What is Imposter Syndrome?

Most of us have felt it. It might be when we’re starting something new, or when we finally find our feet – and then we falter. It’s the curse of the creative, and the sickness of innovation. But what is imposter syndrome?

Basically, it can be summed up by the mental mantra:

“I am a fraud, pretending to be a [blank].”

This is the curse we repeat to ourselves over and over, convincing ourselves that we’re tricking the world, that we’re faking, that we don’t deserve success when we find it.

I definitely feel the effects of imposter syndrome at some point most days. I try to shrug it off and continue regardless but it’s sometimes too paralysing – leaving you in a bit of an existential crisis if you’re a full-time writer (“Should I jack it all in and become a lumberjack?”)

So I thought I’d break it all down, and hopefully try to find a way through the labyrinth of low-confidence. Join me!

What is imposter syndrome
Get ready for some introspection, baby…

The truth about imposter syndrome

Valerie Young, an expert on the psychology of imposter syndrome breaks it down into 5 subgroups which process this lack of creative confidence according to their own internal rules: The Perfectionist, The Superman/Woman, The Natural Genius, The Rugged Individualist, and The Expert.

Each one makes real sense. If you’re The Perfectionist, you’re trying to create (what you see as) perfection – which is always going to be impossible. And no matter how incredible the result of your hard work you’re always going to think it misses the mark, and so success will never be satisfying. You’re fighting your own inner critic, which becomes ever-more demanding as time goes on.

The Superman/Woman is the person who pushes themselves to the point of breaking. This might mean staying late at the office, becoming stressed and guilty during ‘downtime’, or trying to achieve more and more simply because you don’t feel like you naturally deserve success. The Superman/Woman seeks validation from others but NEEDs self-validation.

The Natural Genius is an interesting one – and one I definitely associate with, but not for the self-obsessed reason you’d think! The Natural Genius judges success on abilities rather than efforts, so feels like if they have to work hard at something they’re bad at it. Though LOGICALLY I know this is absolute crap, my brain always spits this idea back at me.

The truth is, everything I’ve ever been ‘successful’ or ‘good’ at is because I’ve worked bloody hard. Getting straight As at school or a first class degree might make people think I’m just naturally clever but it’s really, really, not true. I worked so hard for that. If I’d never worked hard during my BA or MA, I’m sure I’d have failed. And even now, that makes me feel like I must be dumb. And maybe I am! But the more you exercise a muscle the stronger it gets, and that’s the same of brains as well as brawn. After writing every day as a professional writer I can see how my own writing (particularly prose) has improved tenfold. So maybe natural ability is overrated, after all.

The next type is The Rugged Individualist, the person who feels like asking for help is a sign of weakness. Because if you can’t think up the answer, you don’t understand the subject enough, right?

And the final type is The Expert, who feels like they’ve somehow tricked their way into a situation. This person might shy away from applying for jobs unless they meet every requirement, or even after 10 years in a job feel like they don’t know enough. It’s that self-punishing cycle of never being enough, and also people-pleasing, never wanting to disappoint others. I totally fit this category too, though I’ve found that the more I push myself to ask for help and advice the easier it gets.

Famous people with imposter syndrome

It’s not just writers, or even just actors, singers, dancers, or other creatives. Imposter’s syndrome affects everyone! Do a quick Google search and you’ll find lists and lists of famous people with imposter syndrome. They feel like frauds too.

Some famous faces who’ve talked about imposter syndrome are Natalie Portman (“I felt like there had been some mistake, that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company and that every time I opened my mouth I would have to prove that I wasn’t just a dumb actress”), Lupita Nyong’o (“I go through [acute imposter syndrome] with every role”), and the queen of all actors – Meryl Streep (“You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”).

What is imposter syndrome?
There’s no use hiding. It’s time to come out.

How to cure imposter syndrome

Fixing imposter syndrome is easier said than done. Though you can try different techniques based on which personality type above fits you best – whether it’s asking for help or remembering that hard work is as valuable as innate skill – the only overall solution is to embrace self-doubt and just KEEP GOING. It also helps to know that pretty much every creative feels like this at some point, and if they don’t you’ve got to question where that self-belief stems from.

Maybe a light dose of imposter syndrome can be a good thing, if it makes us question what we’re doing. But too much can certainly be poison.

I know I battle this blighter every other day. The only time it seems to go away is when someone comes up to me or sends me a message on social media to say they’re reading my work. But even then it’s just replaced with bafflement, and a feeling of ‘Are they definitely talking to the right person?!’ I write in one form or another all day, every day (just see my post on ‘a day in the life of writer’ to find out why) and I’m wracked with self-doubt. All the time!

Geez. Maybe I should get another job. 😛 But I won’t. I can’t. I’ll just have to live with this snarky little demon on my shoulder.

what is imposter syndrome
Pass through the tunnel of self-doubt and into the light, my friends…

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jim Laing says:

    A couple of years ago (maybe a couple more than that) I first came across the use of “anxiety” as a psychological concept to describe a particular mental health issue and it chimed with how I’d always felt. It described me, my way of exchanging myself with the world perfectly. Like it was the permanent froth from the mouth of my own particular breed of depressions black dog.
    Then I came across “Imposter syndrome” (that really is no more than a couple of years ago) and together with “anxiety” it seemed for the first time I had an almost complete description of my whole broken self. And while labels get a bad press for the stereotyping they promote I’ve rarely felt the sense of relief I felt when I first discovered those two labels for the parts of me I previously couldn’t describe with any satisfaction.
    I go from believing I have valid things to say and can say them say reasonably well (at least some of the time) to feeling that all I’m doing is wasting time, that any merit in what I’m doing is a delusion. Your article here breaking the syndrome down really helps, as well as really informs. The “natural genius” and the “expert” are the two I identify most readily with but there’s bits in them all. It’s really useful to have these labels too. Nothing helps smooth the self critics barbs when confidence is low but knowing I can call them names can only help. Thanks for writing.


    1. Hi Jim! I’m so glad to have helped! I’m very similar, it really helped me to understand that the way I often feel (like a fraud and that I’ve tricked my way to success) is just a symptom of a problem many others feel too. I recently beat the odds to getting a new contract for a writing job, and I honestly think that the little bit of research I did above helped me to do that. For once I wasn’t apologetic about being there, or thinking the panel were thinking I was pretending. And it worked!

      Liked by 1 person

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