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Imposter Syndrome by Blake Smith

Ah, imposter syndrome, that feeling you get when someone praises your professional work, that little voice in your head that says, “No way. My book/painting/invention/etc. can’t possibly be good. That person is just trying to make me feel better. What happens when they find out I’m just faking it?”

It’s an insidious little worm of doubt that slips into one’s consciousness at the worst moment, and it can turn people into stressed-out perfectionists or burn them out so badly that they stop trying to accomplish anything. Even worse, imposter syndrome should be a silly thing- it makes no sense to feel awful because of too much praise, yet it’s surprisingly common among successful people.

The term was first coined in the 1970s and is marked by lack of confidence and a fear of being exposed as a fraud. Proof of competence is usually attributed to luck or good timing. Academic research says that about 70% of people have at least one experience of imposter syndrome.

I’m not a head shrinker and I’m laughably bad at guessing what other people are thinking, but I’d say more than 70% of people are afflicted by bouts of imposter syndrome. I blame the ‘everyone gets a participation trophy’ culture, which praises kids for the least little thing, leading them to assume all praise is just more empty words if not outright lies. I can’t tell you how many times I turned in school work that was ‘meh’ at best and got an A on it, and my experience was definitely not unique. Most children can tell when someone is lying to them, even if they can’t articulate it, and they develop the habit of distrust early on.

It’s a hard habit to break. I’ve found myself doubting the approval of people who explicitly tell me that they don’t give empty compliments.

I go through cycles of imposter syndrome, usually but not always connected to my writing life. One day, I’ll go around telling myself that I’m a lousy writer, that sooner or later someone will realize that I’m faking the whole thing and have no clue how to write/publish/be a functional adult. The next day, I bounce here and there, grinning all the while, as I tell myself that XYZ idea/character/money-making scheme is the best thing in history. I assume most people have a similar experience. If you don’t, tell me about it below. I’m always on the lookout for interesting thought processes to give my characters.

Unchecked imposter syndrome is fantastically destructive to a writer. It’s hard to put words on the page when your mind is full of, “So-and-so said my last book was good. But what if he was lying to make me feel better?” This is also an excellent reason to gently turn down your family and friends as beta readers. They inevitably praise your work when you need honest feedback, and your trust in their opinion quickly starts to break down. And it creates a contradiction in the mind of the complimentee, who is expected to smile and say thank you, even though they automatically assume the complimenter is telling a palatable lie.

The flip side of imposter syndrome occurs when a person’s creative processes shut down due to nasty or just plain badly worded criticism. Social media is fertile ground for that type of attack, but it happens in real life, too. Tell a person, “you suck at this,” for long enough, and they begin to believe it. It’s kust as freezing as imposter syndrome, but at least you can tell the other person to pound sand when they troll you. It’s really hard to tell someone to jump in a lake when they’re praising your work.

Is there a cure for imposter syndrome? Eventually, but it would take a massive cultural change, away from throwing out undue praise and criticism and moving toward a more honest way of critiquing other people’s work. It’s not the kind of thing that any one person can eradicate.

Personal cures for imposter syndrome are equally illusive. I usually have to wait out my bouts of no-confidence, working on another project in the meantime to keep busy. Which might be the reason I typically have three or four projects running at the same time. I’ve also found it useful to read a bit of my very early work, then read newer stuff. It helps me see how much I’ve improved.

I chuckled to myself when I read about the use of writing therapy as a treatment for imposter syndrome. That might work for non-writers, but what about the rest of us? Even something as simple as listing my accomplishments for the day is liable to turn into an hour-long grumble about the grammar and syntax of my list, and how it proves that I’m not at a professional level of writing.

But I’ve babbled at you long enough. Now it’s your turn- what are your experiences with imposter syndrome and how do you overcome that weird contradiction of being depressed by praise?

Blake Smith doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up. In the meantime, she’s a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, in between tending her horses, gardening, and pretending to cook. For more information about her books, visit her Amazon Author Page.

