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  • Esme Clarke

The Dreaded Imposter Syndrome

I’ve been struggling a bit this week with writing and editing. You know that scene from the Disney film Tangled, where Rapunzel veers from “best day ever” to “I’m a terrible daughter”? Writing is a bit like that. One moment, you feel like a literary genius, working out a clever plot point, or creating an epic climax for your story. Other days it’s more “wut even r werds”?

This week has very much been the latter, filled with days when I can’t think my way out of a plot hole, or when everything I write just sounds wrong.

It’s on those days the dreaded imposter syndrome kicks in.

You know, that horrible little voice at the back of your head that tells you that you’re not good enough, that this is all a pipe dream. The voice that questions your ability and asks why someone like you can do this?

Yeah, one of those weeks.

It’s not just writers who get the dreaded imposter syndrome. No matter who you are or what your career, there can always be that horrid voice questioning you. Even Neil-first-man-on-the-moon-Armstrong experiences it (check out Neil Gaiman’s anecdotes about imposter syndrome for the full story).

When that voice kicks in, I wallow a little, talk to my husband, who without fail reassures me, and tells me I am good and that I can do this. After his pep talks, I usually pull myself together and say to the voice, “I’ll show you.”

Do I have the answers to overcoming it completely? Nope. Nowhere near. However, I do have some suggestions for trying to deal with it.

First, acknowledge the voice. Sometimes, just sometimes, that voice is protecting you. If you feel something is off about your work, maybe there is something that needs to be fixed. Maybe that voice is saying that this book, this design, this painting, is not ready…yet. I emphasise the word yet. Partly because we are always learning. In the world of writing, few people become fantastic authors overnight. They write and write and write and continue to learn, year after year. Like someone who has lessons for playing musical instrument or training for a sport, the ability to write well has to be honed. Maybe that voice is telling you, you’re not ready yet. You’ll get there. The important bit about this first point is that you can consider it as a helper, as long as that voice is not overly negative, and stopping you from moving forward.

Second, if you’ve looked things over and what you’ve produced is genuinely good, then give yourself a slap on the back. You’ve done this. You! Be proud of that achievement. You’ve brought something new to the table, something that only you could have done, because you are unique and your life, your upbringing, the stuff you’ve experienced and learned over the years have contributed to that. Your hard work brought you here. Whether you’ve created something, helped someone, taken part in a new activity, enjoy that success and tell the inner critic to shush.

Third, if the voice is mean, think back to your eight-year-old self. Imagine the voice saying such negative things to that child. The child who looked to the stars and dreamed of one day being an astronaut, or a doctor, or a train driver. Would you allow that voice to be the one that stopped that child from hoping and wishing? Or would grown-up you tell the voice to take a hike? That you shouldn’t puncture someone’s aspirations like that? Be the kind voice you need to hear, taking care of those dreams, not the one tearing them down. I know this is hard and we’re all our own worst critics, but when you were a child, you probably believed anything was possible. You just need to find that unerring sense of wonder again.

As bad as imposter syndrome is, you can overcome it. You can tip it on its head and allow it to make you better, to push you to be the best you can be. Have I managed to overcome it completely? Absolutely not. I too am still learning to trust in myself.

I’ll get there as an author. By hook or by crook, because I (usually) love what I do. This week was a wobble. Next week, I’ll be gazing at the stars again, telling myself, “you can do this, I believe in you”.

Now go read Neil Gaiman’s anecdote about imposter syndrome. It’s a gem of a story. Let me know how you deal with those feelings of doubt. How do you power through?

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