Imposter Syndrome for Writers Is a Real Thing (+ the Key to Slaying It)

Imposter syndrome.

It’s a trending phrase these days. You see it everywhere. Just hearing the words may evoke a twinge of recognition, along with an accompanying clench of nausea in your gut.

A tremendous number of writers identify with the idea of imposter syndrome. Foundationally, this is the feeling that you aren’t good enough, that whatever praise or success you may have achieved was nothing more than a stroke of luck, and that sooner or later people will “find you out” as a fraud or at best a one-trick pony.

It’s no wonder writers seem to be disproportionately affected by imposter syndrome. For starters, we put our most vulnerable bits on display for a living. More than that, we work in a craft that not only requires high-level and often delicate skills, but also one that is often judged arbitrarily, with opinions based more on people’s emotional experiences than on any set standard. If you make money from your art, even that can often fail to provide any kind of stable measure of your success. Your first book may be a bestseller, but the next may not be.

In fact, the more success a writer achieves, the more aggressive imposter syndrome can become. After all, the more people who “believe” in your success, the more you have to live up to. And yet, it can sometimes feel like you’re the only one suffering. You look around on social media, and all your peers or idols seem to be happily sailing through their careers with few or any doubts, sharing win after win. You may think, Well, they seem to have it all together, so I must really be an imposter.

Maybe you’re just starting out and battling the belief that “I could never be a writer.” Or maybe you’re on your dozenth book and making enough to write full-time but constantly fighting the feeling that “I’m not worthy” or “I’ll never really be good enough.” Either way, you’re not alone.

I’m just going to say this upfront: there’s no quick fix for imposter syndrome. There’s no snapping your fingers and declaring, “Begone!” Why? Because imposter syndrome isn’t caused by external factors. It’s not the result of how well you write, how many books you’ve sold, how many good reviews you’ve received, or how much money you make as a writer. Imposter syndrome lives much deeper inside, like a resident parasite. This means banishing it requires concentrated and ongoing efforts to understand its true causes.

This post has been on my mind for quite some time. One of the reasons I want to share it is because I believe it’s valuable for writers who are perceived as successful to own that they, too, may feel like imposters. This is important because it highlights the fact that the feelings of imposter syndrome have nothing to do with actual metrics of success. Indeed, harking back to our discussions of the shadow in the last two posts, working through imposter syndrome is very much about working through one’s own personal shadow.

So I’ll just give you this one for free: although I have been a full-time writer for over a decade, sold over half a million books, been published in seven languages, won awards, blah, blah, blah—I face down imposter syndrome every day of my life. I’m scared every time I launch a book, such my latest Writing Archetypal Character Arcs. Negative reviews still put me in a tailspin. Every time, I publish a post (including this one), there’s a voice in my head telling me I’m not saying anything particularly smart or valuable or original—that one of these days, people are going to figure out I’m an uneducated hack who makes no sense—that the only reason I’m a successful writer at all is thanks to sheer dumb luck.

Obviously, there are other (louder) voices that keep me going. And I only share this because I want other writers (especially those who perhaps don’t yet have enough outward metrics of success to help them argue against the inner critic) to know they are not alone and that the voice of imposter syndrome is not some clarion of truth that must be heeded.

The other reason I’m sharing this post now is because some of my own personal work with imposter syndrome recently bore some fruit that gave my thoughts enough shape for a full post. I actually had another post scheduled for this week, but after encountering powerful insights from two separate sources this week, I wanted to hammer out my thoughts while they were still hot.

The Reason You Feel Like an Imposter? You Are

I know that reads like click-bait. I know it probably feels uncomfortable. I know it’s an extreme statement.

But… it’s probably true.

We are imposters if we are pretending to be something we are not. In some instances, this may fall under the old dictum of “fake it ’til you make it,” which may inspire us to pretend we have it way more together than we do. But it may it also result when we have, in fact, refused to integrate our own good qualities or successes, in which case we may be pretending, even to ourselves, that we are not as good as the facts clearly say we are.

Regardless, the experience of imposter syndrome indicates a lack of cohesion between inner and outer realities. Sometimes this lack of cohesion results from our fears about claiming a true identity (whether that of a noob or an expert). However, it often points to a lack of understanding about this inner conflict between old/safe identity and newly-emerging/totally-scary identity. We may not even recognize that these two competing identities are the mutual creators of our often nauseating uncertainty of how tell which voice—the encourager or the critic—is telling us the truth.

This week, in reading Deena Metzger’s Writing for Your Life, I came across her description of the imposter syndrome experienced by Marie-Louise Von Franz, “the renowned student of Carl Jung.” In Metzger’s words:

Marie-Louise Von Franz… tells how she is attacked by the critic every time she sits down to a new work. “You don’t know anything; you can’t write; that’s stupid” is how the critic belittles one of the most brilliant people of our time. This, she says, sometimes goes on for days. But she persists, to our good fortune, and the work appears.

As I read this, I was struck by how all the world sees a woman like Von Franz—how I see her: as someone who gave so much to the world through her writings. From our view, on the outside looking in, the woman was certainly not an imposter. She was brilliant mind, with whom few could keep up. And yet, she was an imposter… to herself—because some part of her insisted on believing, on pretending, that she was not this brilliant mind, that in fact her contributions were worse than worthless.

