Do You Belong? Or Are You a Fraud?

by Jami Gold on July 28, 2016

in Writing Stuff

Sequined mask with text: Do You Feel Like a Fraud?

Last time, I delved into some of the industry insights I picked up at the Romance Writers of America National Conference, and specifically, I shared results from three sessions that were open only to PAN (Published Author Network) members. However, those weren’t my favorite workshops at the conference.

The session I enjoyed the most was a special session over breakfast one morning with Dr. Valerie Young. Dr. Young is an expert on the “impostor syndrome” and is the author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.

(She noted that men can also suffer from impostor syndrome, but it tends to be more common among women because society often hasn’t valued women with confidence (and many other reasons). That said, she also pointed out how writers of any gender are especially susceptible due to the subjective nature of our work.)

Her presentation was so eye-opening that I want to share some of her insights…

How Do You Define Competence?

How would you complete this sentence? I’ll know that I’m good enough when…

At first, the definition of competence can seem like a straight-forward question. Competence is not screwing up, right? *smile*

But when we dig deeper, we can see the problems inherent in our definition. Are we never allowed to make a mistake? Do we have to be perfect?

Or let’s go even deeper:

  • Do we think we should be able to do X without help?
  • Do we expect that if we were truly competent, we’d never struggle?

In writing terms, do we think…?

  • “If X doesn’t come naturally to me, I must not be a real writer.”
  • “I wouldn’t need brainstorming help if I were more creative.”
  • “I bet a real writer wouldn’t struggle with Y (commas or characters, plots, themes, whatever).”
  • “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve just been lucky so far.”
  • “If I can write a book, it’s not really as hard as everyone thinks.”
  • “Forget the positive feedback, that critique had it right. I’m a fraud.”

Our definition of competence is one of the building blocks for how we feel about ourselves. If we think any of those thoughts above, we can set ourselves up for feeling shame—even when we don’t do anything wrong.

Do We Internalize or Externalize Our Struggles?

When being a natural genius at everything and never having to struggle is our barometer for competence, we will suffer. Everyone struggles with something (or many somethings), makes mistakes, and fails occasionally.

However, when faced with the fact that we’re not superhuman, how do we react?

  • Do we externalize the issue? “Yep, X is hard. But I’m going to keep at it and try to improve.”
  • Or do we internalize the issue? “Obviously, I’m not cut out for this.”

How Do We Protect Ourselves from Shame?

If we internalize our struggles, mistakes, or failures, we’re more likely to take action to protect ourselves. These actions “work,” but they have a price.

Common “protection” techniques include:

“Fly under the Radar”

If we never put ourselves out there, no one will see our struggle. No one will witness our mistakes, our delusion that we could be a writer (or whatever).

In practice, this might mean that we…

  • hold back from asking for feedback
  • never query, submit, or release our story
  • don’t reach out to other writers, etc.

Procrastination

If we put things off until we run out of time, we give ourselves a built-in excuse:

  • “I could have won that contest, but I forgot about the deadline.”
  • “I know I did a crappy job on X, but that’s because I didn’t have enough time to do a better job.”

Never Finish a Project

If we’re always “in process,” we have an excuse for not putting ourselves out there:

  • “I can’t query my story yet. I’m still not happy with X.”
  • “I don’t want to send my story out to my beta readers until I figure out how to fix Y.” (We could instead let others help us figure out that fix.)

Self-Sabotage

If we think that would be better to aim low than to risk humiliation, we’re holding ourselves back from our potential. Or we might try to lower others’ expectations about us:

  • “My dream agent has lots of big name clients, so she’s out of my league. I’ll query these other agents instead.”
  • “I don’t deserve X, so I won’t even try.”
  • “I know my accomplishment sounds impressive, but I was just lucky. I’m not actually that good.”

How Can We Change?

I don’t know about all of you, but I could relate to several of those examples. *smile*

The feeling that we’re a fraud who’s just fooling everyone, that we’re out of our league, or that we don’t deserve something causes havoc with our potential. We’re more likely to not put our work out there, or to “play it safe” when we do.

That means we’re robbing the world of our insights, our stories, our perspectives. We’re robbing the world of the opportunity to connect with us—and our work.

So the next question is, how do we change? How can we overcome these false beliefs (yes, just like our characters’ journeys)?

