The phone rings.
It’s a number you don’t know, and against your best judgment, you pick it up. It’s them. You know who—that very important person who can make or break your career. The one you’ve been waiting for. Your heart races. Then, the inevitable moment.
“You’re not good enough,” they say. “I can’t believe you made it this far without anyone finding you out for the fraud that you are.”
Oh, wait. This isn’t reality. It’s just a nightmare. But I can’t be the only person occasionally experiencing that nightmare though, right? Impostor syndrome runs rampant in the creative fields, and I know I’m not alone, because writer after writer I speak to has felt like a fraud at some point in her career.
When I applied for a graduate degree (the second time), I got accepted at every single MFA program to which I applied. There were seven to be exact. Those acceptances threw me into a fury of worry. Why? Because the first time I tried getting into grad school, I got denied by all five schools I applied to. From the time I chose which school I’d attend until the first day of class, I was worried an email or phone call would come from the program director informing me that my acceptance had been one huge mistake. Then, once school started, I purposefully avoided him at all costs so he wouldn’t figure out what a fake I was by simply talking to me.
Oh, writer anxiety. You persistent, insensitive nag.
Image attribution: Thought Catalog
This probably isn’t the first time you’ve heard about impostor syndrome. In fact, some of your peers may have quietly admitted to you that they felt this way. However, it’s often whispered in one-on-one conversations. People rarely publicly claim the phenomenon.
I mean, I get it. If you stand up in a room and announce to the crowd that you’re afraid you’re not good enough, or that you’ve only landed where you are because of serendipity or knowing the right people, there’s a good chance that someone in the crowd will begin to question whether you actually are worthy to be there. Or worse, someone might confirm your fears and say, “You don’t belong here. See you later, loser!”
Heck, right now I’m worried you’re Googling my name hoping to prove that I’m the worst writer ever.
But what good does keeping these feelings a secret do for us? Hiding the fact that we feel insecure or anxious only allows those thoughts to fester and grow.
“The impostor complex wants to keep you alone and isolated,” says leadership coach Tanya Geisler. “The strategy is to get social, assemble your cast. Talk about it. You are so not alone. In fact, you are in amazing company.”
Before you choose to give in to feeling like a fraud or fight off the thought the very instant you have one, take a moment to question what’s driving these beliefs. Is it fear or anxiety? Confidence? Does the sudden change of perception revolve around money?
Writer Bronwen Bartlett says, “Despite the fact that I’ve been writing for twenty years and running my own business for four years, every time I quote someone I’m convinced I’m not experienced enough to ask for my rates and feel an overwhelming urge to quote less. It’s an internal struggle every single time and sometimes I lose it. I’m getting better at winning it, though, one quote at a time.”
Copywriter Natalie Smithson says, “What I’ve learnt about impostor syndrome is it has nothing at all to do with your practical capabilities. It comes from a deep-seated emotional block and this is what you have to chip away at if you’re going to beat it. It’s particularly difficult as a creative because you put so much of yourself into your work. You’ve got to learn not to be so hard on yourself. Investigate where those negative thoughts come from and then challenge them.”
If you’re feeling as if you’ll be found out as a fraud, question your mindset before you take any action. Don’t immediately try to jump from bad feeling to good feeling or convince yourself you’re successful when you aren’t feeling it. Live in the moment. Understanding what makes you tick is the first step to figuring out how to change any limiting beliefs.
Now that you’ve sat with your feelings for a while, let’s talk about measurements. The sole reason the impostor complex exists is because one person looks at something outside of one’s self, usually another person, though it can be an ideal or something else. They then compare themselves to that outside force. What happens? They always come up short. Think about it. If you knew that you were at a higher level than someone else, you wouldn’t waste your time measuring yourself to their accomplishments.
Image attribution: Matthew Henry
So knock it off already.
Yes, that is my advice to you. Sorry it isn’t more eloquent. Stop comparing yourself to other people. Their financial, professional, educational, personal, or any other successes are their own. They are not a calculation or a road map you need to follow. No one is on the same path, and if you follow someone else’s, chances are you’ll get lost.
However, you can use these measurements to help you identify ways to improve yourself. Feel frustrated because someone won an award or published a book? Great. Make it a goal to take actionable steps toward both in your own career.
But then, after you figure out what precisely you feel is missing in your life, and you calculate ways to get there, it’s time to forget about it. Keep your head down. Hone your craft. Worry about what you release out into the universe, and put serious effort into refraining from measuring yourself against others.
