Impostor syndrome. It sounds like something only a superhero would suffer from, but sadly it’s far more common. It’s a pattern of thinking where people discount their success as “luck” instead of the result of ability/effort. No matter how successful they are, they feel like a fraud and live in fear of being exposed. There’s also a nasty little side effect where the person feels like they don’t belong among other successful people in their community.
I’ve had this little problem for years, now. It first surfaced when I started having some freelancing success. When people would comment on it, I would demur and say, “Well, I’m pretty lucky, I guess.” And when others asked for advice, or for me to speak on a panel or some other “expert activity,” I would look for the exit. I didn’t feel qualified to offer advice, despite being successful.
Becoming a novelist only made things worse. I still don’t feel successful, and I never feel like I belong in a roomful of other authors. Even writing board game reviews comes with impostor syndrome. There are so many successful content creators in that arena that I never feel like I belong with them.
Which is nuts. All of it.
And yet… Despite knowing that it’s nuts, I still struggle with the idea that I am successful and “belong” in any community of other successful authors and board game content creators. (Okay, maybe I don’t belong in a roomful of James Patterson’s, John Grisham’s, and Nora Roberts’. But I certainly belong in a room with other mid-list, indie, and self-published authors.)
It’s a very limiting belief. I often find myself thinking of all the things I’d like to do/try, but I abandon the idea because I don’t feel like I’m “allowed” to do them. Everything feels stupid and silly. I feel like I’m such a fraud that if I try to reach above my station, people will laugh or make fun of my efforts. “You’re not good enough to do that,” is the thought that goes through my head every time.
Yet no one has ever said that to my face, so I know it comes from inside my head. Sure, if I try something radical there might be people who say I shouldn’t be doing that, but the odds are low. Frankly, most people are too wrapped up in their own stuff to care about what I do or do not do.
So I know I should do what I want. Take the risk, put more of myself and my work out there. But it’s hard. It’s hard to say, “You know what? I earned my success through hard work, and that qualifies me to speak about it. It also qualifies me to try new things and continue growing my career, because if some things I did were positively received, it’s likely that others will be, as well.”
Yeah, easier said than done. It’s still way easier to just hide under the bed. But I’m working on it.
I’m no psychologist so what follows isn’t medical advice. That said, here are a few thought patterns I’ve been using to combat impostor syndrome.
Realizing that I have a contribution to make.
Fine, my contribution may not be world-changing, but it’s mine to make. Everyone has a unique voice and perspective that brings things to their work that no one else can. It may not be the most significant contribution, or worthy of awards, but I can create things that at least a few other people might find valuable.
Understanding that no one else knows what the hell they’re doing, either.
If you think that the super successful people have it all figured out, you’re wrong. Even they get lost sometimes, make mistakes, and fail. Most of us are just making stuff up as we go along. It’s not like some people got a special roadmap to life that no one else got. We’re all fumbling around in the dark. The job is to make the best of it.
Realizing that growth is expected, even necessary.
If I never try new things, I can’t grow as a person and as an artist. Growth is healthy and necessary in people. The only way to grow is to try. Even super successful people are still growing. (Or at least they should be.) Sure, some things won’t work out, but there’s still growth in failure. If you don’t feel “allowed” to grow, realize that it’s necessary and healthy, permission be damned.
Hanging out with other impostors.
I’ve been hanging out with several other authors and creators who experience the same things I do. (Which could be almost anyone, the trick is finding people willing to admit it.) We talk about our feelings and remind each other that we are not frauds or impostors. We’re people who are good at what we do. A supportive group can make all the difference.
Accepting that even very successful people fail and are wrong, and it’s okay.
Everybody fails. Everybody makes mistakes, and everyone is wrong at some time or other. It’s just life. If we were all perfect, what would be the point? People screw up on the way to the top, and they screw up while they’re at the top. The key is to learn from the mistakes, failures, and wrongness. It’s okay if you don’t succeed 100% of the time. Failure doesn’t make you a fraud, it just makes you someone who dared to try.
Reminding myself that my success was not all due to luck.
Thinking that I somehow don’t deserve my success is a big limiter in my ability to move forward. But the thing is, I do deserve my success and it’s not bragging or hubris to claim it. I did the work, I put in the time to learn and practice, and I learned the business. You can argue that the opportunities I received were “lucky,” but at the same time, I’d done the preparation necessary to be ready to seize those opportunities. A true fraud hasn’t done any work and merely claims to be something they are not. I’ve done the work and I am a writer.
Thinking of things as part of a business plan, rather than “art.”
It’s much easier to take risks and enter areas where I may not feel “allowed” if I think if them as part of a business plan rather than “art” or “creations.” If, for example, I want to try a podcast or short story writing, it’s far easier to consider them as ways to engage my readers or grow my audience than to think of them as creative projects. It changes them from personal ventures to something that will either achieve my goals or not. If they don’t work out, I disband and move on instead of getting all wrapped up in the personal idea of, “They didn’t like me.” No, they didn’t like the product. Big difference.
Moving forward as a way of lessening regret.
It comes down to this: I’m going to die one day. Do I want to do it thinking of all the things I could have done or wanted to do, or do I want to do it knowing I gave all I had? Regardless of whether or not I feel like a fraud, the only answer is to move forward. Otherwise, I’m going out with a boatload of regrets.
Realizing that I don’t have to be an expert, and that I can figure it out as I go along.
When someone asks me to speak about a topic, or when I want to tackle a stretch project, I don’t have to say no or dismiss it as ridiculous. I can speak about the things that I do know, and do the things that I know how to do. I can also learn what I don’t know. It’s not necessary to be an expert on everything about writing, for example. I need only speak competently about what I do know. Before starting a project, it’s not necessary to know how to do everything. Things can be learned and those skills will make the next project even better.
Discounting social media.
Yeah, social media is great for connecting with others and reaching your audience. What it’s not great for is making you feel better about yourself. Remind yourself that all that “perfection” and success you’re seeing out there isn’t real. Or at least it’s not the whole story. It’s very easy to make yourself look totally awesome on social media, but it often covers up the truth that day to day life is, in most ways, the same as everyone else’s. That work is hard and sometimes sucks. Someone may look like they’re “above” you, but chances are they aren’t, and even if they are, they’re probably filled with the same insecurities and issues that everyone else has.
Impostor syndrome is real, and the truth is you may never leave it completely behind. Even very successful people suffer from it. However, you can find ways to work around it and continue to grow as an artist and as a person. You just have to trick your brain into seeing you as the success you are, and not as the fraud that’s easier to believe.
(Photo courtesy of annca)