Step One: Acknowledge What Those Protections Cost Us

The problem, Dr. Young pointed out, is that those protective techniques work. They prevent us from suffering humiliation or shame or rejection or whatever.

However, they have a steep price. They hold us back from our potential.

During the session, Dr. Young had everyone write out some of the costs of those protective actions on our life, both external and internal.

For example, if we’re afraid of others not liking our work, and we don’t put ourselves out there, we’re not going to have as much feedback, reviews, success, etc. We might make less money than we could by taking the risk of reaching out to others. Less money might lead to less support from our family for us to follow our dream.

Internally, those worries can cause stress or depression. Or we could feel like a failure for not being a bigger success.

Just like our characters—when they need to metaphorically look in the mirror at the story’s midpoint to see what the future holds—we need to see the real cost of our actions. And just like our characters, that knowledge might help us make better choices. *smile*

Step Two: Stop Thinking Like an Impostor

This step sounds easier said than done, but really, this means that we should cut off those impostor thoughts. Sure, we’ll probably still feel like an impostor, but feelings follow thoughts, and we have to stop the thoughts first.

Those with impostor syndrome often live in fear of being “found out.” We fear that, even when things go right, someone will figure out we’re a fraud, just fooling everyone. That if people knew the truth about our struggles, they’d know we didn’t belong.

We dismiss our accomplishments as luck and treat criticism as the truth. We see all the ways we fall short from perfection. But those thoughts aren’t reality, and we can’t let those echo endlessly in our skull like a drumbeat of shame.

We might need our family or friends help us see the other side, but it can be done.

Step Three: Reframe Our Thoughts

We can get rid of some of the harmful messaging in our head. Words like should, always, or never prevent us from cutting ourselves any slack.

We’re going to make mistakes, and that’s okay. We’re allowed to make mistakes. We have the right to make mistakes. In fact, we’re entitled to make mistakes.

They’re going to happen no matter what we do, so we may as well turn them into something positive. We can try to make those mistakes or failures interesting or a learning experience.

Our rejections shouldn’t end with a sense of shame. Instead, we can be disappointed and yet willing to try again.

We reframe our thoughts all the time as we learn new things. The whole publishing industry has reframed self-publishing from a stigmatized vanity project for losers to a valid publishing option that is more successful for many authors.

So we can do the same as we learn about what’s holding us back, what it’s costing us, and what we’d like to do differently. We can start by redefining competence.

We can acknowledge that it’s okay to struggle. It’s okay to…

  • not know everything and still be on the learning curve,
  • ask for help or information that will help us learn,
  • not be equally good at everything (writing, queries, marketing, etc.),
  • have off days or an off book, or
  • be afraid and lack confidence in any of this. *smile*

Step Four: Fake It and Keep Going

We likely won’t believe any of these reframed thoughts. Again, feelings are the last thing to change. But even if we don’t believe it, we can still think it, and we can still take action to overcome those protective actions holding us back.

Self-doubt is normal. But self-doubt that immobilizes us from taking action or moving forward isn’t healthy, so we need to put limits on those thoughts.

It’s important to point out…

We feel like an impostor because
we’re pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones.

If we were truly “playing it safe,” we wouldn’t pursue our writing dreams. We can turn that willingness to push ourselves into a benefit. Each thought we reframe gives us a new challenge, a new way of moving forward.

Right now, the protective actions we’re taking hold us back for the duration. If we can cut off our impostor syndrome feelings after a week, a day, an hour, or a minute, that’s an improvement. And eventually, we might believe the truth that the world needs us. *smile*

Do you suffer from impostor syndrome? What form does it take in your life? What protective actions do you fall back on and what do those cost? What thoughts can you reframe in your mind? Do you have any other insights to share?

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14 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Kim July 28, 2016 at 9:46 am

Thank you! I needed this post! I struggle with all of the above. Imposter syndrome has incapacitated me in my writing life over and over again, ever since I was a teenager and wrote my first short story. I use all of the protections and they’ve done nothing but make me miserable. But, the biggest stride I’ve made is to join a writing group and open myself to feedback. It still hurts when they don’t like something, but I keep going and that’s a big step for me.

“We dismiss our accomplishments as luck and treat criticism as the truth.” This hit home! This comes up all the time…in writing, in my job, in the martial art I practice, in parenting.