Jealous of those other freelance writers who look like they have it all together? The ones who stormed on scene with overnight success? They’re writing for big-name brands. They’re turning away new work left and right. Well, remember that old adage about not judging a book by its cover? The comparison game is one place where you don’t want to assume what things are like on the other side. Sure, it may seem as if a fellow freelancer is on top of the world, but are they?
Last year, I came across a new-to-me writer who seemed to be doing everything right. Everything she wrote was stunning, and I was envious from afar. She seemed to have achieved some level of success that had been escaping me. A few months ago, we scheduled a coffee chat. Our digital social circles had collided, and I was excited to pick her brain. However, the conversation quickly turned to a therapy session, where I learned about how poorly she was managing her finances, and how client after client was firing her for various reasons. Oh, and on top of everything else, this person was in the middle of a nasty divorce and had barely written in months. Yikes.
The point? Right up until that meeting, I was feeling as if I couldn’t measure up to her success. But once I learned more, I realized she was just a great actor, putting up a facade professionally. She was an excellent writer whose personal life was stomping all over her career, and she was doing nothing to save herself. While she was imploding, I was letting myself be envious of her, when I should have been focusing on myself.
Now, my last point wasn’t meant to suggest that you shouldn’t admire your colleagues. You should! In fact, the admiration of fellow writers is also a cure for impostor complex. Take a look at who you’re standing side by side with. These are your peers. If you’re impressed by their abilities, then you should feel pretty proud of your own too.
You are just as good (heck, if not better) than those people being published alongside of you.
The people you’re associated with, especially other writers and editors, may compliment you from time to time. When they do, don’t let the impostor beast trick you into thinking they only said what they did because they had to. First, no one has to be nice to you. Second, your editors (and peers) are too busy to waste their time going out of their way to boost up your ego. These nuggets of nicety are like gold on a day when you’re feeling bad for yourself. Go back through your email or screenshot when you’re feeling like a fraud, and remind yourself that these very important people believe in you.
Your friends and family can also help you check yourself when you’re struggling with an impostor complex. You (hopefully) surround yourself with these lovely humans because you trust them. So when they give you a compliment, or take the time to share some of your most recently published writing, know that they are celebrating your creativity. They do not owe you anything.
Remind yourself of the fact that there is truth in the nice things people say about you. And don’t forget to return the favor to them as well.
Image attribution: Marivi Pazos
For some people, the anxiety of feeling like a fraud comes and goes and is only a fleeting feeling. They might experience it a few times in one year, usually in the state of growth, and not experience it again for many more years.
For others, impostor syndrome is like a shadow that follows them around. Why is the feeling more permanent for this group of people? It’s likely because they experience the feelings and then give such weight to them that the feelings become thought patterns and behaviors over time.
Imagine this scenario: With a sudden stroke of luck (or is it skill?) you’ve managed to land a new high-paying client. You’re so excited. You schedule the work into your calendar, and when it’s time to work on the project, anxiety strikes. “I can’t do this,” you think. “I’m not good enough.” You procrastinate. You stress even more, which in turn feeds the impostor beast inside of you, making him bigger, stronger, more powerful. Then, the deadline rolls around. You’re late. The beast gets stronger. You avoid your client’s email. Finally, days, maybe even weeks, later, you follow up to an angry client email offering to refund their money, admitting defeat that you cannot complete the job.
Did you see what happened there? In that scenario, the brain pattern that keeps getting repeated is failure. You failed. You failed. You failed.
To avoid allowing a temporary feeling from becoming a thought and behavior pattern, writer Brad Hopgood says, “The main thing is delivering what you promise. And if for some reason you come up short, do everything in your power to fix the situation and achieve the intended goal.”
When you consistently prove to yourself that you are a qualified writer, you’ll be reinforcing confident feelings, starving the impostor beast until he becomes a whisper you choose to ignore.
People who experience an impostor complex often have a hard time congratulating themselves when well-deserved. Did you write stellar copy recently? Is one of your clients over the moon with your well-written and early-delivered content? Are you booking new work more often? Great—congratulate yourself. We’re taught not to have big egos and to be modest, but we also need to learn when it’s appropriate to be truly pleased and give ourselves a well-deserved pat on the back.
Geisler says, “Impostor complex wants to have you doubt your capacity. So your job, the strategy, needs to be to remind yourself of all that you have done, and all the other times you have felt this very way, but did the thing, jumped over the hurdle, landed on the other side and felt/saw that the party was on the other side of the resistance.”
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Featured image attribution: João Silasn