The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.
–Bertrand RussellI’ve been having some conversations about creativity recently and, the other week – in completely different contexts – I had three people say to me in the exact same despondent tone: “I feel like such a fraud!”
When I landed a review writing internship in 2013, I bemoaned a similar sentiment to our social media coordinator, Cheney. Without missing a beat, she replied that I was suffering from a little thing called imposter syndrome, and proceeded to give me a rousing sermon equal to Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech.
So after hearing my friends going through the same thing, Elly and I decided that we’d attempt to give our readers a digital rundown of why the idea of being a fraud is fraudulent in itself, and in turn perhaps help with what Sylvia Plath called the “worst enemy to creativity”: self-doubt.
Imposter syndrome is a condition where, rather than seeing your accomplishments as the product of hard work, capability and talent, you feel that you’ve been awarded a series of mysterious flukes, and that any day now you’re going to be “found out”.
When you receive acknowledgement in some way – be it through recognition, opportunities or otherwise – you continue to deny your own abilities and chalk it up to sheer luck. This then can lead to the paralysing fear that the same luck cannot be replicated because it’s just that: luck, and nothing else.
The condition was first termed in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in their paper The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. One of the root causes of imposter syndrome is comparing yourself to your outside perspective of other people. You have access to your own self-doubt, but not to the internal workings of others. This is perpetuated by the promotion of a “fake it til you make it” mentality. As Hugh Kearns writes:
One of the characteristics of the imposter syndrome is that you can never admit it. Because, of course, if you put your hand up and say ‘I feel like a fraud’, then there’s the possibility that someone will say ‘ah yes, we were wondering about that, could you please leave now.’ So it’s safer to say nothing. But the doubts remain. Even if others are suffering too.
This isn’t to say that everyone who takes ownership of their achievements is faking it (although, in line with the Bertrand Russell quote above, it’s a pretty common trend). But it does say a lot about how we operate within a system where we feel pressured to squirrel away self-doubt lest others catch on.
And it’s pertinent to note that, when I first thought of writing a piece about imposter syndrome, I underwent a kind of Inception version of the condition. I thought: have I genuinely experienced this? Am I really qualified to explain it?
So, like all good, well-researched starting points, I began my investigation with an internet quiz. I was awarded a score of 26, which apparently means that I “often have intense imposter phenomenon experiences.” But I continued to question whether I had really experienced it.
The reason I kept questioning that was because, ordinarily, people who suffer from this phenomenon are documented as having actually achieved something substantial — a Ph.D. from Harvard, book publications, being Maya Angelou (who once said “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.’”).
I, on the other hand, receive rejection emails on a discouragingly regular basis. Short story publications, job applications, internships – just in the past fortnight, I’ve had six rejections.
Here’s where we come to one of the strangest parts of this condition: it is predicated on particular measures of success, and values the concept of “success” rather than process. To quote Hugh Kearns again:
…the imposter syndrome is most obvious in situations where people are measured or evaluated in some way. So it is very common in education systems where people are regularly tested, graded and often ranked. It’s also common in competitive sport, or when you stand up to give a presentation, when you apply for a new job and in many creative fields.
The overall message we are given is that if we aren’t achieving what others are in our particular discipline, then we somehow are less worthy of participating in it. But, as a writer, I know firsthand that the most common measure of literary success – publication – does not necessarily correlate to actual talent. Of course this is subjective, but I’m fairly sure most of you know what I mean when I cite examples such as Fifty Shades of Grey or the Twilight series.
In a similar vein, I disagree with this idea that “success” is the primary outcome of process. In some cases, it’s been very nearly detrimental – see Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s crippling depression in the wake of his enormous public success (although I note that he subsequently channelled this into an autobiographical examination of melancholy).
And methods of combating imposter syndrome propagated by communities such as Lean In, a brand of feminism led by Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, focus entirely on a corporate ladder model of ambition – that is, higher ranking, higher paying jobs being the desired outcome of “success”. This is fine if this is what you value, but this shouldn’t be an ideal that we’re all expected to aspire to; for many of us, ascending ranks in our chosen discipline, be it corporate, academic, creative or otherwise, is not how we find happiness in what we are producing, creating, or working towards.
For example, in response to rumours that she would take over as host of The Daily Show, US actor Jessica Williams tweeted that she is “extremely underqualified” for the job. This triggered a whole lot of hoopla whereby one media commentator saw fit to label her as “the latest high-profile victim of imposter syndrome”.
Williams was incensed; the tweet was taken out of context and, even as a standalone comment, that commentator denied Williams’s statement to be taken at face value, instead choosing to patronise her by labelling her as a victim. Her furious replies concluded in this powerful sentiment:
Amen. Your worth is not your job, nor is it constituted by a checklist of achievements, a series of vindicating remarks from onlookers, or the ascension from one rung to another. The same goes for the work you are creating, seeking to create, or entertaining the thought of creating.
This isn’t to say that there’s no worth in public recognition of your accomplishments; absolutely take heart in it, let it bolster your motivation. Revel in the delicious, rewarding, surprising feeling that is someone taking the time to appreciate the hard work and passion you’ve infused into your process.
But don’t let it define the parameters in which you go about that process. Don’t let the concept of externally and internally imposed parameters prevent you from attempting process, or make you feel like a fraud if you don’t fall within them.
Self-doubt can be a powerful tool to improving your art or trade – constantly questioning the quality and integrity of your work is what makes a stronger artist. But if you allow the kind of self-doubt that’s fuelled by comparing your achievements to those of others run amok, you’ll inhibit all that juicy potential you’ve got, and all that pleasure you could be experiencing from just trying and persisting.
As a final example: that review writer internship I did? The one I freaked out about and Cheney had to pep talk me back into trying? I went on to receive an award for one of my reviews. That was two years ago. Now? As I said earlier, I’ve had six rejections in two weeks. (It’s an ongoing thing, this rejection ditty.) But I’m still writing. The validation might come but, for the most part, it’s totally irrelevant to the actual process of creating, and improving upon process. I’ll leave you with a gem of a quote from musician Glenn Kurtz (taken from this wonderful Brain Pickings article):
Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure… Every day I collide with my limits, the constraints of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. Each morning when I sit down, I’m bewildered by a cacophony of voices, encouraging and dismissive, joyous and harsh, each one a little tyrant, each one insisting on its own direction. And I struggle to harmonize them, to find my way between them, uncertain whether this work is worth it or a waste of my time.[…] Limitation is the condition of our lives. What matters – what allows us to reach beyond ourselves, as we are, and push at the boundaries of our ability – is that we continue.
Illustrations by Elly Freer.