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