Have you ever found yourself in a setting where you felt as though you’d somehow tricked everyone else into believing you belonged? Had a job where you felt as if you had no idea what you were doing and it was only a matter of time before your coworkers and employer discovered this? Chances are that, at some point in your life, you have or you will experience “imposter syndrome.”
What is imposter syndrome?
As a clinical psychologist, I’m very familiar with imposter syndrome. Our professors described this “syndrome” to us in the first year of graduate school. Explaining that it was normal for students and graduates to feel as if they weren’t really qualified to be in the program, or to work as a clinician after graduation. Many of my fellow grad students nodded their heads with enthusiastically wide eyes, indicating that they could indeed relate to this. I remember looking around in confusion, wondering if I was the only person in the program that didn’t feel this way. I had worked hard to earn admission into a graduate program for clinical psychology and I felt that I had every right to be there.
This confidence persisted throughout my graduate training and well into my career as a psychologist. Not once have I felt like I was “impersonating” a competent clinician, even when I recognized areas for growth and had to seek out consultation with other mental health professionals. Okay… maybe I have a bit of imposter syndrome when I was asked to be on someone’s dissertation committee, but I got over it quickly. After nearly six years as a practicing clinical psychologist, I was beginning to think I had a natural immunity to imposter syndrome! That is, until I began to write my first novel.
Water’s Calling began as a short backstory for a Dungeons and Dragons character. The pandemic led me to play this game of imagination for the first time in my life, and I found that character building was the most enjoyable part of the experience for me. I was writing more about my character one evening when I looked at my husband and announced that I was going to write a novel. He never showed any signs of doubt in my ability to accomplish this, though I immediately began to question my capacity to see this through. Nevertheless, I continued writing. The creatures in my story had to change, the world needed to be restructured into something that wasn’t a part of the Dungeons and Dragons copyright, and my imagination took off at a running start.
Prior to Water’s Calling, I had never written any fiction longer than a few thousand words. I had no idea how to break the story down into beats, and I had almost no idea what was going to happen in the middle of the book to get my characters from the beginning to the end of the story. Nevertheless, I kept writing, until one day a few weeks in when I realized that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
At this point, I did something that I hope to never do, again; I went back and reread the beginning of my manuscript before completing the first draft. I cringed at the typos and even more so at some of the overly showy prose. My protagonist was shallow and unlikeable. My supporting characters were underdeveloped, and… I didn’t even know who my antagonist would be! Clearly, it was a heap of verbose garbage that needed to be cleared from my hard drive immediately. How could I have ever believed myself capable of writing a novel?
Thankfully, some of my psychology training kicked in at this point and I hit a mental pause button before dragging my manuscript over to the trash icon. I wanted to know if other writers felt this way, and if they did, I wanted to know how they were able to overcome these insecurities. Becoming a published author has been a dream of mine since childhood, and I didn’t want to let my fear of failing keep me from even trying. I sought out writers’ groups on social media and read through others’ posts about their insecurities. No one had expressed exactly what I was feeling, so I posted on several of the pages, asking others if it was normal to feel this way about your own work.
Let me tell you, psychology graduate students have nothing on writers when it comes to imposter syndrome. Hundreds of people responded to my social media posts, assuring me that this was normal. In fact, many of them described it as just a part of the writing process! I was so relieved. I could virtually hate my writing and still be able to turn a first draft into something that others wanted to read. The next step, for me, would be learning to share my work.
I joined a few online writing workshops and began to receive feedback from other writers. Initially, I would get an email stating that someone had reviewed my work and given me feedback, and I would feel a rush of anxiety. What if they thought it was awful? I actually avoided reading the reviews for a few days because I was certain that they would tell me I had no business pretending to be a writer. When I finally forced myself to look at their input, I was surprised and relieved. No one was questioning my ability to write. No one was telling me to ‘keep your day job.’ The comments my work received were thoughtful, honest, and helpful.
And that’s when I realized that I had not only been suffering from Imposter Syndrome, but I had also subscribed to a “fixed mindsight” view of writing. In psychology, we talk about fixed mindsight versus a growth mindset. When we see things through the point of view of a fixed mindset, we believe that we either can, or we can’t. I’m either a good writer, or I’m not. I’m either good at math, or I don’t understand it. A fixed mindset doesn’t make room for skill development. Seeing the world through a growth mindset, on the other hand, allows you to recognize opportunities for learning and improving. Bad at math? Study more, get a tutor, etc. Unhappy with the quality of your writing? Write more, take a class, get feedback.
When I viewed my writing through a fixed mindset, I was fearful of receiving feedback on my writing because I might find out that I was a “bad” writer. Embracing a growth mindset allowed me to throw myself into the learning process. I started sharing my work more with others and asking for feedback. I learned to love the editing process, letting others’ input provide me with a roadmap for growing my skill as an author.
Any writer will tell you that sharing your work and becoming a published author involves a lot of rejection. For most of my life, I let fear prevent me from reaching for my dream of becoming an author. Stepping into a growth mindset has given me the confidence to take risks and view my failures as learning opportunities. I still feel little twinges of imposter syndrome now and then, worrying that SmashBear Publishing will suddenly realize my work is no good after all, but I press forward knowing that hard work pays off and that it will all be worth it just to know that someone out there is immersed in a fictional world of my creation!
Courtney's debut, working title, Water's Calling, is due for a late 2022 publication.