What I have to do is remind myself of the times I have accomplished something, how I did it, how it felt, and how I can continue on.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2016 at 10:15 am

Hi Kim,

I hope this helps! When I went through the exercise during the session, I was shocked to discover that I’ve been avoiding contacting review-bloggers about my stories because in the back of my mind, I saw their opinions as more “valid” than other readers who love my stories. And if I never put myself out there to them, I wouldn’t have to face the possibility that they didn’t like my work–because obviously, they’d be right and everyone else would be wrong. *end sarcasm* 😉

By facing that ridiculous false belief head-on, I’m able to see just how wrong that thought is. I can still feel the worry, but the thoughts have definitely been reframed. 😀

I hope if others take the time to dig into the false beliefs behind their fears, they’ll find similar epiphanies that help them! Thanks for the comment!

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Charles July 28, 2016 at 12:54 pm

Hi,
I guess for a number of years I suffered from what you called the Impostor Syndrome. I called it the cowardly lion syndrome. I was a highschool dropout with a GED diploma. I grew to become a consultant for a lot of large companies dealing with what are called ring knockers. So, I tested my way into a major universities MBA program, skipping the bachelor’s program completely. Once in the program, I realized I was the equal or better of the executives in that program. As a result, I dropped out after two trimester, saving about $18000. Like the cowardly lion, I had my hero’s medal. It’s all about self confidence.
I haven’t looked back since. Interesting post.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2016 at 2:42 pm

Hi Charles,

Good for you! Many times we don’t give ourselves credit for our “real world” education, thinking a more formal education is necessary to be a professional or an expert. But as you said, we often learn just as well (if not better) by doing the actual work. 🙂

(College graduates can tell you that they suffer from this syndrome because they know that to be the case as well. LOL! We all feel like newbie-know-nothings when we start something new.) Thanks for sharing!

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Mona AlvaradoFrazier July 28, 2016 at 1:14 pm

I’m reading along, enjoying the article and thinking it’s ‘for other writers,’ when I get to the Common Protection techniques. That’s when it hits me, I suffer from this imposter stuff too.
Step 1 & 3 resonated with me. Thanks for the tips on how to change.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2016 at 2:46 pm

Hi Mona,

Oh yes! When Dr. Young started her presentation, I thought it would be interesting blog post fodder (and it was–LOL!), but nothing eye-opening for me. 🙂 Then when I actually did the Step One exercise, I was shocked by how much I was actually holding myself back. *shakes head* Thanks for sharing! 😀

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Lollyletsgo July 28, 2016 at 3:09 pm

Wow, I really needed this post. I think we all go thorough this even if we are in a field we KNOW, but trying to enter one where our story, characters, etc. — especially the world we build- can be ripped apart is frightening.

I really appreciated the end, about the comfort zone and that I’m not alone in having these feelings. So thank you, Jami!

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Angela Marian Silverwood July 28, 2016 at 4:11 pm

Hi there, Jami,

I have been reading everything that you post and have bookmarked everything to re read at a later date but have never replyed to you until now.
Step 3 resonated with me very much. I need to reframe my thoughts.
I have always been overweight but about four years ago, I reached my goal weight at Weight Watchers. I kept it off for a while but about two years ago it all piled back on with extra to spare……..blah! I know all this knowledge regarding portion sizes, exercise, etc, etc, and I know what I need to do to try to get back to my goal but my thoughts keep telling me that I just can’t do it; I’m not good enough; just be happy with the size you are, etc, etc, etc. My husband loves me for who I am and always has been that way and I love him for it but he is not the one who has to ‘drag’ this body around. I AM stuck in a rut but, Jami, reading this, I really hope that I can at last ‘kick start’ something that has been long overdue……..Thank you…..-)

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Denise D. Young July 28, 2016 at 7:08 pm

What a great post! I’ve struggled with this for years. I think a big way it comes through in my life is through comparing myself to others. So and so writes eight hours a day, so I should be doing that. So and so writes 10,000 words a day. If I’m not doing those things, why bother?

It’s taken years of practice to find a place where I’m happy with my process. I still find that voice pops up, telling me I can’t do it, but having a few stories nearly ready for publication has given me a sense of confidence that I can do this–and that helps keep imposter syndrome at bay. It will be back, I’m sure, when I get a bad review or something similar, but hopefully I have enough strength and satisfaction in my work to keep on.

