support for what it is: they think you rock, so that’s good, isn’t it?

  • Take a break

There is no point trying to continue on through intense feelings of fraudulence and confusion. So, take a break. Step away for a while, go for a walk, listen to some good music, watch a movie, maybe even read an old, favourite book and try to recapture that love and magic that you have for the craft, just a little- not by comparing yourself to others, but by simply enjoying something for what it is. The world will not end if you do not finish your word-count for the day. Maybe even have a gin and tonic, but not too many- take it from me.

  • DON’T READ REVIEWS

Good reviews, or bad reviews. Just don’t. I don’t mean ever. I just mean when you are wracked with self-doubt. WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS TO YOURSELF? It’s like texting that person you know you shouldn’t text, it’s like rubbing acid into an open wound- stop it! Immediately! Don’t make me come over there, or I will put you over my knee, I swear. Put the reviews down.

  • Consider taking a social media break

You’re an adult, you know why. Social media is poison, sometimes- cut it out of your life for a while, and let your poor, tired, over-stimulated brain rest a bit.

  • Find a beta-reader and/or a mentor

You know that person whose work you really admire? They had to start somewhere too, and the chances are, they will be sympathetic to your plight. Maybe they can critique something you wrote. This can be a great confidence booster but also just REALLY helpful in making you a better writer. In all likelihood, they have also experienced feelings of Imposterhood (I’m going to start a new society, the Imposterhood, sticker designs welcome) and can also talk to you about it in helpful ways. (Another caveat: don’t take it to heart if that person has too much on to critique your work. There will always be someone else.)

  • KEEP GOING (ONCE YOU’VE HAD A REST)

This goes back to my Babadook point above. So you feel like you don’t deserve any of this?

So what?

Fuck it, keep going anyway! I know I’m shit at running, but it doesn’t stop me from putting on my trainers and my too-tight leggings and going for a jog, because I want to stay fit, not win the Olympics. So you might not win a literary prize or sell millions of copies of your books, but who cares? You write because you love to. Don’t let anything interfere with that, not least, yourself, or the monster in your brain.

I hope some of this has been helpful to at least a few of you. For my part, I am a reluctantly proud member of the Imposterhood, and I don’t see it changing any time soon. And, as a friend of mine said when he read my new book, the one I had been so convinced was a sham, ‘It isn’t shit, Gemma!’, and so, with that, I crack on with the next.

If I can do it, you sure as shit can too.

2 thoughts on “Imposter Syndrome and authors: how being so hard on yourself is hurting your writing  

  1. You’ve probably heard the saying, “Everyone is faking it.” Well, I’m old enough now to believe it true. So, anytime I think I have no idea what I am doing, I remind myself neither does anyone else. And then I do it anyway. Great article!

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