When Writers Struggle With “Impostor Syndrome”
Before we begin, a quick warning: this article may strike a nerve.
I want you to sit back, take a deep breath, and ask yourself one question. I want you to answer completely honestly…
Do you ever feel like your writing just isn’t good enough?
Maybe you just can’t bring yourself to submit your work to publishers because you’re sure it will be rejected. Maybe you’ve been published, but keep telling yourself it was just a fluke. That editor made a mistake. Maybe you endlessly workshop your pieces because you’re convinced that there are a million flaws just waiting to be discovered…
And here’s the kicker: no one else seems to realize just how “bad” your writing really is. So you live in terror of being found out as a fraud.
There’s a name for that feeling. The phenomenon was first recognized in in 1978. Psychologists call it “Impostor Syndrome.” Here’s how it’s defined on Wikipedia:
A psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
Impostor Syndrome is most commonly seen in high-achieving women, but it strikes men too. It seems to be particularly strong in creative types: your stereotypical “insecure artist.” The problem? It often has very real, very damaging effects.
Forget turning off your “inner editor” while you hammer out a rough draft — what happens when you have a whole panel of inner critics comparing everything you do to your peers, telling you your work will never be as good? It can make promoting your work and putting yourself out there almost impossible.
How often have you been to a workshop or class where an author introduced their work with a disclaimer? “This isn’t very good, but…” “I’m not really happy with this, but…” “I think this needs a lot of work, but…”
How did that disclaimer affect your feelings about the work? Chances are, it didn’t give a good first impression, even if the writing was fantastic. It’s hard to have confidence in someone’s writing if they don’t have any confidence in it themselves.
The problem with impostor syndrome is it can lead to complete paralysis. If you don’t think your story is as good as the others you’ve read in your favorite magazine, you won’t submit. Or you’ll spend so much time revising and over-preparing that you’ll never finish your story in time for a deadline. Maybe you’ll be too nervous to approach editors, to apply for freelance gigs, to attend writers’ conferences.
So if you’re struggling with impostor syndrome, what can you do to break out of these bad habits?
Okay, so this may be sounding a little too familiar at this point. What should you do if you’ve found yourself in this trap?
It’s actually a lot easier than you might thing. Here are a few steps you can take to break free from this crippling trap:
- Accept that it’s natural and normal to feel insecure! Just remember that feeling stupid doesn’t mean you actually are. Everyone has off days. You do not need to have all the answers to be good at what you do.
- Get an objective opinion. Join a writing workshop group, find a writing mentor, or just run your work past a few trusted friends. Let them know that you’re struggling with doubts about your piece and ask them to give an honest opinion. Chances are, even if they point out some issues with your work that could be improved, their feedback won’t be as harsh as you might think. The most important thing you can do is this: actually accept the praise you get at face value. I know it’s easier said than done — but keep practicing and don’t let yourself try to rationalize it away.
- Set writing goals that you can actually achieve. It’s much harder to beat up on yourself when you can actually sit down and chart your accomplishments.
- Be realistic about the achievements of people you admire. Just because someone won a contest (or even a Pulitzer Prize!) does not mean they had life all figured out. Even famous writers have successes and failures throughout the course of their careers.
- Stay positive. Don’t focus on everything that’s wrong about a particular story. Instead focus on how you can improve it and make it even better.
- Accept your mistakes and learn from them. Everyone makes them. It’s okay to get a rejection letter or a bad review. It doesn’t mean you’ve wasted your time. It doesn’t even necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with your writing — it only means that particular person didn’t connect with it. Just keep trying and putting yourself out there.
- And most important of all…keep writing. If you’ve come this far, it’s because you have a passion for the written word. You have a gift and a drive that most people simply don’t have. You’ve likely been writing for years in your spare time at this point, even if you’ve never shown your writing to anyone…and that counts for a lot more than you might think. You’re already doing something amazing. Something most people never manage to do with their lives.
Don’t squander your gift. Get out there and start taking steps to share your writing with the world.
Do you ever struggle with feeling your writing just isn’t good enough? Let us know your strategies for tackling artistic insecurity in the comments below.