Opinion: Imposter Syndrome

Photo of Jane Steen at her computer

Historical novelist and indie author campaigner Jane Steen

British novelist Jane Steen, whose wonderful Opinion post last year led to the formation of ALLi’s Ethical Author campaign, provides comforting words of wisdom today about Imposter Syndrome, a well-documented condition that leads perfectly competent and even highly gifted people to doubt themselves. In fact, the more gifted you are, the more likely you are to suffer from it. Read on for reassurance…

“You’re such a good writer.”

Have you ever shrugged off such a remark with the feeling that the person saying it is just being kind? Have you ever suspected that a recent success was simply due to luck? Do you hesitate before releasing every new book, fearing that this is the book that’s going to make your readers turn away from you in disappointment? You, my indie writer friend, may be suffering from a touch of Imposter Syndrome.

A recent spate of invitations to speak in front of crowds of various compositions has had my own Imposter Syndrome pinging away at full speed.

Why do they want to hear from me? What qualifications do I have, for goodness’ sake?

It’s that feeling that somewhere out there is a Fraud Police who are going to tap me on the shoulder, mid-speech, and tow me off amid the laughter and ridicule of the audience.

Imposter Syndrome and High Achievers

photo of a male mannequin looking very fakeImposter Syndrome is a phenomenon that’s been recognized by psychologists for nearly half a century, and is well known, for example, in schools that recruit high numbers of gifted students. It’s more common in women than men, perhaps because society gives males more subliminal boosts to their self-worth when they’re very young. It usually rears its head as a reaction to some signifier of success – winning a contest, perhaps, or having a book that’s sold particularly well, or earning the adulation of fans, or having your opinion sought by someone of whose attention you, consciously or not, think you’re not worthy.

Authors, of course, often describe themselves as introverts, and yet they’re seeking to broadcast their words widely. They’re saying “look at me” and at the same time thinking “don’t look at me too much.” One of my favorite virtual mentors, Charlie Gilkey, calls such people “creative giants” because “It’s as if they were giants having to pretend to be normal people so that they didn’t step on others, scare them, or awe them.”

It’s Tougher for Indie Authors

Photo of female dummy looking very fakeFor indie writers there’s the added factor of lack of validation. Over the last few decades we’ve become accustomed to publishing professionals deciding if we’re good enough for publication, so the “not good enough” feeling can haunt us as we take the bold step of putting readers in charge of the decision to read our work—or not. And oddly enough, due to a quirk of the human psyche called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the more competent we are the more we doubt ourselves.

How to Deal with Imposter Syndrome

  1. First, recognize it for what it is. Learn to distinguish between your good instincts telling you there’s something wrong with your book (in which case, follow those instincts and get some editorial help) and your Imposter Syndrome trying to paralyze you.
  2. Second, and most important, do everything you can to make your work excellent. Above all use beta readers and/or developmental editors and/or manuscript critiques at an early stage, and act on their suggestions.
  3. Third, acknowledge that you’re not always going to be right,  and neither are other people. No work of literature is ever perfect, but no critic is God, either. This is a subjective art, and you’ll always have your naysayers and your yay-sayers. Respect the former but listen to the latter.

Photo of golden figure of an androgynous personAnd what happens if your worst nightmare comes true and ‘they’ really do call you out as a fraud?

Be brave. Examine their arguments and use them not as a stone to crush you, but as a springboard to refine your own unique thoughts. Remember that huge successes have often been preceded by one or more failures. You’re not an Imposter—you’re an Attempter, and that’s better than doing nothing.


OVER TO YOU Do you suffer from imposter syndrome? Have you found coping mechanisms? Please feel free to share your experience via the comments thread.

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26 Responses to Opinion: Imposter Syndrome

  1. Kari Trenten July 29, 2017 at 11:56 pm #

    Wonderful article on a handicap too many of us fight to overcome. Thank you for sharing some of your own methods of kicking Imposter Syndrome in a sensitive spot by striving to become stronger and more professional at our craft.

  2. Sarah June 2, 2016 at 9:47 am #

    A touch of comfort sense I have imposter syndrome all of the time.

  3. Francesca Burnes March 10, 2016 at 2:58 am #

    Put cold water in the container and let it pass through a flexible tube to a heating chamber. ‘I know some people who have to have their Venti coffee from Starbucks every morning,’ said Phil Tomich of Mr. Scientific Indian Discoveries in addition to Breakthroughs, delaware.

  4. Deb McEwan March 5, 2016 at 7:41 am #

    What a fantastic article and soooooo true. I experienced this very feeling on Thursday when I sold a lot more books than expected during a school visit. Thankfully, nobody tapped me on the shoulder and I left feeling that ‘I’d got away with it’.

  5. Veronika Bond January 22, 2016 at 4:43 pm #

    Thank you, Jane Steen! What a great article. I’d never heard of Imposter Syndrome or Dunning Kruger Effect. Yes, I can identify with this too. “Not an Imposter but an Attempter” – I like that.

    I have been working with an inexplicable sense of inadequacy ever since I started writing (about 20 years ago), had many long ‘conversations’ with her, and found creative ways of working this out together. Even though the ‘IS’ is extremely unpleasant and draining, I believe it has also made me a better writer.

    I agree with Chris’s comment, “many of our fears (us indie authors) of imposter-ness stem from that lack of external validation that comes from trad publishing.” And perhaps many writers (including myself) also underestimate in the beginning what it takes to become a good writer.

