I’ve spent most of my life believing everything I’ve ever earned was actually handed to me out of sympathy.
While I’m aware this — at least for the most part — is not true, there is no turning off the “switch” in my brain that makes me believe I don’t deserve the things I have achieved in my life. Did I only pass organic chemistry because the professor felt sorry for me? Did I only get that writing job because they couldn’t find anyone else, or anyone better? Are all those compliments just lies hiding behind smiles?
I’m not sure how, but I’ve managed to keep moving forward despite the constant noise in my head telling me I’m going to get “caught.” That someone is going to find out I’ve been collecting sympathy cards and never should have passed that class or worked for that company or received those compliments. That I somehow cheated or took someone else’s ideas … or I’m just not good at writing, never have been, never will be.
When someone is faced with evidence they are fully qualified and capable of the success they have earned, and still have a hard time accepting they have earned it, they’re said to have impostor syndrome. This is not a psychiatric disorder, but it is a psychological phenomenon that can affect a creator’s ability to do the best work possible.
It can also make it really difficult for you to feel satisfied with the work you do, or be happy in general.
While there isn’t necessarily a way to “cure” impostor syndrome, there are ways to learn to live with it and thrive despite it. If you want to be like Viola Davis, talking openly about impostor syndrome as you held your brand-new Oscar statue in hand (or whatever literary equivalent you might be going for), here’s what you can do.
Accept the praise you are given. Impostor syndrome is not “lacking confidence” in the sense that you’re so self-conscious you can’t write anything. It’s not an excuse you give when you’re feeling blocked or having a hard time finishing something. It is the overwhelming feeling that the work you have done wasn’t deserved or that you have somehow failed despite plenty of contradictory evidence saying otherwise. You aren’t “suffering from impostor syndrome” as you struggle to write your novel. You are dealing with impostor syndrome as you accept your Novel Prize in Literature.
Impostor syndrome requires that you have already done something that has been well received that you have all but outright rejected praise for. It’s not that you’re being rude or falsifying humility — you simply struggle to understand why people are calling your story a success.
Though you may be tempted to shake your head and say, “Well, I didn’t really do anything special but I appreciate your kindness,” accept praise with sincerity. In general, it’s usually considered rude to brush off someone else’s compliment, but it also doesn’t help the receiver accept the meaning behind it.
Smile and say “Thank you.” Accept the compliment, the award, the recognition. It’s not going to be an easy thing to do. Internally, you’re going to want to run and hide and avoid the praise. Force yourself to stand in the spotlight and accept the applause. You did good work. You wouldn’t be in this position if you hadn’t.
Collect positive responses to your work and review them often. They say a “fake it till you make it” mentality helps creators advance through their careers with confidence even if they truly don’t have it. If you’ve ever wondered how to “fake” confidence, it turns out learning to believe you’re not a total failure is a matter of practice. Almost as if you’re rehearsing yourself reacting to other peoples’ praise of your work.
I now have a folder where I drop screenshots of nice things people have said about my writing, how my writing has helped them, and similar forms of positive feedback. There isn’t a lot in there, but there doesn’t need to be. It doesn’t matter how big or small of a creator you are. Everyone needs to hear they’re doing OK.
I review these screenshots when I am at my lowest — whenever I’m feeling like my work doesn’t matter or I’m afraid I’m just taking someone else’s ideas, claiming them as my own and publishing them, and that someone is going to call me out on it.
I fight the symptoms of impostor syndrome by letting other people remind me I’m worth the praise. I still don’t usually believe I deserved the nice things a few people said about me, but it does help to lift my spirits on days I’m feeling like a failure.
You may not believe you’ve earned your success. But it doesn’t hurt to see how many other people might.
Do work you’re not proud of. I know this is going to sound unfavorable to many of you. Even I have written more than once that you shouldn’t do work you’re not proud of — because if you don’t love it, what’s the point? But I’m still learning a lot about people — writers in particular — and the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced, in most contexts, this advice really doesn’t make sense. Let me explain.
See, a lot of writers struggle with the fear that the work they produce is not going to be “good enough.” What they are comparing their work to by default varies, but in general, people either want their current works in progress to be as good as something that has been famously published or something they themselves have previously written that has been well received.
This only becomes a problem when it stops a writer from writing. As in, you’re so worried your work in progress won’t ever get published so you, for example, just stop working on it altogether.
You shouldn’t necessarily force yourself to write something you absolutely hate — if you’re not into it, it will show; readers notice things like that. But there are likely going to be times you’re not one hundred percent sold on what you’ve written. But you’re going to have to put it out there anyway. Chances are, there’s going to be someone out there who thinks it’s amazing even if you never do.
So instead of obsessing over whether or not you love everything you produce, it might be time to accept that sometimes, even when you do your best and aren’t rewarded for it, you aren’t going to be able to accept that it was your best work. Maybe that’s OK. Maybe the things we create can transform and improve lives even when we wish we could have somehow done them better.
Should you create things that you are so in love with that you want other people to see them? Of course you should. Of COURSE you need to do work that satisfies you. But it’s not going to satisfy you all the time. We are and always will be our own worst critics. And if you’ve been successful in the past, and are afraid you “just got lucky,” strive to do good work. Your best work. But don’t quit in the moments you start to doubt yourself. Keep going. Even when you don’t believe you’re worth it.
Impostor syndrome can be a writer’s worst enemy — but it doesn’t have to be yours. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to keep working hard even when you don’t feel you deserve praise. Keep writing even when you’re not sure it’s worth the effort. Write when you fear the world is lying to you. Write when you’d rather give up.
Why? Because if you’ve already succeeded, if you’ve already proven you can do it, your chances of doing it again are that much greater.
Do it. Write it. Believe in it (try). Your best is all anyone is expecting of you. And your best means anything you want it to, no matter what.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.