I’ve got the greatest job—I sit around all day, eyes unfocused, a little drool coming out of my mouth, thinking.
Actually, I don’t get paid for that. I get paid when my brain kicks and I invent stuff. Stories. With the distance between my readers and I only the Internet, it’s ‘easier’ than ever to reach them.
What a crock. Who gets paid to make up stories? Kids get sent to the corner in school for doing that—or in my day out to the ‘playground’ to break rocks with a pickaxe (Catholic School in da Bronx was tough, I tell ya).
What a fraud.
Writers aren’t the only creative people who experience these feelings of being a fraud or concerned the world will found out they are an imposter.
“I still think people will find out that I’m really not very talented. I’m not very good. It’s all been a big sham.” Michelle Pfeiffer
“Sometimes I wake up before going off to a shoot, and I think, I can’t do this; I’m a fraud. They’re going to fire me. I’m fat. I’m ugly . . .” Kate Winslet.
We feel so alone as artists, but we’re not. We’re in a crowd of people on the edges of the bell curve of society (and not necessarily on the ‘good’ side of that curve).
It’s important to realize every artist has doubts. What’s debilitating is if you feel like you are the only one. You’re not. Studies of people who are identified as feeling like frauds range in percentage, but the overall number is high. In fact, studies show that the most successful people feel it the most. The higher up the ladder one goes, the greater the fear is of ‘being found out’.
Doubts can be good: they can inspire us to become better. If we combine our doubt with your passion, it can motivate us to great success. Studies have shown that women who score high in the area of feeling like a fraud tend to compete harder to compensate for their doubts. Interestingly, men who scored high on feeling like a fraud, tend to avoid areas where they feel vulnerable to avoid looking bad.
Men are such posers.
There is a thing called The Imposter Syndrome. Many of us have great difficulty internalizing their accomplishments. All those things we’ve achieved: degrees, promotions, publication, best-seller lists, etc. are thrown out. Instead, we look to external things like luck and contacts that had little to do with our own efforts as the reason for the successes we’ve achieved. Inside ourselves, many of us feel like we are ‘fooling’ everyone. What’s particularly hard about that is the more success we achieve, the greater the fear of being found a fraud becomes.
Some ways to gauge how much of The Imposter Syndrome we have: The more we agree with the following statements, the higher our IS:
- I can give the impression I am more competent than I really am.
- I often compare myself to those around me and consider them more intelligent than I am.
- I get discouraged if I’m not the ‘best’ in an endeavor.
- I hate being evaluated by others.
- If someone gives me praise for something I’ve accomplished, it makes me fear that I won’t live up to his or her expectations in the future.
- I’ve achieved my current position via luck and/or being in the right place at the right time.
- When I think back to the past, incidents where I made mistakes or failed come more readily to mind than times when I was successful.
- When I finish a manuscript, I usually feel like I could have done so much better.
- When someone compliments me, I feel uncomfortable.
- I’m afraid others will find out my lack of knowledge/expertise.
- When I start a new manuscript, I’m afraid I won’t be able to finish it, even though I’ve already finished X number of manuscripts.
- If I’ve been successful at something, I often doubt I can do it again successfully.
- If my agent tells me I’m going to get an offer on a book, I don’t tell anyone until the contract is actually in hand.
Interestingly, women tend to agree more with IS statements than men. Women also tend to believe that intelligence is a fixed trait that cannot be improved over time. Women who feel like imposters tend to seek favorable comparisons with their peers.
In contrast men who feel like imposters tend to avoid comparisons with their peers. Often, men work even harder so other people won’t think them incapable or dumb.
Overall, people who feel like imposters are constantly judging their success against the achievements of others rather than viewing what they do as an end in itself. For writers, this can be very dangerous, because there is always be someone who is doing ‘it better’ or ‘is more successful’. When we can go check author ranking on Amazon on a minute by minute basis—that way lies madness!
A technique to fight feeling like a fraud is to use a version of my HALO concept on ourselves. Basically, the HALO approach starts from way outside ourselves, diving in until we can see things clearly. Step outside and view things as if we are a stranger to yourselves. Look at your resume. Look at what we’ve accomplished in life. Ask ourselves what kind of person would have achieved these things? Could a fraud have done this? When I query a conference to teach or apply to lead workshops or do keynotes, I have to send my bio. Sometimes I stop and read it and ask myself: what would I think of this person, if I didn’t know them, but just read this?
Don’t answer that.
Focus on positive feedback. However, we can’t ignore negative feedback. The key is not to let the negative overwhelm us. I don’t look at Amazon reviews or rankings any more except to for business reasons—constructive criticism.
Oh, that’s a bunch of BS. We all look. We just don’t want to admit it. It makes us feel good to see numbers go in a positive direction and the end of the world when it goes the other way.
The hard part is to keep plugging away day after day, regardless.
You have to realize that only a certain segment of the population even posts reviews on Amazons. Just like us, they’re on the fringes of the bell curve. It’s not a true sample of the population. Also, the motives for posting reviews often have nothing to do with our books.
Sort of like when I’ve been a guest on call in radio. No one calls in to ask a question. They call in to state their opinion.
Another interesting angle to feeling like a fraud: A study found that when people with high Imposter Syndrome scores were asked to predict how they would do on an upcoming test, they tended to predict they would do poorly when around others who would hear or see their answer. However, privately, they predicted they would do as well as those who had low Imposter Syndrome scores. What this means is some of us adopt self-deprecation as a social strategy and are actually more confident than they let on. They lower other people’s expectations and also appear humble. I believe, though, that doing so, can also subconsciously lower your own expectations and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I often remind myself not to put myself down. There are plenty of other people out there waiting in line to do it for me.
On the flip side of feeling like a fraud, some people tend to over-rate their abilities. A self-serving delusion is almost necessary in this world to just get out of bed in the morning at times. But take it too far and it can destroy you.
We all need what Terry Gilliam calls a “mule-like” stupidity.
I do well at that.
The bottom line on dealing with the ‘feeling like a fraud’ is to internalize more of our accomplishments. Occasionally stop and take a look at what we’ve achieved.
In the military, we always joked that everyone had a “Look At Where I’ve Been And What I’ve Done” wall in their home, covered with photos, plaques, flags, etc. Those walls serve a purpose, though. (In my Special Forces A-Team room, we had to wire down all the knives, hatchets, edged weapons that were usually on the plaques we got from other country’s Special Ops we trained with because people started using them after a few beers.)
I have all my published books on shelves that are on either side of the entrance to my new office at Writing Scenic. I look at them sometimes to fight the feeling that I can’t write another book, that I can’t get published again.
You have to believe in yourself. List your accomplishments. They can range from a picture of your family, degrees achieved, awards won, whatever. Put them where you write. Use them to remind yourself that you are not a fraud. YOU ARE REAL.
This is covered in more detail in Write It Forward.
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