Sunday Brunch Club
For this edition of Sunday Brunch Club, a new blog series where I’ll explore popular terms in the writing zeitgeist and attempt to connect writers, creators, and professionals with like-minded friends, I’ll be covering imposter syndrome.
Chances are, you’ve heard of it. The term was coined in the 70s and now thousands of academic and entertainment articles have been written about what it is and how to overcome it. According to the American Psychological Association, it’s a very real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt attributed to high-achievers. I asked my colleagues and friends what they thought and got mixed feedback. A popular opinion is that at one point or another, we’ve all had it.
I first heard of imposter syndrome from a beta reader. He said he follows a lot of writers and creators and they often feel mired in self-doubt for reasons like not having “good enough” writing credentials, a traditionally published book, the ability to write full-time, a certain writing method or routine, or a high number of followers. So when is self-doubt considered imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is different from self-doubt in that it impacts high-achievers with an inability to recognize their own qualifications, not people experiencing reasonable self-doubt. For example, a banker with no background in medicine might feel like an imposter applying for a position as a doctor. That makes sense. A writer might think their latest draft is crap. That’s normal. But chronically believing you’re unqualified, undeserving, or underprepared even when you’ve put in the time and work – that’s imposter syndrome.
For this edition of Sunday Brunch, I’d like to throw up a few reminders for those experiencing self-esteem issues anywhere on the spectrum.
1. Qualified is a relative term.
The publishing industry is often described as a small village with only a few gatekeepers. Sure, independent publishers, Amazon, and self-publishing have increased access to smaller voices. But the perception remains that a traditional publishing contract or an award from the literary elite define success, even though the people handing them down are just people, only slightly more qualified than the authors or creators they’re reviewing.
Here’s the real deal: just because someone told you that in order to do X, you should probably have X credential or X experience doesn’t make it true. Even if the person dispensing advice is brilliant, successful, and well-liked by many people, it still doesn’t make it true.
The world may seem small but the amount of knowledge our race has aggregated is not. It would take many lifetimes to learn everything in your field. Why do only a small number of people get to decide what’s worth learning?
Yes, I accept that to be a writer, you should probably be a reader. Yes, I accept that studying ancient art is a good idea for any painter. But no rules are hard and fast rules, and no qualifications are absolutely required. If every writer and painter waited for the art community to consider them qualified, they might never create.
2. Other people aren’t as qualified as they look.
If you’re comparing yourself to other people in your field, stop. Most people are projecting a fantasy version of themselves. They aren’t showing you the whole truth, the struggle, the same feelings of self-doubt. Some people even exaggerate their backgrounds and fabricate credentials. Even if they’re telling the truth and they’re the most qualified a person can get, they’re still not better than you.
Say you’re a writer with no college degree and they’re an author with an MFA. That doesn’t mean you have to get an MFA. Their MFA doesn’t qualify them to be a writer, it qualifies them to be a person who received a degree called an MFA. It might help them on their journey but it isn’t required.
I can see this post steering into dangerous territory about the validity of college degrees, but I want to make a point here: credentials, degrees, and participation in workshops, seminars, etc. are not required to be a writer or creator or professional. There is a place for people without those credentials.
Same goes for writing groups on Facebook and workshops and hashtags on Twitter: they are not required, no matter how many people tell you they’re essential. Plenty of people who don’t have the time or energy to join those groups publish fantastic art.
3. If you recognize and own your self-doubt, it can be transformed.
Whether you’re suffering from self-doubt or imposter syndrome, a proven technique to overcome it is to recognize its existence. Several friends said once they realized how bad their self-esteem really was, they treated it like a medical condition and saw a doctor, talked to a counselor or built a support group. Taking any steps seems to be better than taking none at all.
Writer Profile: An Interview with Britt Whidden
I chose to interview Britt Whidden, a copywriter and brand consultant based out of Nashville after she identified as someone with imposter syndrome while I was researching. She submitted answers to a few short questions, indicating that a tribe of like-minded creators can both help and hurt each other. In the following text, IS stands for imposter syndrome.
SH: There’s a lot of advice out there about overcoming imposter syndrome. Has any of it worked for you?
BW: Some of the advice I’ve received has been to write daily affirmations and journal little victories or moments of gratitude I’ve experienced throughout the day. It’s daunting. I also have dabbled in mindfulness and it’s been a game changer too. I am able to separate the actions (mine and other parties) from the thoughts that cloud my judgment and push a negative agenda. I also was able to afford talk therapy sessions and worked through some other mental health issues that enabled IS to have some prevailing themes in my life.
SH: Do you know other people struggling with it? Do you feed off each other in a positive or negative way? Both?
BW: I know quite a few folks who have dealt with or are actively combating Imposter Syndrome. I get a lot of support and commendations from some furiously happy internet friends collectively named The Bloggess Tribe. There are SO many of us threaded throughout the BT with creative, talented minds that we tend to stick up for each other. For me, it’s been negative at times to see someone in the group spiraling or publically dealing with the anguish of allegedly not being good enough to do anything. When I have active IS, I find myself comparing my journey to their success or failure. Either way, I feel IS then becomes a thief of joy.
SH: What do you think the difference between low self-esteem and imposter syndrome is?
BW: I do think that my IS comes from a place of prolonged bullying and tormenting as a child for my appearance and education. It ruined my self-esteem as a child and teenager, to the point where I believed everything they were saying about me for nearly a decade. I didn’t believe I was good enough for positive attention and my work has suffered from the constant fear of “being had” again in a professional setting. For instance, my battle for bettering my self-esteem placed my self-worth in the hands of my work. My IS told me that I couldn’t possibly have the guts to turn an assignment into anything meaningful. Without the strategies and mindfulness in place to overcome, I would swing between a mental state where I could not let myself turn anything regardless of the task, and researching everything I possibly could on a topic until I missed the deadline because I was trying to make it just right.
Connect with Britt @whiddengem on Twitter or through her website.
Many creators feel as though they’ve developed low self-esteem, up to and including experiencing imposter syndrome. In some cases, trauma and bullying have been identified as possible influences.
If you feel like you’re unqualified or unworthy, remember that you don’t have to be qualified to create and those who are qualified are just people, like you. Recognize your self-doubt and face it. Go on a mission to strengthen your self-esteem (I’ll have more on this soon!) and if you need additional help, reach out to your community or on social media.
That’s it for this edition of the Sunday Brunch Club. Please leave your comments here and on Twitter. I’d love to hear what you think! Contact me directly for inquiries, collaboration requests, and other business.