Great post, Jami! Thanks for sharing what you learned at the conference.

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Clare O'Beara July 29, 2016 at 8:46 am

Nope, being unable to get published was the source of stress, depression, unhappiness, wasted years when I could have been writing. Here in Ireland you don’t need agents, but the only publishers that returned my crime series materials were those which had just closed down. Being able to publish independently is one of the best things that ever happened to me. I published seven books at once in 2013.
Go for it.

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Serena Yung July 29, 2016 at 10:57 am

Hmm, no, I don’t think I suffer from imposter syndrome, at least not to my memory. I may have less self-confidence in specific areas of life (like sports, lol), but overall I feel pretty secure and have a high self-esteem. For writing, I find that the more experience I gain in it, the more I believe in myself as well–you already know about the increase of my “author self-esteem”, haha. But even before I increased it, I don’t think I ever thought that I was a “fraud” or “imposter” when I received praise on my work…

This might sound somewhat terrible, but I’m kind of used to getting praise for my abilities (especially for my academics, my French and Mandarin, and my drawing and writing skills), so my mind might have internalized a general sense that I’m…quite good? Gee, I feel so bad even talking about this, haha, but your post was very thought-provoking so it made me reflect more deeply upon this. I think receiving so much praise as I grew up created a kind of superiority complex that I have. I only recently realized that my dear papa has a superiority complex too, lol, so maybe it was partially inherited, I have no idea.

Even though this complex makes me feel good, at the same time, I don’t like it, because I much prefer a life where everybody is equal and we all appreciate one another’s unique strengths and qualities. So I’ve been trying to suppress or extinguish this superiority complex thing ever since around high school time. Unfortunately, I still can’t get rid of it completely (or maybe it’ll never be fully gone), so I’ve developed a kind of split mind: one mind is my conscious (and genuine) one where I believe everybody is equal and unique; the other mind is my subconscious, which houses my implacable superiority complex. I realized that though I don’t think that my complex is a good thing, I can use it to my advantage, because believing that I’m “superior” powerfully motivates me to avoid engaging in unwise activities that a lot of my peers do, since I think I’m “better” than them and “am made for better things than that”. Well, as bad as a superiority complex obviously is, at least it helped me avoid a lot of risky behaviors that many others do, because my subconscious felt that I’m “at a higher level” than them, which made it incredibly easy for me to say no to peer pressure. In fact, I find it quite thrilling to say no!

Wow, what a heavy topic I just covered. That was some psychoanalysis, haha, and again, I don’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings there, and I know that superiority complexes are bad (I’m still working on it); but I only wanted to talk about all that to explain my current feelings towards my self-esteem and sense of self-worth.

Okay, back to writing proper, an additional reason why I don’t seem to feel like an “imposter”, is that I define writing competence in an extremely complicated and specific way, and that I don’t even believe in natural talent in the first place! I honestly think that “talent” is an urban myth that only serves to make people either miserable or arrogant, argh. But this is just my belief; I’m not trying to convert anyone to my side here! As for my “competence” in writing definition, I think it’s quite dumb to ask, “Is X a good writer?”, and expect a short, simple “yes” or “no” answer. Writing covers so many aspects. Being good at one thing doesn’t mean we’re good at (or equally good at) other things, and how exactly do we define “good” even in a specific aspect? Different audiences also view an author’s abilities differently depending on what they’re looking for, or what they believe constitutes the “good”, “effective”, and “proper” way.

It’s a lot more productive to ask a much more specific question, like “How strong an ear do you think this author has for sentence rhythm and flow?” Firstly, this is a question where you can make a value judgment on a sliding scale (e.g. good, very good, excellent, fantastic, absolutely amazing, etc.) rather than as a simple yes or no answer. (I don’t really believe in black-and-white, all-or-nothing answers anyway, hahaha.) Secondly, with a much more concrete question like this, it’s easier to make an evaluation. But even this question has a lot of subtleties. For instance, I recently read a bestselling book where the flow and rhythm of the sentences were very strong; in fact, the rhythm was SO strong that I found it excessive and overwhelming, even cloying, if you get what I mean. It was like eating something overly sweet. Also, even though I generally like it better when the sentences have this kind of “balance” to make it pleasing to the ear (not too many or too few syllables on this or that end, having a pleasant or even euphonic combination of long and short vowel sounds, etc.), I have to admit that sometimes, I think that the great rhythm was unnecessary. I’m not sure what I mean by that yet, especially as it seems to contradict everything I said, lol, but…yeah, I don’t know why I feel that way sometimes, but I’ll tell you when I do!

