Stop Feeling Like a Fake – Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

By Susan K. Hamilton

Have you ever felt that you didn’t deserve your success? That you weren’t good enough, competent enough, or smart enough—and that eventually, someone was going to catch on? You’re not the only one, and it is entirely possible that you might suffer from Impostor Syndrome (sometimes called imposter phenomenon). 

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome (or imposter phenomenon) is when people who—typically—are high-achievers always have a feeling of inadequacy, even if there is a truckload of evidence of the contrary. You’re not convinced you’re good enough and your success has come by accident or through sheer dumb luck. And you tell yourself that you need to work harder and harder, so people don’t catch on to your charade.

While any person can experience impostor syndrome, it can hit writers very hard, especially if you are an unpublished or self-published writer. Sometimes writers even hesitate to even call themselves writers. Personally, I’ve felt that way. Sometimes I still do today. I self-published my first novel, and for a long time I had difficulty telling people I was a writer because I just knew, deep down, they’d find out that I was self-published and not a “real” writer.

Impostor Syndrome helps make you feel inadequate, and when you start to think about yourself like that, it can be exceedingly difficult to shake yourself loose. Even worse, it can have a seriously detrimental effect on your writing: you start to second-guess your decisions. You are ruthless in your self-critiques. You wonder why you bother writing at all. And worst of all, sometimes you just stop writing.

You’re not the only one

When you’re struggling with feelings like these you can feel very alone. Plus, when you’re feeling like an impostor, you don’t necessarily want to share with anyone lest they find out your secret, right? I’ll share a little secret with you: I know you’re not alone because I’ve lived with Impostor Syndrome, too.

Back in college (more years ago than I care to admit) I wrote my first novel manuscript. It was a labor of love and I sent it out for consideration to several publishers. Everyone said no. I investigated self-publishing, but it was to expensive. Eventually I stumbled on the concept of print-on-demand (POD) publishing, and that was the route I chose.

After the book was out, I proudly shared it with family and friends. The vast majority were enthusiastic and supportive, but I was not prepared for the people who looked at me sideways when I mentioned POD and said, “Oh. You used a vanity press,” with such distain that it was abundantly clear to me that in their eyes, I wasn’t a real writer, that my work must be sub-par because a big publishing house didn’t pick up the manuscript.

It was absolutely crushing. What it told me was that I didn’t belong at the grown-ups table because I was still playing pretend.

After that, when people asked about my  novel, I found myself skirting around the topic of who published the book as if by admitting to POD publishing it was a glaring neon sign that I was just PRETENDING to be a writer, and that as soon as people knew that, they’d just dismiss me and my work. I started saying things like, “I know it didn’t get put out by a REAL publisher.” Or when people said, “You’re an author?” I’d deflect and say things like, “Well, aspiring. I’m still trying to get noticed by a traditional publisher.”

The question is: how do you deal with Imposter Syndrome?

How did I deal with it? Honestly, it took a long time, but I finally realized that just by the act of writing, that made me a writer. I also realized that the people who were looking down weren’t writers either. In fact, most of them hadn’t written a damn thing longer than a college research paper, and that they had no right to judge me on my process when they’d never gone through it themselves. Here are a few other things that might help you (and I’ve used several of these techniques):

There are some excellent tips in this Psychology Today article from Bryan E. Robinson, Ph. D., and in this article from Abigail Abrams on Time.com, but I’d like to talk about a few ideas specifically for writers:

1. First things first, try to figure out if you are just frustrated with a project you’re working on or if you really are suffering from imposter syndrome. You can take a quiz created by Pauline Rose Clarence, one of the researchers who first identified Impostor Syndrome in 1978 if you’re interested. 

2. Remember that you’re not alone. I said earlier that feeling like an impostor can happen to anyone, even famous writers like Neil Gaiman and Maya Angelou. It is important to remember that you’re not in this boat alone, you have a lot of company (including me!).

If you have a writer’s group that you work with, regardless of whether it is online or face-to-face, they can be a great resource and support network. Lean on them. If you don’t have one, I highly recommend you look around and see what you can find.

3. Stop trashing yourself! Throw junk words out the window. Stop saying things like “oh, it’s nothing,” “Well, I’m not really a real writer,” and “It’s no big deal.” You are a writer. You understand how powerful words are—they can lift you up or they can cut you down. So, stop undermining yourself with your own words. Don’t demean yourself and be proud of your writing accomplishments. I mean it, knock it off.

4. Keep writing! Whatever you do, don’t stop writing. If you’re having issues about the manuscript your working on, do some short stories. Stuck on short stories, try some poetry. Or an article. And don’t worry if your material isn’t published. If you’re not published, that’s okay. You’re still a writer. You might be aspiring to be a published writer, but you’re still a writer. Let your work speak for itself and be proud of it.

5. Let go of perfectionism. I’m not saying be sloppy or don’t give it your all, but remember, nothing is perfect and sometimes we can get so obsessed with it, it becomes unhealthy. That’s when you start saying things like, “It isn’t perfect, I don’t deserve to call myself a writer,” and you start to shy away from telling people that you’re a writer because you’re so afraid that one mistake will unmask you as a fraud.

For starters, unless you’ve directly plagiarized something from another writer, you’re not a fraud. Don’t hitch your self-esteem as a writer to creating the PERFECT story. The best stories have bumps and warts. My first novel is full of them, and I love it in all its imperfect glory. Did I make mistakes in it? Heck, yea, but I learned something from each mistake, and they all helped be a better writer. Mistakes are learning opportunities (yes, it is cliché, but it is also true).

In addition to these tips, you’ll find more great information on Impostor Syndrome and how to approach it in this Psychology Today article from Bryan E. Robinson, Ph. D., and in this article from Abigail Abrams on Time.com.

If you’re really caught in the clutches of Imposter Syndrome, it isn’t going to go away overnight. You’re going to have to work for it, but in the end, this is one more chapter in your story. This is the conflict for the hero (that’s you!) to defeat the monster, get your reward, and when people ask if you’re a writer, you can answer with confidence.

“Yes. Yes, I am.”

Susan K. Hamilton is the award-winning author of epic, dark, and urban fantasy books including Shadow King, Darkstar Rising, and the forthcoming The Devil Inside. She’s also dipped her toe in the short story pond and had her work included in two short story anthologies from Writing Bloc: ESCAPE! (2018) and DECEPTION! (releasing 2020).
Horse-crazy since she was a little girl, she also loves comfy jeans, pizza, great stand-up comedy, and pretty much every furry creature on the planet (except spiders). Susan lives near Boston with her husband and a cat who runs the house like a boss.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.