Imposter Syndrome – the worst possible thing for a Writer?

For as long as I can remember, when it comes to my writing I have always found myself desperate for positive endorsement – both my own and from others. In the first instance we’re talking about self-esteem; in the second, about reviews, comments, feedback, sales.

Actually in my case it’s about more than just endorsement; it’s about validation of me.

To a certain extent you can generate a degree of self-esteem in splendid isolation: give yourself a challenge, a project, a deadline to hit; find that you’ve written something of which you’re really proud. But endorsement from others is, perhaps inevitably, harder to come by – and often, when it does arrive, there is always the opportunity to devalue it (an opportunity regularly taken): “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”

Recently I came across the Imposter Syndrome theory:

Impostor syndrome is a psychological occurrence in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon do not believe they deserve their success or luck.


i.e. we’re actually not as good as we’d like to think we are…

For writers, one of the additional challenges we face when it comes to Impostor syndrome is that proof of competence or talent is, by and large, entirely subjective. If a sports person breaks a world record, that’s a fact; there can be no doubt as to their abilities, what they have just achieved. If someone tells a writer that something they have written is ‘good’ – well, that’s just one subjective opinion isn’t it..? If you receive applause at an ‘open mic’, well, the audience applauds everyone. Someone on the Impostor syndrome spectrum can excuse any praise away…

Intrigued, I have now taken two separate ‘tests’ for Impostor syndrome, and the results suggest I have significant traits and characteristics which indicate that ‘I have it’ – though whether the infection is mild or terminal, the jury’s out. [By the way, is there something comforting in being able to give invisible things a name? Labelling turns the nebulous and indistinct into a more concrete foe or ally.]

Mumbo jumbo or not, recognition is, I suspect, the most important thing; it gives me something to work against. It also explains why the extremely positive feedback I had from mentoring on a Writers’ Retreat back in February was so important to me – and why I want more of the same: it was immediate, personal, and direct. Ok, it wasn’t about my writing per se, but all my writing and publishing experience allowed me to act as an effective mentor. Everybody said so.

So what’s the ‘solution’ to Impostor syndrome? Well, in the first instance, maybe it’s simply to keep ‘plugging away’, to keep writing, to strive to get ‘better’. And then, when someone says something positive or exceptional about my work to actually believe them. Of course, the Holy Grail would be external, tangible and incontrovertible proof akin to the world record: sales, followers, a pile of novels on a table in Waterstones.

But perhaps the most important thing of all would be to start with the default premise that what I produce is good / worthwhile / meaningful…

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