Sometimes I start to wonder whether I am real, or maybe I am just making things up. Maybe I am just dreaming it all, and I will wake up and I’ll go back to my life before writing. I’m not sure I really had a life before writing — as it was somehow always part of my days… what I really mean is going back to the moment when I haven’t written anything for an audience.
Up to very recently, my writing existed in a vacuum — on my laptop, in my dog-eared notebooks, in several files scattered on my phone. It existed, but only barely — like it was something translucent, dream-like, intangible, where you get the feeling, but you cannot really put a finger on it. Balancing between a dream and reality. And then I entered the world of writing for an audience and I left my safe little bubble — only to let monsters out of the box, only to allow them to haunt me, only to grow and improve and finally become the writer I was always supposed to be.
Imposter syndrome, the empty-page-disease, aka writer’s block and the damned comparison — these are my monsters and if I am not careful enough, they come out to play and they throw me around, leaving me breathless and in tears.
I know you have all been there, I know you know my monsters, for their species is ruining your days just as they are ruining mine. At first, I thought I could avoid it — not because I was so sure of my abilities. The contrary, I was so sure I am not good at it that there was no need for imposter syndrome to drag me down, there was no up.
But then somehow my readers thought more of me than I had thought of myself, somehow they gave me more credit than I had thought I deserved. They cheered for me and made me soar and they made me rise to a level from where there was already a way down.
And this is when my imposter syndrome hit me.
I wouldn’t mind it visiting me every now and then, enveloping me in its dull grey sadness, blunting my senses, taking away my good night sleep. I would be fine if it happened like once a month… but it’s getting silly. It’s like a regular now, sitting in the corner, watching me work, snorting with laughter when I get a little hopeful about something I have done. Or even worse, whispering in my ear, stopping me from sitting down to write — sifting out all my ideas, mocking this, ridiculing that, making fun of my book plot.
It makes sure I know how useless I am, reminding me of all my rejections, pointing out all my stupid mistakes — it remembers everything in great detail, citing dates and occasions of my failures. It thinks I should just give up. And I am tired of fighting it. And I have to admit that it is doing me a huge favour, forcing me out of my comfort zone, making me grow, no matter how painful it is, making me find ways to prove myself differently.
Just like me, you can’t avoid it. You need to face your monster eventually. Or take it up a notch, you need your imposter syndrome to get to where you are supposed to be. It keeps you on your toes, it questions you and makes you improve, it is doing you a service.
So how to deal with it?
You are not lying, this is your version of the truth
The worst thing about imposter syndrome for me is that I am scared that you will all discover eventually that I am not all that, that I am a boring, worthless fraud. One day you will see it, that I am lying to you all, I am pretending to be a writer, I pretend to know what I am talking about, yet in most cases, I know just a little bit more than you on the subject I pretend to have expertise.
If you ever felt something similar, you need to rephrase this. Let’s get this straight: You are not lying, this is your version of the truth.
There is no objective definition for being a writer or being a good writer or even being an expert. Just the fact that you write makes you a writer. The fact that some people find your stories relatable and they make them feel something makes you good enough and it justifies your writing. The fact that you know some of a certain topic and you decide to help others who know less about it makes you an expert.
It is about perspective. Lying and presenting your version of the truth is not the same thing.
You don’t exist in a vacuum
It is easy to fall for comparing yourself only with those who are doing better than you — after all you need goals and idols and muses and role models to follow. But by focusing on those who have it better than you, you fail to see the other side of reality. You don’t exist only in relation to the celebrities and influencers, whose level you cannot yet reach. You also have a lot of people behind you — some might be looking at you as a role model, an idol or an example to follow. Fixing your sight only the way ahead is a great attitude if you want to get ahead — but it also sets you up for comparison where you will surely bleed out. Self-reflection requires you to contemplate also the journey — the milestones you have reached, the hills you climbed, the distance you already covered.
If you must compare yourself, then please be fair, and compare yourself to both who are ahead of you and who are behind you.
Don’t let the disease spread
I have known imposter syndrome even before I had become part of the writing community, I just didn’t know it had a name. I have known the familiar grip of its greedy cold fingers on my heart. I have known how it made me question everything I say or do. I know how it stopped me from asking for a promotion or speaking up for others — it made me feel worthless, it made me feel I am nothing. Imposter syndrome is not exclusive to writing or creating, it can infiltrate your professional life, your relationship and even your parenthood.
Make peace with your imposter syndrome and if it appears, accept it’s there before it starts to throw a tantrum and make a mess of the whole house.
If it is related to your writing career, then accept it, fight it, move on — don’t let it get to you, because it can get nasty and can easily make you spiral into an anxiety or depression.
Settle for good enough, forget about perfect
Imposter syndrome is telling you that you shouldn’t do anything as long as it isn’t perfect. And at once it is also telling you it will never be perfect. Know that it will never be perfect.
You don’t need to be perfect to succeed.
You are a writer. How do I know? Because you write? Are you good? Maybe? Are you perfect? Probably not. Can you get there? To perfection, no — as it is changing as you improve, and its absoluteness is more relative than you would think.
Settle for being good enough. You are doing your best to become the best you can. You are improving, you are taking it seriously, you are putting a lot of work, time and energy to it. You are reading, you are experimenting. You are writing a lot and editing even more. It is a journey and you should enjoy it. It’s hard work, but it’s not just blood, sweat and tears — it’s also joy and satisfaction and time for big revelations. Don’t miss out on the good things just because the bad things hurt more.
Imposter syndrome is inevitable.
Only those who don’t think at all can stay out of its reach.
When it comes to visiting you, please know that you are in good company. Don’t believe me? Look around and believe them:
Maya Angelou: I have written 11 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.’
Jennifer Lopez: Even though I had sold 70 million albums, there I was feeling like “I’m no good at this.”
Meryl Streep: You think, “Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”
And my personal favourite of all time… (for this quote only this article worth bookmarking, just saying)
Neil Gaiman: Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.
On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name*. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”
And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”
And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.
All we can do is to embrace that it is here to say. Maybe we should be friends, after all, it spends so much time around, do you think we might be worth it?