Blake is also the newest member of MGC and will be posting several times a months. Please give her a warm welcome! – ASG

43 Comments
  1. I recommend WMG’s workshops.

    January 24, 2018
  2. c4c And welcome to the Asylum Blake!

    January 24, 2018
    • Thanks! I was wondering where the nice people in white coats were taking me. ‘The zoo’- harumph! See if I ever listen to them again.

      January 24, 2018
      • Confutus #

        [Looks around] No. I can’t have been mistaken all this time. This has to have been a zoo. Well, whichever it is, welcome anyway.

        January 24, 2018
      • No, no, they told you true. This is a zoo. It’s just a little stranger than most.

        January 24, 2018
      • We have dragons of various sorts, felines(also of various sorts), a Minotaur (North American Bull Man?), and others who have not yet specified (Occasionally a Tank drops in and I think we have at least one Attack Helicopter about, though I’m uncertain as to his formal nomenclature.) I think “Zoo” could be applicable.

        January 26, 2018
        • Draven #

          ‘preserve’
          of what, we’re not supposed to say

          January 26, 2018
  3. C4c

    January 24, 2018
  4. “This is also an excellent reason to gently turn down your family and friends as beta readers. They inevitably praise your work”

    Not my family. Mom use to mock my early fanfics when she saw drafts on my desk. “That’s not writing”. (it was a page of dialogue)

    I let my father read something I had written back in college. Dad has a BS in Engineering and a MS in Education and fancies himself an editor. What I got back was nearly proof enough that I am not, never will be a writer. That was the last time I asked him to read my work. I never told him that I had finished a novel length work, or that I had tried submitting to a couple of publishers. (rejected, obviously)

    I let my older brother have a copy of the aforementioned work. He never finished it. (wish I knew where that copy went after he died. There were only 3 paper copies.)

    My family, with the exception of my sister, who worked with me on that novel, doesn’t support my efforts.

    “The flip side of imposter syndrome occurs when a person’s creative processes shut down due to nasty or just plain badly worded criticism”

    See above comment about Dad. His “critiquing” is part of the reason I try very hard to find something praise worthy any time I do beta reads. ((Reviews of finished works are a horse of a different color.))

    Today, most of my problem is a lack of discipline. I can’t get focused enough to sit down long enough to get anything down. But then maybe part of that is the fear that Mom and Dad were right.

    January 24, 2018
    • (hug)

      My family is neither supportive nor unsupportive, barring my younger brother. And even he doesn’t usually _read_ my work, just cheers me on.

      I did start writing a gaming-related story, and he gave me enthusiastic critique on that. It was kind of eerie, actually.

      January 24, 2018
    • Dad used to be amused that I had to have a soundtrack while writing. He liked my essays though, and was once so proud of one I wrote (about the man who taught me to draw) that he showed it off to a friend of his still in the newspaper industry. That friend liked it so much he published it in his column, ‘yielding his space for the first time.’

      I didn’t know about it until a classmate at my school said “I saw your article! It was really, really good!” Me: What article?

      January 24, 2018
    • Long-time lurker, first-time commenter (and S-list writer on the Correia scale).

      I’ve found that I can get good feedback from my wife. (1) She’s been teaching classes in English (including literary analysis) for homeschoolers for many years; (2) I write mysteries and she reads mysteries; and (3) after 27 years of marriage, she doesn’t have to worry too much about my feelings.

      I have had experiences with imposter’s syndrome myself, although more with my job – doing custom computer programming – than with my writing. With the former, it takes the form of you’re only as good as your current project, or past history is no guarantee of future results. With the latter, I dissociate myself from my work and attribute anything worthwhile to my Muse (the lousy bits are my own work). Fortunately, so far in neither case has it been crippling.

      January 25, 2018
    • My family is mildly bewildered I keep selling. Eh. I feel your pain. And my inlaws think I should write children’s books, because children are the only ones “whose mind is as open as yours.” Short explanation: they think I invented fantasy. No, really.

