Writers with Imposter Syndrome: You Are Not Alone

You are such a fraud.

As a writer, how many times have you heard your inner critic say that to you whenever someone compliments your work? What if your work comes up for an award or you get an awesome review from a total stranger?

How about the times you hear that phrase just because you dared to say out loud to someone that you—yes, YOU—are a writer?

For me, it has been thousands and THOUSANDS of times.

It’s called “Imposter Syndrome” and lots of writers struggle with it.

Here’s the definition from Wikipedia:

Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved.

Over many years, I have tried many strategies to deal with it, all with varying degrees of success. I’ve tried affirmations, creative visualization, fake it ‘til you make it, and of course, inwardly beating myself up even more for being bad at conquering my low self-esteem.

The last one was definitely the least successful, by the way.

But something has shifted for me in the past year. I’ve been doing a great deal of inner money work, and by that, I mean I’ve finally realized that my big ugly issues with money are linked to my big ugly issues with addiction overall. I quit drinking 13 years ago, finally kicked cigarettes for good 10 years ago, and gave up smoking pot 8 years ago. I had largely conquered my tendency to drink way, way too much coffee as well. I thought I had done all my work and that I was “over it.” I had checked off a to-do list of overcoming chemical addictions and so I wasn’t an addict anymore.

Except, that wasn’t entirely true.

Because even though I don’t drink anymore and I don’t smoke, the addict archetype lives on in me. It comes out now mostly in the form of workaholism, but has also continued to feed on my patterns around money. I have tried to sweep this addict under the rug and push her into the closet for all these years, but she’s still living in my house. I don’t talk about her, don’t look at her very much, and I definitely don’t want to tell other people about her. Because I’m embarrassed of her, and ashamed. She’s compulsive, irresponsible, and way too intense sometimes.

I just know that if I acknowledge her as a part of me, well, surely then other people will reject me.

I get it. I’ve already rejected that part of myself. Why wouldn’t other people?

But here’s the thing about my addict, she’s part of me. She’s not just a bad habit, or a bundle of defective personality traits that can be erased. She’s one elemental strand of the millions of preferences and tendencies that make up my totally unique human personality. She’s not going anywhere.

Here’s the other thing: My addict isn’t all bad. Like any addict, she’s persistent and resilient. She’s willing to make enormous sacrifices to get the thing she wants. She’s also got a very high tolerance for risk. These are all gifts that have helped me in my creative calling.

All of us have parts of ourselves that we label as bad, and that we think we should erase, downplay, or “work on.” I’m not saying that we shouldn’t work on shifting dysfunctional and destructive behaviors, that’s all good stuff. What I am saying is that most of us dismiss, neglect, ignore and hide the parts of ourselves that we think other people might reject.

And when we hide any part of ourselves out of a feeling of shame, then we are being imposters.

And then, when something good happens—you get published, you win the award—and the voice of your inner critic whispers that you’re a fraud, it is just so much easier to believe.

When I first quit drinking, I was really embarrassed to tell anyone that I was an alcoholic. I would go to weddings and happy hours and order a glass of orange juice with sparkling water in it, just so I could walk around with a glass in my hand and look like everyone else. I felt so deeply defective and ashamed about not being able to drink. Everyone else could handle having a glass of wine, why couldn’t I?

It took me many years to learn that the answer was: I just couldn’t. All the biological, emotional, spiritual reasons didn’t matter because they all came back to the same thing. I just couldn’t. I am a person who cannot handle drinking alcohol, not the smallest amount. That’s just the way it is and I don’t need to be embarrassed or ashamed about it.

I don’t need to walk around carrying a glass of orange juice just so no one notices that I look different from everyone else.

Once I started to be myself and to be honest about the addict who lives inside of me, a funny thing started to happen. Other people who struggled with the same issues started finding me. I made friends with more and more people who didn’t judge or reject me because of my issues, because they understood those issues on a deep level. And then, this started to affect my writing life. I began to be more honest about how important writing was to me, and the kind of fiction I wrote. I began to put myself out there more, submitting stories and starting a blog. I even published a couple of books, feeling more confident about the fact that there were bound to be some people out there who didn’t like them.

I started feeling less like an imposter, on all fronts.

If you suffer from Imposter Syndrome whenever something good happens to you, start taking a look at all the parts of yourself that you’ve labeled as “bad” and that you try to hide from others. Start thinking about bringing those parts out into the light and owning them, because once we begin to accept all the parts of ourselves, we stop fearing being exposed as a fraud.

The threat of success is way easier to deal with once we stop trying to pretend that our past failures don’t exist.

Lauren Sapala is the author of Between the Shadow and Lo, an autobiographical novel based on her experiences as a raging alcoholic in her 20s. She is also the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers. She currently lives in San Francisco.

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