Often, we hear this term “imposter syndrome” and think the “cure” must be just getting over the idea that we are an imposter. However, I think the cure is the opposite. The cure is recognizing we are imposters, but perhaps not in the ways we initially assume.

The Critic As the Shadow Protector

Imposter syndrome is really just another name for the hell our inner critics like to put us through. I have spoken before about how the inner critic can, in fact, be an ally. When we are able to cultivate a good relationship with our inner critic, it becomes an advisor able to offer us invaluable guidance.

Again, this points to shadow work, because a critic whispering abuses in our ears is clearly not a helpful or integrated part of our conscious personalities. Even still, its very presence indicates there must be some corresponding good stuff hiding out in our unconscious shadows, waiting for us to rehabilitate and reintegrate it.

What if we stopped viewing the critic as the bad guy? We can (and should) still call it out on its unacceptable behaviors, while also acknowledging that its deeper motives may be to help and protect us.

Imposter syndrome is usually the sign of an identity shift. Either our identity within the world has shifted or we seek to do something that will shift it (aka, become a published writer). To adopt a new identity, even a positive one, means allowing an old identity to die. Any shift in identity can be experienced by the ego as life-threatening. Particularly as writers, we are recreating ourselves with every new thing we write. What if imposter syndrome is popping up just to try to keep us safe?

Here’s a thunderclap from Metzger:

The critic may have developed as a protector when we were young to help us avoid situations in which we would have been utterly powerless.

Boom. And isn’t that the truth? When that horrible nagging voice shows up and tells us we shouldn’t do that, that we’re only going to embarrass ourselves, that really we’re not as good as we think we are—isn’t it ultimately trying to steer us away from situations that seem as if they may hurt us?

The trick here isn’t, of course, agreeing with the critic, throwing up our hands in defeat, and walking away (like Rex in Toy Story 2: “Oh well, we tried.”). Rather, the trick is in diving into the depths of ourselves to rescue and rehabilitate the shadow protector into a truly powerful and helpful ally.

Slaying Imposter Syndrome With an Understanding of Who You Really Are (aka, Where You’re Really At)

If imposter syndrome is all the result of a faulty approach to how you interact with your personal identities, then the key to slaying it is simply understanding who you really are (cue that most timeless of all memes: “Always be you. Unless you can be Batman. Then be Batman.”)

Now, as an Enneagram Three and therefore someone who has spent a lot of her life pondering identity, I can tell you that figuring out “who you really are” can often feel like looking for a needle in a needlestack. After all, it may very well seem that you are both of these identities competing for your attention. You are both a talented writer and a struggling nobody. You are both someone who knows what they’re talking about and someone who is full of beans. You are both someone who is confident she knows what she knows and someone who is riddled with doubt.

This is because humans aren’t any one thing at any one time. Rather, we exist on a timeline. We are constantly becoming. Therefore, it can be more grounding to think less about what particular identities you inhabit and more about where you’re at in the process.

When it comes to any public enterprise in which success is measured by outside metrics such as sales, one of the best models I’ve ever encountered is one I just heard about yesterday on revolutionary business coach Simone Grace Seol’s podcast I Am Your Korean Mom, in which she outlined her model for Three Stages of Growth.

According to Seol, those stages are:

1. Creation (when you’re writing the book, building the business, etc.)

2. Acclimation (when you’re adjusting to the new identity of success)

3. Acceleration (when you’re taking everything you’ve learned and going 2.0)

The first two phases are where imposter syndrome are most likely to strike.

In the creation phase, you may feel like an imposter for the simple reason that you are treading into uncharted territory. You are daring to believe you can change your identity—which freaks out the critic and makes it want to slam on the brakes. The good news here is that all you have to do is keep going. Eventually, you will be someone who has completed a book, someone who has mastered the skillsets of writing, someone who knows that they know how to write book.

But then comes the acclimation phase. According to Seol, acclimation is a phase few people know about—and therefore few people know how to handle. She says:

Now, how many of you … have achieved a really big goal or created something that you really wanted for a long time only to be surprised that you feel really, really terrible? So many of us think that hitting the goal is going to be the best thing ever, but then we realize that once we do hit the ambitious goal it starts to feel really, really scary and anxious and we just kind of have a meltdown a lot of the times. It’s a real thing. The pain of acclimation … is that now that you’ve created the thing that you wanted to create, now that you achieved the goal, now you have to get used to … being somebody who has that as part of her reality.

As we’ve already seen, imposter syndrome is likely to be caused by competing identities within a person’s psyche. If you can identify where you are within the process, you can gain clues as to which identities are struggling to become fully integrated. Doing this requires the ability for deep introspection, radical self-honesty, and time to let the pieces of one’s self digest and reassemble. This is the work that will allow imposter syndrome to cease being a painful enemy and instead become a useful tool for growing one’s self throughout the journey of the writing life.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions? Have you ever struggled with imposter syndrome as a writer? What did it teach you? Tell me in the comments!

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Author: K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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  • June 5, 2023