      January 25, 2018
  5. Hi Blake! When I’m beset by “Oh no, everyone’s going to catch on that I’m faking it” I usually take a deep breath and do my best job of faking it. After all, if I’m going to get tossed out, I want to make it for something really spectacular. And thus far, no one has called my bluff.

    But I still have this little fear that a parent is going to call my Day Job and inform my Boss that I’m no good, that I don’t know anything about [topic] and that I need to be fired forthwith.

    With writing, I just launch the book or article and duck. I think coming through academic and being sniped at (verbally) as well as watching others attack people for “faking it” (usually in book reviews), I expect it. Day Job spooks me a lot more than does writing.

    January 24, 2018
    • Blake Smith #

      I completely understand worrying that a parent is going to call up the boss. I work in the same industry as my father, in the same region, so we run into mutual colleagues all the time. Living and working in a small town can be tricky.

      January 24, 2018
  6. If one must have a “syndrome” of some sort — to be fashionable, I suppose — I prefer “unappreciated genius syndrome.” Or eczema, whichever is cheaper to treat.

    January 24, 2018
    • Confutus #

      You could switch them around. “Impostor syndrome on” Monday. “Unappreciated genius syndrome” on Tuesday, “Writer’s block” on Wednesday”, “manic/depressive psychosis” on Thursday….
      I’m told that the best cure is to actually sit down and write something so that there is some basis for an opinion. I’m still working on writing something besides a) angst-ridden bemoaning of my lot in life, b) cryptic notes and summaries of nonfiction and c) highly forgettable blog comments.

      January 24, 2018
      • Angst-ridden bemoaning has a following. Unfortunately, the followers are generally impecunious.

        The cryptic notes approach has some promise. Unfortunately, it usually only matures after the writer’s death.

        Highly forgettable blog comments? Well, there’s something to be said for them. However, they’re more often of use to your detractors than to your accountant.

        For my part, I prefer to write novels. No, they don’t make much money. But hey, everybody’s gotta have a hobby, right?

        January 24, 2018
  7. Hey! When’s the MGC workshop? And where’s my MGC t-shirt?

    January 24, 2018
    • There will be a workshop starting next week. You guys want t-shirts? Really? Okay.

      January 25, 2018
  8. ^o^ Welcome, Blake!

    January 24, 2018
    • Blake Smith #

      Thanks!

      January 24, 2018
  9. I used to get that for at least a few nights whenever I got a promotion. Since I turned 30, though, i don’t think I’ve had it again. (And I’ll be 60 this year.) Perhaps it’s something we grow out of?

    I never had the experience of “participation trophies,” though. Neither in elementary school, nor prep school, nor at Caltech do I ever remember A’s being easy to get. Nor do I think I ever got an insincere raise at work. 🙂

    I have seen a phenomenon I’ll call “insulting praise.” That’s when someone who has no qualifications at all praises your work, but they’re really asserting their right to judge you. Like the guy who couldn’t write a “hello world” program to save his soul who tells me I’m a great programmer.

    January 24, 2018
    • I’ve had that. “No, you’re a really good writer, honey. Your grammar is mostly right.”
      My favorite of these was my then 3 years old second son, who opened a contributor copy of my first novel, traced name on cover. “Mom, this book has your name.” “Yes, sweetie.” “WHY?” “Because I wrote it.” “You write books?” “Yep.” “And it has WORDS and everything.”
      I want to use it as a cover quote. No editor ever agreed.

      January 25, 2018
      • Vincent had a similar reaction. “You write books?! ❤ " …soon after: "Where's the rest? What do you mean, it's not written yet? Awwwww…"

        January 25, 2018
        • Marsh likes the shifter series, which is why the latest one (I’m so late on those. Stupid health) is dedicated to him.

          January 25, 2018
    • Yeah, I get that from time to time. Sometimes about my writing, sometimes about my science. And I went through school etc. before that whole “everybody gets an award for participating” got started so I know that’s not what caused it.

