Last month, I read an interesting article about the athlete, Katarina Johnson-Thompson. If you haven’t heard of her, KJT (as she is known) has won gold medals in the heptathlon at the Commonwealth Games and the World Indoor Athletics Championships and is widely tipped to challenge for the Olympic Title at Tokyo 2020. She’s pretty impressive then. Yet on the eve of the Götzis multi-event championships in May, she was talking about how she felt like an impostor amongst her fellow athletes. She went on to win the competition with the 18th highest score ever achieved despite the fact that the weather wasn’t conducive to running fast or jumping high or throwing far.
KJT suffers with something called Impostor Syndrome and studies have suggested that 70% of the population will experience this at some time in their lives with those who pursue artistic endeavours even more likely to be affected.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Impostor Syndrome, simply put, is the feeling that you aren’t good enough or talented enough to achieve something you have set out to achieve. If and when you do achieve it, you might feel like a fraud, putting your success down to luck or having duped others into believing you are better than you are. It can manifest itself in all walks of life – in the workplace, like KJT in the sporting arena, or in the arts. Some psychologists have suggested it is mainly experienced by high-achieving individuals but there is more and more evidence to indicate that us lesser mortals are equally susceptible.
As an example, I wrote a piece of flash fiction at the end of last year. When I read it back the next day, I was tempted to drag it to the folder on my laptop entitled “Graveyard of Inadequate Stories.” Instead, I sent it to a couple of critique partners who replied with some suggestions for improvement but also saying lovely things. The Impostor Syndrome part of my brain decided they were just being nice. So I hesitated about submitting it. I'd written it for Fictive Dream’s Flash Fiction February event but I’d read a lot of stories on their site and didn’t think my writing was anywhere near good enough. I got an acceptance email within 48 hours and did a brief celebratory dance before the doubts crept in once more. They must have been desperate. When other writers I admire were posting on Twitter that they hadn’t had a piece accepted this year, I felt guilty that my story had been accepted instead of theirs. And when Laura Black, editor of Fictive Dream, emailed me to say she was nominating my story for Biffy 50 (Best British and Irish Flash Fiction awards), I immediately thought a mistake had been made. Or else, the story was a fluke.
And that’s kind of how Impostor Syndrome works. In the cold light of day, the above story makes me sound like a total fruitcake. But I’m guessing that other writers, reading this, can probably relate. Other things I’m very guilty of:
Retiring stories after just one rejection email(!)
Believing that lit mags who have accepted my stories NEVER decline any work.
Thinking praise of my writing is because people want to be nice.
Pretending to have thick skin. (NOTE TO SELF – you are not a rhinoceros!)
How does Impostor Syndrome affect your writing?
Everyone experiences things in different ways but broadly speaking, Impostor Syndrome follows a cycle of self-doubt. In the writing stage, this self-doubt might manifest itself in procrastination (stare blankly at a page, write a sentence then delete it again, spend time on Twitter searching for inspiring stories by ‘better’ writers) or alternatively in over-preparation (50 pages of planning notes, character and world-building details for a hundred word micro-fiction) – anything to put off the actual process of writing. Self-doubt is a form of fear and fear, as we know, triggers a flight or fight reaction. This might mean that writing is abandoned. Fear also makes us risk-averse so we make safe choices rather than pushing ourselves to break new ground. Finally, fear impedes our ability to learn what works or doesn’t work for our future stories.
Another important aspect of growing as a writer is getting honest feedback on your work. Yet, to someone suffering from Impostor Syndrome, feedback in any form can be difficult to navigate since both compliments and criticisms can often be interpreted in the wrong way. It is easy to think that good points, as mentioned above, are just the critique-giver being nice. Alternatively, suggestions on elements that don’t work so well can often sting because, in the Impostor Syndrome-addled mind, they are interpreted as underlining the writer’s normative level rather than pointing out bits and bobs that fall below their potential.
What can be done about it?
Break things down into manageable chunks – at the risk of sounding like a guide to GCSE revision, focussing on ‘make plan’, ‘define character’, ‘build world’, ‘write first sentence’ etc. is a lot less daunting than ‘write award-winning story’!
Be proactive about getting feedback in order to desensitise yourself to your worse impulses. Critique is an important part of being a writer. There is a really interesting article by Helen Betya Rubenstein on changing the language of feedback away from negative/positive remarks and whilst I have some reservations about whether this is entirely the way to go, the language of feedback is important if you are someone who suffers from Impostor Syndrome.
Measure yourself against your own yardstick. It can be easy to get wrapped up in what other people are achieving but comparing yourself to others is rarely helpful. Remember that everyone's on their own journey (now I've gone all reality TV!) Set realistic writing goals and remember that there'll be failures as well as successes along the way.
Change the way you talk about your writing. Try not to use minimising language and don’t belittle your achievements. Accept praise where it’s given. Get to know your strengths and weaknesses and don't be afraid of them.
Get a motivational poster of a kitten (or other cute animal) hanging tough and stick it somewhere above your writing space along with quotes that remind you to aim big, to take risks and to not listen to the negative thoughts inside your head!