I was relieved when I discovered the term “imposter syndrome” later in life. Having a name for something I had battled growing up, and increasingly battled as an adult, made it less scary—less like the Bogeyman hiding under the bed or in the closet and more like a temper tantrum that would come and go.
It was so different from dealing with anxiety and depression. It was this strange push-and-pull, feeling the exhilaration of pushing to achieve something followed by the rug being pulled out from under me.
There are countless articles about overcoming imposter syndrome. For those of us who deal with imposter syndrome, I’m not so sure it’s something that we can overcome. I think it’s something we learn to live with.
What Happens When Imposter Syndrome Strikes
I learned the word “imposter” from classic heist films. The con artist was always found out. Somebody would scream: “He’s/she’s an imposter!” After all of the time and energy the con artist spent perfecting their craft and putting themself out there, suddenly they are exposed and punished…and they lose everything.
That’s how imposter syndrome feels to me. And when it strikes, I run away and hide.
When I danced as a child, I used to disappear after I performed. I would finish the performance and as soon as I got off the stage, I curled up and cried in some dark corner. My dad eventually got over the constant fear of me becoming a missing child, because I did this so often.
He was an ace at finding me, talking me down by telling me I did good, and peeling me off the floor so I could rejoin reality. This whole process took some time—about a half-hour to an hour.
Still, as an adult, I run away and hide. I curl up in the fetal position on my bed under multiple blankets. I face the window but stay under the covers. I usually want to cry but I don’t.
As I slowly come out of it, I peer out from under the blankets with one eye. Eventually, I look out with the other eye, then my nose and my mouth so I can feel the fresh air of reality wash over me. If I can’t make it out from under the blanket in a certain amount of time, my husband comes and gets me out.
This is what happens to me when imposter syndrome strikes and I imagine it looks different for everyone.
Identifying Imposter Syndrome Triggers
As I’ve learned to live with imposter syndrome, I’ve learned to identify what triggers it. These triggers build up over time before developing into full-on imposter syndrome. Often, a combination of triggers is what sets me off.
Success is so hard to define, so we turn to numbers. Views, downloads, likes, traffic, clicks, sales, subscribers, book sales. If we only use numbers as the markers of success, we will feel like we failed.
Success has to be something deeper and more meaningful. I can’t just focus on downloads for my podcast, Love Your Enthusiasm. I need to focus on the fact that I figured out how to launch a podcast, that it’s still going four months later, that I have had incredible connections and conversations with guests, and that I’m doing something with my time that really matters to me.
Expectations start when we’re really young and it goes back to the classroom. We need to get good grades, we need to excel, we need to pass, we need to compete with others (and win). Performance expectations continue as we become adults in the workplace. And it’s just something that you really can’t get away from.
We’re way too hard on ourselves. A lot of that has to do with us living in such a goal-driven society. But also, performance expectations become a competition we have with ourselves. When I ease up on myself, it takes the pressure off.
Everyone gets rejected…everyone. We don’t always hear about it or see that vulnerable image shared publicly. I wrote about being rejected by 37 literary agents and publishers last year as I queried my fourth novel, Virasana, and people were damn happy that I talked so openly about it.
Well, the rejection didn’t stop there…it continued until I totaled 102 email submissions over the course of two years. No takers for my novel. None. No “happy ending.”
This is just one of many examples of rejection I’ve faced. I’ve read bad book reviews and angry comments. I’ve been laid off. I bucked up, went to a writing conference (which I paid out-of-pocket for), and pitched my novel to literary agents. The first agent told me he didn’t like it, with no further explanation. I paid hundreds of dollars to get slapped in the face in 30 seconds.
I’m learning that rejection is two things…putting yourself out there and not getting what you expected. So, it goes back to expectations. I recommend revisiting what kind of expectations you have set for yourself.
Going after something that you’re truly passionate about can get very lonely. You care about that something more than anyone else does. You may be doing the whole thing on your own or you may work with others who don’t share the same level of excitement and drive. 2020 has amplified isolation in many aspects of our lives, which doesn’t help matters.
I’ve been forever grateful for the people I’ve met through blogging over the years. I’ve known several bloggers for 5-8 years and consider them close friends, even though we’ve never met in person. Having a community of like-minded people really helps.
“Remember your why” may sound cheesy, but it fucking works. If you forget why you’re doing something, you will struggle. Imposter syndrome will absolutely creep in and it may stay. And if you forget your purpose? You are much more likely to quit.
I have always said “do it for the love” because it’s about remembering your purpose, but it goes a step beyond that. It’s that feeling you get when you have purpose. Love keeps you coming back even when things get tough.
I share all of this imposter syndrome stuff openly because I know someone else can relate. I know there are too many articles that take this subject too lightly. And, I don’t want to be seen as the person who mirrors this image of “success” by sharing self-improvement blogs and podcasts or seeming too positive this year when life has been really tough for all of us.
I frequently feel like that con artist in the heist film. Imposter syndrome happens with everything I do—keeping this blog going for eight years, self-publishing multiple novels, running a content marketing consulting business, and now hosting a podcast.
But, I come out of it. I want to give up, but I keep going. I step away, but I come back. I think that’s all we can do. Imposter syndrome doesn’t go away when we’re going after things. It’s something we learn to manage, something we learn to live with.
Most recently on Love Your Enthusiasm Kate Johnston was on the show. Kate is a writing coach, book editor, author, and the founder of Writers for Wildlife. She’s also one of those longtime blogger friends I talked about earlier, someone who has helped me get past the isolation trigger plenty of times.
When I asked Kate what she would say to a writer who was dealing with imposter syndrome, she said:
“If you feel like an imposter, that means you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone and you’ve taken a chance on yourself. So that’s a high five from me. Because way too often, we keep ourselves safe. We don’t try something new because we’re afraid that we’re going to mess up or look like fools. Then we don’t try and we don’t grow in that space. So I would say if you’re experiencing imposter syndrome, then that means you’ve done something amazing.”
Living a joyful creative life is something Kate embodies fully, whether she is climbing over her own writing wall or helping writers get to the other side. I highly recommend this one to my fellow writers who are looking for support and inspiration, especially with NaNoWriMo just around the corner…listen now.