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7 ways to overcome impostor syndrome
You're a writer because you write. Defy your inner critic and give yourself permission.
Do you ever find yourself thinking that authors are other people, and writing is for someone else – some special people over there? That you’re just faking it, wasting your time indulging a pipe dream, and that sooner or later you’ll be found out? Why do we often feel, as writers, that we don’t even deserve to call ourselves writers?
There are lots of reasons for this sort of self-doubt. Some are internal, some are the result of messages you received in childhood, or from society. But you deserve to be here, writing your book, pursuing your dreams – and you don’t need anyone’s permission. Writing makes you a writer. So why not you?
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What is impostor syndrome?
Impostor syndrome, first identified by Clance and Imes in 1978, is a very common form of self-doubt. It affects up to 82% of people, from all walks of life, according to some studies. If you experience impostor syndrome, you may doubt your abilities or have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud – of being ‘found out’.
It can affect any writer, at any stage of their career – and it can inhibit your writing and hold you back. But it’s especially difficult if you’re new, emerging or unpublished writer. When you don’t have any external evidence of your writing ability, you might feel like you can’t compete with those who do – that you’re not a ‘proper’ writer.
“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out’.” - Maya Angelou
Yet even successful, published, prolific, bestselling, critically acclaimed writers aren’t immune. Maya Angelou once said: “Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great. I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out’.”
In a 2022 interview in The Guardian, Joyce Carol Oates said that, despite publishing her 61st novel, Babysitter, she still doesn’t consider herself a professional author: “Every time I write, it’s like the first time.” Impostor syndrome seems to go with the territory of being a writer.
“Every time I write, it’s like the first time.” - Joyce Carol Oates
Even if you’re established and successful, impostor syndrome can nag away at you, as you anticipate being exposed as a fraud. You may feel you’ve ‘got away with it’ so far. You might put your successes down to luck and your failures down to your own shortcomings – especially if you have a fixed mindset.
Impostor syndrome and mindset
The consequences of impostor syndrome are worse if you have a fixed mindset – because you won’t believe your abilities can change. So, if you doubt yourself, you may think you’ll never improve and give up. You’ll see setbacks as confirmation that you’re no good, a fraud or a failure. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, because you won’t see the point in learning and growth – since you believe your abilities are ‘fixed’.
By contrast, if you have a growth mindset, you’ll recognise your imperfections, struggles and limitations – but know that you can learn, develop and get better. You understand your potential for growth, and that your talent and ability as a writer is changeable rather than fixed, so you’ll strive to improve.
In short, someone with a fixed mindset might write a terrible first draft, feel a fraud, and give up. Someone with a growth mindset may still write a terrible first draft - but see it as a good starting point for development.
7 ways to overcome impostor syndrome
So, apart from developing a growth mindset, how do you overcome these feelings of self-doubt? Here are 7 ways to overcome your impostor syndrome so you can get on with writing:
1. Don’t compare yourself to other writers
This is Rule 101 of beating impostor syndrome. There’s nothing wrong with admiring successful authors, and being inspired and influenced by their work. But bear in mind that they’re at a different stage to you, and have had their own unique path. You’re on yours. Read more about this in my previous newsletter: ‘Stop comparing yourself to other writers.’
2. Don’t underestimate your abilities
People who suffer from imposter syndrome continually underestimate themselves and their abilities. Paradoxically, that sense of self-doubt can indicate that you shouldn’t doubt yourself. It may actually mean that you’re a good writer.
You know who never has impostor syndrome? Someone with an inflated, entitled, arrogant, unshakeable belief in their own abilities – often in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. So take comfort from the fact that you’re not like them! A little self-doubt may even be a good thing. It’s certainly healthier than its opposite: the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Here’s my quick, pro-tip for overcoming impostor syndrome: whenever you feel self-doubt, remind yourself that Liz Truss became the Actual Prime Minister of the UK! (Or pick your own favourite politician who’s hopelessly out of their depth, yet with absolutely no doubt in their own ability.)
If you feel like an impostor, you’re far more likely to be underestimating your abilities. And because feeling like a fraud is so common among writers – even successful ones – this may actually legitimize you as a writer.
3. Challenge your negative thoughts
Just because you think something doesn’t mean it’s true. In psychological terms, impostor syndrome is a cognitive distortion. It’s a collection of negative thoughts about yourself and your abilities that don’t match up with reality.
Separate feelings from facts. Acknowledge your negative thoughts – and then challenge them:
What, exactly, are your negative thoughts and fears?
Are they reasonable? What’s the evidence for them – and against them?
What would other people say about your abilities? What have people said about your writing in the past? What would an honest friend say, instead of your inner critic?
It can be hard to gain perspective on your own work, especially when your mind is awash with negative thinking. So it can be helpful to get some external feedback. Buddy up with a trusted writer friend, join a writing group, take a writing course or seek some professional feedback from an agent or editor.
This may help you realise that your writing is better than you think – and also give you pointers as to where you can improve. Understand that improvement, development and growth is part of the process. You’re on a path to publication – and you can make the journey in small steps.
4. Give yourself credit for your achievements
Impostor syndrome prevents you from internalizing any sense of accomplishment. So challenge this by giving yourself credit for what you have achieved. Writing a first draft of a book is a remarkable achievement. Revising and editing your manuscript is remarkable. Working on your craft and developing as a writer is remarkable.
It’s tempting to focus on what you haven’t done or accomplished. While that can sometimes help you to identify what you want out of life and motivate you to achieve, it’s more likely to bring you down by focusing on what’s lacking. So keep a record what you have achieved. It will remind you how far you’ve come.
Whether it’s taking a course, reading a book, joining a writing group, drafting your outline, going on a research trip, writing a chapter, completing a first draft – or even finding a few minutes a day to write on your phone – these things all count.
5. Review your progress
Periodically look back over your previous writing to see how far you’ve come. It might be an earlier draft of your chapter or manuscript, a short story you wrote some time ago, a blog post you wrote last year – even your teenage diary! Does any of it make you cringe? Or, at least, think that you’d write it differently today? Good – that means you’ve grown and developed as a writer.
This reminds you that you’re capable of improving as a writer, that you’re not a fraud or impostor, and that you’re on a path of growth. Keep going!
6. Call yourself a writer
While you might need a published book to call yourself an author, you absolutely don’t need any special qualifications to call yourself a writer. You don’t need an MA in Creative Writing, you don’t need a string of writing credits to your name, you don’t need a background in journalism. You just write. Writing makes you a writer. So own it. Do the following:
Practice calling yourself a writer. If you’re at a social gathering and someone asks you what you do, tell them you’re a writer.
Update your biogs. Add ‘writer’ to your biography on your social media accounts.
Drop the word ‘aspiring’. You are not an ‘aspiring writer.’ You’re a writer. Don’t aspire: do.
7. Give yourself permission
That feeling of being a fraud, of not being a ‘real’ writer, is related to a feeling that you need to be given permission to be a writer. To be granted the status of ‘writer’ by some higher authority, or by virtue of public achievements such as publication by a major publisher, or winning a literary prize. This may especially be the case if you’re a ‘people pleaser’. But you don’t need these external validations and accolades.
Stop seeking approval and give yourself permission. Learn to trust your own instincts and abilities. Above all, don’t let imposter syndrome hold you back. Defy your inner critic and false sense of fraudulence and keep writing. You’re a writer because you write - and you have something wonderful to create and share with the world. So get to work.