What is it you fear most as you sit in front of a blank screen? Perhaps the fear of rejection holds you back from putting words on paper. You know your work is likely to get rejected by publishers and agents because the experience of others told you to expect it.
Maybe you fear humiliation. Putting yourself out there on paper opens you up to all kinds of criticism and ridicule. It's really hard to be vulnerable in your writing because the critics' sting hurts that much more.
Or maybe your fear is much deeper.
What we fear the most
Let's look at a successful writer: we'll call her Anna. Anna has a few books under her belt that have achieved some success. But each time she sits down at her computer, she is overcome by fear—fear that she doesn't really have what it takes to be a good writer.
Anna is almost paralyzed with the thought, this time, the world will discover she's a fraud. She wonders what gives her the right to say she's a writer when she's not as talented or successful as others out there. She also wonders if today is the day that she'll be exposed as the imposter she really is.
Does this sound familiar? It should—it's a writer's biggest fear. And there's a technical name for this feeling we all have. It's called Imposter Syndrome. And it's a real thing first acknowledged about 40 years ago.
Defining the Imposter Syndrome
Two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, coined the term "Imposter Syndrome" in a paper for the journal Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice in 1978. They noticed that high-achieving women in their therapy groups all felt that they were frauds who were going to be exposed at any time. As others began to explore this phenomenon, they realized men are equally as affected.
Who suffers from Imposter Syndrome?
Academy Award winning actress Kate Winslet said, "I'd wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and think, I can't do this; I'm a fraud."
The poet and author Maya Angelou has impressive achievements: the first female poet, and the second poet ever, to recite a poem at a US Presidential Inauguration, and she was awarded the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom. She once shared that, "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.'"
And there are countless others just like you and me.
Perfectionism fuels Imposter Syndrome
The American Psychological Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science recognize Imposter Syndrome as a real phenomenon that holds people back from achieving their dreams and goals. And writers suffer from it prolifically because Imposter Syndrome goes hand-in-hand with perfectionism.
When you're facing that blank screen, does your mind reel with thoughts of writing beautiful, eloquent prose unlike anything that's been written before? If you don't write the perfect sentence, or even the perfect word, the first time, are you stymied? Do you procrastinate writing because you can't write the perfect draft in your first attempt?
What can you do about it?
If you've been nodding along with the description of Imposter Syndrome, the American Psychological Association offers the following ways to overcome the belief that you don't measure up.
Talk to your mentors
If you don't have a writing group you call home, now is the time to find one. Writing mentors are important for any writer to learn from and grow. If you read the acknowledgements from authors in books, they always mention their mentors who helped them realize and stretch to greater heights.
Writing mentors will let you know that your fears are both normal (we all struggle) and irrational (they're not based in fact or reality).
Recognize your expertise
Now flip the tables and mentor a young writer just getting started. Tutoring other writers will help you recognize your own expertise. You'll be able to acknowledge you've come a long way with your writing and you have much to offer others.
Realize no one is perfect
Everyone—every single writer—has had editors, agents, and/or publishers help them get better. Their work was not perfect; it needed help at one point.
Stop focusing on perfection and shoot for "good enough." Then get the help you need to make your work infinitely better. Hire an editor. Work with your agent. Find someone who can help you turn "good enough" into "great."
Talk to someone who can help
Beyond your mentors, a professional such as a psychologist or therapist can give you tools to break the cycle of thinking like an imposter. Hopefully, we've all gotten beyond the feeling that needing help is a moral weakness. A professional can help you make gains faster than you ever can on your own.
My friend, stick with it. You're not an imposter. You're a writer. And you'll get there some day if you don't give up.
In Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing, he said, "I wrote at least a thousand words a day every day from the age of twelve on… [W]hen I was twenty-two years old…I wrote the title 'The Lake' on the first page of a story that finished itself two hours later…with tears running off the tip of my nose, and the hair on my neck standing up…I realized I had at last written a really fine story."
It only took Ray 10 years to get there. Give yourself a little slack.
Now, help another writer out. Tell us in the comments below your feelings on Imposter Syndrome. What are you doing to conquer it?