      January 29, 2018
  10. I think Imposter Syndrome was a big factor in my current career choice–I work in a field where success is simple and objectively determined. Either the light comes on when you flip the switch, or it doesn’t. I need that level of reassurance that I am doing a good job. Granted, I still beat myself up over how long it takes me to fix things and what I need to replace rather than repair, but in general I can end my work day knowing that things that did not work at 7am are working by the time I clock out.

    In terms of my writing, I always consider it a happy accident when people like my work. I hope people will like my work, but I’ve never really tried to write specifically to be liked. My own tastes in reading are sufficiently outside the mainstream that I know most readers don’t particularly like the authors that I consider my main influences.

    I have a few big fans, but not anyone that I know in real life except for eldest daughter. I gave up showing my roommate and my other relatives my work some time back–it was just awkward and I don’t like putting people in a position where they have to choose between being kind and being honest.

    January 24, 2018
  11. I suppose this is one of the rare instances where my tendency to be trusting and non-cynical is actually a bonus. It requires several proven instances before I start believing that a particular person is lying to me, so I take all opinions at face value.

    While not a writer, I don’t have to worry so much about subjective valuations of my work. When I write code, I can evaluate my skill in comparison with others fairly objectively. I currently work with three other guys who are objectively VERY much better coders than me, but I’m competent enough to get the job done. I really don’t suffer from imposter syndrome so much as I look at people who heap praise on something that I have done, but I know is nothing to brag about (usually because I simply didn’t have time to do streamlining and efficiency enhancements) and wonder how their standards can be so low.

    I suggest, though, that, while the “participation trophy” culture my have exacerbated the issue, that it really just stems from insecurity that is present in nearly everyone I know.

    January 24, 2018
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      There’s a positive side to insecurity. Sometimes work really hasn’t been done right, and needs to be redone. Sometimes it means that you are paying attention when your subconscious is trying to warn you about a subtle mistake. Sometimes when you don’t assume that life is going to be served up to you on plate, and you go out and get it.

      That said, sometimes you defeat yourself before starting. Sometimes you waste time panicking. And sometimes you throw out good enough work.

      January 24, 2018
      • To me, insecurity is the thing that makes you doubt your capability to do things well, which will then interfere with that capability, where I see what you described as rational caution and quality control.

        January 24, 2018
    • One issue about inappropriate praise is that a lot of times what impresses people who don’t actually do the work is not what takes the most skill or ingenuity.

      Picking a chintzy little desk lock is nothing, it’s the kind of thing that anyone could do with a hands on demonstration and a little practice. But for the admin who locked her keys in her desk, it looks like voodoo.

      On the other hand, making a pinning chart for small format interchangeable cores that allows for multiple levels of masterkeying takes a fair amount of work (particularly if you do with pen and paper instead of a computer program.) But that doesn’t impress anyone–they expect me to be able to cut a key to open whatever doors they want so they won’t have to carry more than one key. I’ve long since given up trying to explain the math involved.

      January 24, 2018
  12. E. Hinkle #

    “I’d say more than 70% of people are afflicted by bouts of imposter syndrome. I blame the ‘everyone gets a participation trophy’ culture, which praises kids for the least little thing, leading them to assume all praise is just more empty words if not outright lies. I can’t tell you how many times I turned in school work that was ‘meh’ at best and got an A on it, and my experience was definitely not unique. Most children can tell when someone is lying to them, even if they can’t articulate it, and they develop the habit of distrust early on.”

    Wait, so I wasn’t the only person who went to one of those schools and came out convinced that all praise was so much hot air?

    January 24, 2018
  13. Christopher M. Chupik #

    Welcome, Blake.

    But watch out for the squirrels. They aren’t what they seem.

    January 24, 2018
  14. I did four years of improv training in college, and honestly, I think it is one of the best things I’ve ever done in terms of life skills training. (I will submit, however, that it has to be the right kind of improv training, because some variants that I’ve heard of are very destructive and cruel.) One of the things that it makes you do is do things you are not comfortable doing—a real-time version of “fake it until you make it.”

