For writers Imposter Syndrome is a chronic illness; one that comes in waves like nausea. Always there, a level of discomfort that you cope with and over-compensate for. Then comes the rising bile, the building sense that the truth is coming out and you try to choke and suppress it. Then finally the near vomit that feels like a liquid despair in your gut that can’t be purged. The fear that everyone knows, and your secret is out. You’re a fraud. A pretender. You don’t deserve to be here. The trust others put in you was misplaced...
Then the syndrome’s spasm passes, subsides enough to make you think it’s just a phase. An anomaly. A momentary lapse of reason. But it never goes away. It always comes back...
I long thought the more I achieved, the more experience I had, the less I would feel like an imposter. But that turned out to be a lie. Maybe because the more experienced the more I realise how much I didn’t know. And then the ‘achievements’ (whatever that means) feels ever more unwarranted. The imposter syndrome only gets worse. I make a living as a writer but it’s a privilege i don’t deserve.
From a young age my approach to imposter syndrome was always to double-down. Ever the pragmatist, I never thought I had talent. But I was arrogant enough to think I could do without it. If I worked harder, longer, read more, knew more, wrote more, I could make up for a lack of talent. Arguably it’s been an effective tool, but there are times when I wonder if this solution only exacerbates the problem. Such a work ethic comes from self awareness, but when bouts of imposter syndrome nausea hit the truth can’t be denied because you’ve already acknowledged it. And around and around we go; doubt fuelling over-compensation which just validates the doubt. Around and around until giving up starts to feel like the only way to not feel like a fraud... Don’t try and you don’t have to lie. The sweet relief of letting go...
Truth is, I feel like an imposter all the time. Not some of the time but all of the time. Some weeks are better than others. Some days are brutality. And even when it eases up it never goes away.
The things we want as writers; being produced, gaining credits, being published, making a living, being ‘in demand’, all of these things perpetually feel as if they stand on the shoulders of lies…
And being such a working writer comes with the psychological drain of Freelancing Labour. The nature of this creates mental dead weight that must be dragged with you every step as each job is fragile and fleeting, and the next gig never certain. The torturous psychology this brings is that you are only as valuable as you are succeeding. If you’re good you’ll have work, if you’re not, you won’t. All played out with immediate week by week evaluation and feedback of your worth. But this constant need to ‘prove’ your worth, prove your value, justify your legitimacy is a kind of slow torture - a Sisyphean task of uphill boulder rolling.
As the formal definition of someone suffering imposter syndrome reads;
“Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they actually are.
* “I must not fail"
* “I feel like a fake"
* “I just got lucky"
Impostor experience may be accompanied by anxiety , stress, or depression…”
And it’s these last words that scare me and i suspect all my fellow writers. The fall out of feeling like a fake and constantly trying to prove you’re not, is a road that leads to a very dark place.
Nothing I have said above is unique to me. And I certainly, please, don’t want compliments in the comments section with positive reinforcement. That’s not my schtick. But whilst self-aware characters in drama are to be avoided, self-awareness as a writer might be our only salvation. This is a universal problem particularly acute to creative people who live so much inside their own heads. And the human mind is beautiful and fragile, wonderful and complex and deeply fraught.
Below celebrated writer Neil Gaiman tells an anecdote of imposter syndrome and it makes me feel better.
“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.”