The Great Nemesis for Any Writer? It’s Right There in the Mirror
Take heart, writers, even the Greats have had their moments of torturous self-doubt
“I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.”- Author John Steinbeck writing in his private journal in 1938 — two years before he won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Grapes of Wrath.
It’s called The Impostor Syndrome and it’s been a registered term in the field of psychology since being introduced to academic circles in 1978. The Syndrome involves a persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities and accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud.
More bluntly, it’s the nagging thought running in an endless loop through the back of our minds, saying “Who the hell am I kidding? I’m not a __________. I’m not that good.”
And it’s more prevalent today than you may think. According to a 2020 report posted on the Psychology Today website, 70 percent of adults experience some degree of Imposter Syndrome at least once in their lifetime.1
As a writer, I’ve never openly declared myself a fraud, but I have fought with that nasty inner voice many times. At least now I know I’m in good company. So is anyone who has ever seriously contemplated taking on a creative endeavor. Deep down we’ve all wrestled with this issue. Some get past it. Too many don’t.
Most people experience sustained moments of doubt in their life. That’s normal. And not all cases of impostor syndrome are the same. It can be little more than a fleeting moment of doubt, or it can be a lifelong affliction that seriously impacts every aspect of one’s life.
But Imposter Syndrome is very real. And at its worst, it can be a downward spiral to creative hell. Consider this scenario: the more you accomplish, the more unworthy you feel. In response, you set the bar even higher toward perfection, all but guaranteeing more doubt and anxiety. And on and on it goes.
“In my experience, nothing is harder for the developing writer than overcoming his [or her] anxiety that he is fooling himself and cheating or embarrassing his family and friends.”
The following are common signs of impostor syndrome, as put forth by one Mental Health resource — www.verywellmind.com:
· Constant self-doubt
· An inability to realistically assess your competence and skills
· Attributing your success only to external factors
· Berating your performance
· Fear that you won’t live up to expectations
· Sabotaging your own success
· Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short
Yes, confidence affects pretty much everything we do or don’t do in life. It’s one of those tricky things where too much is just as dangerous as too little, and wise is the person who can accurately gauge the difference.
I still rarely, if ever, tell anyone I’m a writer. Why? Because I don’t make my living at it. I don’t have a string of books with my name on the cover. Then I came across this:
“If you’ve written anything, you’re a writer.”
New York Book Editors blog post, 2018
Nowadays in my mind I stand by that — or try to — along with these five principles:
· Validation must come from within.
· Don’t compare yourself to anybody else.
· Being Published isn’t everything.
· Know you’re not alone in this struggle.
· Don’t stop writing.
“The goal is not to never feel like an imposter,” said Valerie Young, an Imposter Syndrome expert and author of a book on the subject titled The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. “The goal is to give people the tools and the insight and information to talk themselves down faster.”
Which brings us back to John Steinbeck. He wasn’t an imposter. He was a creative juggernaut, and was as genuine as they come. We know this because he bravely confessed his deepest doubts in his journal, which was eventually published as a book titled Working Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath.
No, we’re not all going to have Pulitzers or fame in our future, sorry to say. But that doesn’t mean we’re imposters. For creative people, it shouldn’t be about prizes anyway. It should be about doing the work, putting your best message out there, and holding on to the belief that that is rewarding enough.
You don’t have to be a writer to appreciate that.