    January 24, 2018
  15. Robin Munn #

    Another place where “impostor syndrome” often shows up, or rather a time period when it often shows up, is in young adults. (I mean that term literally — people just transitioning from college to the working adult world, rather than “young adult” as it’s used in fiction categories where it basically means “teenager”.) Young adults often feel that they don’t know what they’re doing, and eventually someone will find out and denounce them as impostors. And there’s some element of truth to that — they really don’t know what they’re doing yet — but what they don’t realize, or at least what I didn’t realize when I was in my early 20’s and feeling that way, is that everyone around them already knows that as a twenty-something, they’re still rookies who need to be trained, and everyone is making allowances. (At least, if the twenty-something is acting trainable: those who act like they know it all will have far fewer allowances made for them). So while part of their impostor syndrome is justified, the fear of being found out (and consequences following) is not justified: they’ve already been found out, but they don’t know it because those consequences aren’t following.

    January 24, 2018
    • JAFANZ #

      This sort of describes one of the first job interview offers I ever got…

      I’d just *failed* out of an IT degree (completed 2 of 3 years & 1 3rd year paper), which I mentioned on my CV (i.e. “Degree [not completed], papers passed [with, mediocre, grades listed]”), so when they called me up to get me to come in for the interview they really sold the position they wanted me to interview for (which was not the one I’d applied for).

      This was on of New Zealand’s EFTPOS terminal (& service?) vendors, I think they were #2 at the time, & they said they wanted me to interview for “Assistant to the Head of the Cybersecurity Team (paraphrased)”, & made a huge point of how skilled & experienced my supervisor was (“Before us he worked IT at the Pentagon”), meaning they wanted someone who was massively underqualified to work with the security of financial/banking transactions…

      So I said something like “I’m sorry, you must have misread my CV, ‘cos I lack the skills & have no experience in the field, but thank you for thinking so highly of me”.

      It only occurred to me when I read the above that maybe they had interpreted my submission as indicating I was “trainable” (presumably because I acknowledged my weaknesses as I percieved them), whereas for the last 15 years I had really been assuming they were taking the mickey (& a little worried that they *were* actually serious, & thus there were idiots in charge of preventing my money from being stolen when I used my ATM card for purchases).

      January 25, 2018
  16. Test everything; retain what is good.
    Although that’s easier said than done…..

    January 25, 2018
  17. dakorillon #

    I always blame it part and parcel on being a creative person. I run into it when doing art, writing, making websites, crafting, etc. I was always clumsy, non-coordinated, and so was always chosen last for any physical games or activity, So I always felt like a failure in the “important” things in school, though I did quite well grade wise, so oddly, I never (or at least rarely) feel that way about intellectual things. But, somehow, I equate art, writing, etc, more with those “successful” pursuits, like sports, and thus feel that when other give compliments they are faking it, AND it has the dual effect that I constantly undervalue my work, because it “Can’t be actually good”, I’m the one who always gets chosen last.

    And it does effect my life in lots of other ways. I just wrote an article in my FB group “ARTisTherapy”, about imposter syndrome….and got very little communication in return, making me think that I need to just disband the group, I started the group to help me and others who felt insecure about their art, or who were having problems that might take various viewpoints to help fix. And rarely get more than 2-4 comments or discussions on any given subject post. So, it’s not apparently helping them, and it’s not really helping me, other than a place to write down my insecurities, and (likely useless) advice.

    But, on the flip side, I was in the Army, and was of the generation that was taught to never trust anyone, and never show your weaknesses, so I generally do fake it pretty well, other than the not valuing my work as highly as (other people say that) I should. After all, I know that people wouldn’t POSSIBLY pay that much for my stuff, because I wouldn’t.

    January 25, 2018
    • Pull me in? I need to get back to art, now I’m feeling better. And I’m going to do everything wrong at first.

      January 25, 2018

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