Imposter Syndrome: a false–and sometimes crippling–belief that our successes are created through luck or fraud, that we’ve simply fooled people into believing we deserved success rather than earning it on our own merit. A belief that can taint everything we do, preventing us from seeking opportunities or enjoying success when we achieve it. And one that is particularly common among creative folks; every single writer and artist I’ve ever met has struggled with imposter syndrome at some point.
My own struggles with imposter syndrome
In some ways, I’ve struggled less with imposter syndrome than most. I’ve always felt comfortable calling myself a writer, and transitioning to author was fairly simple. After ten years of hard work, I never once believed that publishing Keeper of the Dawn was simply a stroke of luck. I still have a lot to learn about the writing craft, but I am confident in the skills I’ve already developed, the stories I’ve already told.
But imposter syndrome still plays a major role in my life. It rears its ugly head when I research grants and opportunities to teach workshops, telling me I don’t qualify for those things because “I’ve only published one book”. It cripples me when I attempt to apply for lucrative freelance jobs. I can’t begin to express how many times I’ve turned away from an application because I didn’t feel qualified, even if I had all the required skills.
This month I confronted my imposter syndrome in a massive way by speaking on my first panel at Can Con: The Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature. I spoke about asexuality, which was deeply nerve wracking because I only recently came out as graysexual, and only discovered the concept itself a couple years before that. Many amazing people have been doing work around asexuality much longer, and I felt like I was taking space from “authentic” asexuals. But asexuality is a spectrum, and graysexuality is part of that, and I’ve spent a lot of time discovering the asexual community online. So I convinced myself to apply, and then to speak.
So how did the panel go? It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The room was overflowing with interested parties, all with their own thoughts and questions to contribute. Several people thanked me for my honesty afterwards. And none of that would have ever happened if I let imposter syndrome win.
How can we fight imposter syndrome?
This amazing experience got me thinking about all the other opportunities I’ve passed on due to imposter syndrome, and the number of opportunities other creatives must be missing for the same reason. Every creative I know–professional or otherwise–has admitted to struggling with imposter syndrome. I know it’s had a real, definable cost for my creative career. How much would that cost be if I pooled it with the cost of all the opportunities other writers have missed?
More importantly, how can we stop missing these opportunities? I’m still trying to figure that out, but I’ve got a few ideas. These strategies are intended for writers, but can be adapted to suit virtually any career.
1. Introduce yourself as a writer/author/artist/creative professional EVERYWHERE
The more you tell other people you’re a writer, the more you’ll start to believe it yourself. There’s something powerful about saying the words “I’m a writer” or “I’m an author” over and over again. It becomes one of the main ways you define yourself, the same way any job does.
Of course, telling people you’re a writer often leads to awkward questions. For a long time I only introduced myself as a writer in actual writing groups, because I was tired of people asking where they could buy the stack of manuscripts I was still editing. You might want to do the same, and that’s fine. Writing communities are safe spaces where you can build confidence in those four words, “I am a writer”. But you need to become part of those communities, and start introducing yourself that way, if you ever want to feel like it’s true.
And someday you’ll be confident enough to introduce yourself that way everywhere.
2. Find or build a supportive writing community
You know what really makes you feel like a writer? Hanging out with other writers, having them acknowledge all the work you’re doing, sharing your work with them in a safe space. We are all our own worst critics, and sometimes it takes another person pointing out how much we’ve accomplished for us to realize that it’s true.
The Nanowrimo community is particularly brilliant at fighting imposter syndrome. On those forums you’re a writer, no matter how many words you accomplish or how much you’ve written before this Nano. And they help you celebrate every win, commiserate during every struggle. They constantly reinforce how awesome you are for doing this incredibly difficult work. It was in Nanowrimo communities that I first became confident calling myself a writer, and I suspect the same is true for many others.
3. Make lists of the tasks you complete, not just the goals you achieve
A few years ago I ran into a concept called “the win file” on a freelance writing blog (might have been The Renegade Writer, not sure). A win file is exactly what it sounds like: a file where you collect all your successes. These can include published pieces, awards, photos of speaking engagements, anything that reminds you of an achievement you’re proud of. When you’re feeling down about your writing, you can return to this win file and be encouraged by all the amazing things you’ve already accomplished.
This can be a great way to get inspired, but it doesn’t work so well if you look at those accomplishments and go “well those were all sheer dumb luck”. So I’m going to suggest an idea I actually got from a high school teacher: making “done” lists instead of (or as well as) “to do” lists.
Your “done” list can work a couple different ways. It can either list every single thing you accomplished that day, including housework, or it can focus only on writing/creative tasks. Either way, I want you to take a few minutes at the end of every day to write down all of the tasks you completed, even if it’s only writing a sentence.
Eventually you’ll have an entire notebook filled with the hard work you’ve put into your creative pursuits. This notebook is proof that your successes are hard won. When you feel like an imposter, simply turn to this notebook and it will remind you of every struggle you’ve faced along the way.
As creative professionals, sooner or later we all face imposter syndrome. It’s a fact of life. But there are ways to reduce it, and more importantly to fight through it so we aren’t missing out on the opportunities we deserve.
Have you used any of these strategies to combat imposter syndrome? Do you have any other strategies for fighting it? Let me know about them in the comments section below!