Another complication of this seemingly specific question about writing ability, is that some people may find certain rhythms more attractive than some other people do. For example, I usually don’t like sentences that are too long, no matter how strong the cadence, because your mind just loses focus. This might have something to do with how my high school English teacher encouraged everyone to avoid writing very long and complex sentences, lol. But I know that many other readers feel perfectly comfortable reading such long sentences. Another example is that I love passages with semicolons in them. Semicolons are wonderful to me because they add an extra layer to the music score, you could say. Its pause is longer than a comma’s but shorter than a period’s. You could vary pause lengths with commas and dashes too, but I’ll resist that digression, lol. Yet, as we’ve discussed before, a lot of readers are quite bothered by semicolons, no matter what kinds of compelling and satisfying rhythms they create. (Yeah, I know I’m biased, haha.)

Oh, and don’t get me started on people’s different preferences for “paragraph rhythm”! E.g. Some like shorter paragraphs because they’re easier to read; some like longer paragraphs because shorter ones feel choppy; and some prefer a mix of the long, short, and medium lengthed paragraphs to make it more interesting and varied, etc.

Anyhow, my point is that I think it’s so simplistic and naive to ask such a vague question like “Is author X a good writer?” that I just scoff at the question every time I hear it, lol.

Um, sorry to write such a long comment again…but thanks for writing this post as it made me think more deeply about some very important things!

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Serena Yung July 29, 2016 at 11:40 am

Wait a moment. I just realized that I didn’t address this point:

When I collect feedback from my readers, if I get a general positive comment, like “your story is great!”, then I think, “That’s nice, and I’m glad they were my target audience. But I wish they would be more specific.” If I get a general negative comment, like “I’m sorry, but I thought this was very boring”, then I think, “Aw, that’s too bad. I guess they were not the target audience. But again, I wish they were more specific so that I could understand in greater depth why they felt that way, since I am interested in hearing their opinions.”

As for specific feedback, I tend to agree with my readers on both positive and negative comments, LOL! Some negative feedback I recall were on narrative voice consistency, plot holes or worldbuilding flaws, writing too much about some seemingly irrelevant things, being too repetitive on some details (re-explaining things in my paranoia that the reader might forget), having too little setting description, and some characters seeming two-dimensional. I agreed with most of what they said, especially on the issues of plot holes, worldbuilding inconsistencies, and writing too much irrelevant stuff.

There were some specific things I disagreed on, but I find I can still do something, like add an extra paragraph to explain something I thought was self-evident but was actually not, to make this thing not feel like a problem to my reader anymore. For some critiques like character X feeling flat, I either try to do something to make them not *feel* flat (even though I disagree that they are 2D), or I just shrug my shoulders and accept that different people define 3D characters differently. Seriously, I’ve seen book reviews where some readers say the characters are three-dimensional, complex, and lovable; while some other readers say that the characters were all unoriginal and boring cardboard cutouts, lol. People disagree on whether or not the protagonists in Harry Potter are well-developed characters too. *face palm*

As for my readers’ specific positive feedback on my work, I got lots of compliments on my characters, interactions, relationships, plot, and sci-fi universe for Lark Arias (the one I’m editing right now). Some even complimented the writing itself and several friends found it humorous. Um…I hope it doesn’t sound pompous when I said I also agreed with most of these positive comments, lol. The only positive comment I wasn’t so sure of, was a friend thinking that my settings were very descriptive in that she could pretty much imagine herself in them. I felt that my settings were too bare, haha; yet, I asked some of my other readers and nobody agreed with me that I needed to be more descriptive. One friend even said there was more than enough description already–it wouldn’t do if my story plunged into excessive detail!

Er, so yeah, for specific feedback, I tend to agree with most of what my readers think, no matter positive or negative. And even if I disagree with a critique, I might try to see if there’s anything I can do to make my story more satisfying in the problem area my reader identified. I wouldn’t yield to anything as dramatic as a request to change my character’s gender, though, lol. In some other cases, I might have to accept that there’s nothing I can do for a particular negative comment, because that aspect was simply not the reader’s cup of tea.

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