  6. Chris January 17, 2016 at 4:07 am #

    Wonderful article! I see IS as one end of a spectrum, on the other end of which is arrogance/overconfidence.

    Unfortunately, so many of our fears (us indie authors) of imposter-ness stem from that lack of external validation that comes from trad publishing.

  7. A.Hamlett January 13, 2016 at 11:40 pm #

    Well. What an ‘eye-opener’ this is. Sadly, ‘me to a tea’. I didn’t know IS for writers existed, thank you. It leaves me with some hope. I’d even stopped writing this last three months. Hopefully I can pick up a pen again.

  8. Mark McGinn January 13, 2016 at 6:48 am #

    Brings back memories. In my mystery, Best Served Cold – free on my website) I gave this syndrome to protagonist lawyer Sasha Stace who people all thought was a leader at the bar. Manfred Kets De Vries an eminent psychiatrist writes about imposter syndrome. Interestingly more women suffer than men.

  9. Naomi Knight January 12, 2016 at 9:48 pm #

    I still experience this. You hit the nail on the head so to speak. The imposter syndrome or jitters as I call them are the worst in the beginning. After publishing my first book I realize that it didn’t turn out all bad. But with each project there tends to be some anxiety. Good to know I’m not alone and that my subjective art isn’t for everyone. Indie Authors keep the self-doubt close. That’s how you know your moving forward.

  10. Roz Morris @Roz_Morris January 12, 2016 at 9:00 am #

    Oh I have this – in heaps! I often feel I don’t know what I’m doing – although as soon as I start to edit a passage, write something of my own, or teach at an event, I realise I’m well within my comfort zone. I wrote an application for an editing gig last night and surprised myself at the evidence I could cite to prove I could do it. The other day I had a lovely supportive email from a reader who’d just started one of my novels – and again, I found myself surprised at the confidence gap it filled.
    I think the perfectionist nature is at once a help and a hindrance. It drives us to ever-higher standards – and makes us always attempt what feels impossible.
    Thanks for taking the lid off, Jane!

    • Jane Steen January 12, 2016 at 4:25 pm #

      I’ve often experienced that moment of clarity and confidence right at the point where I actually dive into the work. Unfortunately, it’s preceded by weeks or months of self-doubt–an enormous waste of time and energy. I swear that’s the secret of many successful authors who may not be literary giants but know how to keep their fans happy–lack of self-doubt. Be bold, Roz! You’re an excellent writer.

  11. Tom January 12, 2016 at 1:35 am #

    Jane, This was a terrific post! It describes me so perfectly that as I read it I found myself thinking “all of this applies to me EXCEPT the part about being a competent writer”! Wow. I knew this tendency in myself, and mentioned it recently to a writing mentor. One of her suggestions was to replace the word(s) “fraud” or “impostor” with “outsider,” then focus on what makes your approach as an outsider unique and special. This short circuits the tendency to want to escape the impostor syndrome by trying to fit in, and drives us deeper into our own voice.

    • Jane Steen January 12, 2016 at 4:19 pm #

      Hey, that’s a pretty good tip. One of my great hopes for the indie scene is that it’ll encourage outsiders, because literature needs innovation. Sounds like you have a great mentor–ignore those nagging doubts and write your heart out, is my advice!

  12. Di Castle January 11, 2016 at 11:40 pm #

    This was an excellent post. Imposter Syndrome is common amongst those with some mental illnesses such as Bi Polar. High achieving individuals suddenly forget their successes and descent into the pit of thinking they might be found out as a fraud. Many similarities here.

    • Jane Steen January 12, 2016 at 12:30 am #

      There seems to be growing evidence of links between creativity and mental illness. Do we have a skewed perception of ourselves? I don’t know.

      • Veronika Bond January 22, 2016 at 4:30 pm #

        I assume it’s the natural ‘fine line between madness and genius’.

  13. Lilian Gafni January 11, 2016 at 10:33 pm #

    Thank you for a great post. Timely too. I’m going through this same syndrome right now. This will help.

  14. Philippa Rees January 11, 2016 at 6:46 pm #

    What an excellent post, and how very timely. I am in the pit of IS right now.

  15. James Fontana January 11, 2016 at 6:06 pm #

    The syndrome is often seen in persons who have achieved some success in a specialized field and also have the academic and/or professional markers to prove it.
    Peer recognition, for example. Yet they feel that they have arrived there by reason of some fraud on their part.

    Jim Fontana

    • Jane Steen January 11, 2016 at 10:56 pm #

      Which has to be the Dunning-Kruger effect–those persons are clearly highly competent, so most likely to suffer from IS.

      I came to the realization of myself as a creative fairly late, and I suspect that’s true of many ALLi members. Suddenly a lot of issues that have bugged me all my life are becoming clearer–it’s like getting to know myself for the first time. When you can confront issues like IS, they become an issue you can tackle!

  16. Karen Inglis January 11, 2016 at 5:51 pm #

    Great post! Glad to know I’m not alone 🙂 Thankfully, school visits always get me back on the straight and narrow!

  17. Jennifer Jensen January 11, 2016 at 5:04 pm #

    The Imposter Syndrome – what a great phrase! I’ve always been one to say, “why would he want to talk to me?” if calling for an interview, or “why would they want me to come speak?” in other instances. Thanks for the reminder that we can be our own worst enemies.

    • Jane Steen January 11, 2016 at 10:44 pm #

      I don’t know who coined the phrase “Imposter Syndrome” but you’re right, it’s spot on. Just remember, if people are calling to interview you or ask you to speak, that means they consider you have something to say that’s worth listening to!


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