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.
We’ve all experience this. The feeling that we don’t know what we’re doing, that we are a fake and that any moment now the world is going to point its finger at us and declare: you’re a fraud. I know many writers who write regularly and with passion, but refuse to call themselves “writers.” They feel they haven’t earned the right to that title. The same could be said for artists, soldiers and business leaders. Why do we denigrate ourselves in this way? Psychology has a name for it: imposter syndrome.
Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
Screenwriter Chuck Lorre, best-seller writer Neil Gaiman, US Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, and actress Emma Watson have all admitted suffering from this feeling. Actress Kate Winslett has said, “Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, I can’t do this. I’m a fraud.” Even Albert Einstein was not above its sway. A month before his death, he confided to a friend that, “the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
Early in my career as a lawyer imposter syndrome was a daily occurrence for me. Clients would sit across from my desk and ask me questions and I would answer them, swelling with anxiety and waiting for them to realize that I had no idea what I was talking about. I don’t have that problem much anymore as an attorney, but still feel the pull to deny that I am a “writer,” despite being published multiple times. I mean, I haven’t won the National Book Award, so how could I possibly be a “real” writer.
This is when I realize I need to get over myself. We all do. We define what we are. We have the right to be anything we want, the same as everybody else, and no one has the right to tell us otherwise. Degrees of talent and success vary, but they are not essence of who we are and why we do what we love. Follow your bliss and you are not a fake—no matter the outward results.
If you suffer from imposter syndrome, there are steps that you can take to move past its symptoms.
Seek support. Check in with your tribe and explain what you are feeling. Sometimes others have a clearer idea about what you offer than you do yourself. Their self-worth and esteem is not wrapped up in their view of what you do and they can often give you an impartial view. They probably have had the same feelings as you do and seeing it as just an experience we all share from time to time diffuses the syndrome’s power over us.
Be present and aware. Note when you engage in thoughts and feelings of being an impostor. Catch automatic thoughts before they carry you away. An example of an automatic thought related to impostor syndrome would be “I am not smart enough.” This underlying thought may lead to thinking such things as: “Everyone else is smarter than me.” You can see how these thoughts are useless and destructive and can lead us down the rabbit-hole.
Separate feelings from reality. Some people tend to believe that if they feel something strongly it must be right. “If I feel stupid, I must stupid.” When you catch yourself thinking this way, rephrase it to “the fact that I feel stupid in this moment does not mean that I really am. What am I really experiencing right now?” Not knowing the answer to a specific problem or what the next right action might be is a normal human experience, not a lack of intelligence. Find balance and awareness in your thinking.
And last, just listen to me: you’re not an imposter. I promise. Go do what you do and wear whatever title you wish to own with pride.
My book, The Abundant Bohemian: How To Live an Unconventional Life Without Starving In the Process is out now. You can find it at http://www.amazon.com/Abundant-Bohemian-Joseph-Downing/dp/1633370135/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1419609806&sr=1-1&keywords=the+abundant+bohemian
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