Ah, impostor syndrome. The only thing more annoying than that little voice in your head constantly whispering, "you can't do it."
It's that other little voice in your head that pipes up when you HAVE achieved success, chiming into your thoughts every few minutes to remind you that "you don't deserve this. You're not good enough."
Today is my day. Today, my dream comes true- my debut novel becomes available for pre-order. Finally, people will be able to buy my beautiful labour of love before it gets dispatched all over the world on the 8th of March. I should be dancing on the ceiling.
And I am. I really am. The trouble is, one minute I can't get the massive grin off my face to the point where it's hurting. The next minute I'm a weeping wreck trembling in the corner of the room because it all feels too good to be true and good things like this just don't happen to me and something is bound to go wrong because it always does and and and...
I know that this sort of thing is very common with authors. But it seems the more people I talk to, the more I hear, "Yup. That's me. I get that too." In almost every profession, every age, every walk of life. What causes this feeling? Psychologists would tell us it all comes back to childhood trauma. Parents who made us always feel like we weren't good enough. That sour-faced teacher who made us cry in front of the class for not knowing the answer when everyone else did. The time we were standing on the stage in the school play, with everyone staring and sniggering as we fumbled cluelessly over our lines.
In reality, though, I think everyone has that little voice of self-doubt in the back of their heads. Some are just louder and crueller than others. In some ways, that little voice does us good- it pushes us to keep self-improving, to give that manuscript just one more edit before submitting it or go on that training course in the hope that it might teach us something new.
The problems come when that little voice starts to take over and hold us back for fear of failure. It sucks the joy out of every success and makes us feel almost guilty for daring to be good at something.
You don't deserve to be happy. You're no more special than anyone else. Someone else should be here, not you. You got this far through luck, but soon people will realise that you're not really good enough to be here. People will find out that you don't really know what you're doing, and you'll be thrown back into the gutter where you belong.
This is what we call impostor syndrome. The bad news is that it sucks, it will always be there trying to ruin your best moments, and it can make you truly miserable and insecure when it gets out of hand.
The good news is that you're not alone. Impostor syndrome is common - far more common than you realise - and there are ways of managing it so that it doesn't ruin your day.
Here are a few of mine...
Tip 1: Give thy enemy a name
This might sound a bit insane, but bear with me here. I find it helps to give that nasty little voice in my head a name and a personality. I imagine mine as a miserable little Gollum-like creature who sometimes throws tantrums and shouts at me for no good reason. I call him "The Gremlin". Is that a little bit mad? Perhaps, but I find it helps me to separate myself from my anxiety. The Gremlin is there, and I can't always make him shut up or go away, but I don't have to let him define me or take over my life. Giving him a name and physicality of his own helps me to separate myself from him, which is useful when I need to tell him to pipe down and leave me alone.
If you've seen Pixar's recent film Luca, you'll get this. Alberto names his gremlin "Bruno" and regularly puts him in his place when that self-doubt starts to creep in. It's becoming a regular catch-phrase in our house.
Sometimes acknowledging the Gremlin is enough. You can recognise that he's talking rubbish, tell him to shut up and get on with your day. Take that, Bruno.
Tip 2: Create a gremlin-fighting rescue pack
I've always hated the expression "fight fire with fire". What rubbish. You can't defeat fire with more fire- the whole world would crumble in a blazing inferno. You need to fight fire with water if you're going to have any chance of winning against it.
You can fight impostor syndrome in the same way. And I don't mean drowning it (although I do find a warm bubble bath helps to calm most situations).
I'm talking about the opposite of impostor syndrome, such as those magical moments when someone says something lovely to you about your work and makes you feel like you're dancing on top of the world. If only you could bottle up that feeling and use it as medicine on those days when you're feeling low, eh?
Oh, dear reader, but you can!
We live in a digital age where we often message each other more than we physically talk. That's sad in many ways, but one advantage is that we have a record of all the lovely things people have said. One of the best things I've done over the last year has been making a habit of screenshotting nice messages that people send me, especially when they've been beta-reading my book. That message where 'J' told me she'd had to take a day's holiday from her job because she was so into my book she couldn't concentrate on anything else until she knew the ending? Screenshotted and saved. That message where L told me she wouldn't be able to talk to me for a while because she was so heartbroken over the death of one of my characters? Screenshotted and saved. The moment when my editor posted on Twitter that loved my first two books and couldn't wait until I sent him the third? Screenshotted and saved. Even if someone says something lovely to you over a call or in-person rather than sending you a message, write it down in a notebook so that you can refer back to it later. Call it your emotional first-aid kit.
It might feel a bit self-indulgent, but in those moments when your gremlin is shouting at you, there's no greater medicine than reminding yourself that other people think your work is brilliant and that you deserve to be successful.
It works for me as an author, but it's also a useful medicine in other walks of life. My husband works in the tech industry and it means the world to him whenever someone reminds him that he's appreciated and is doing a great job. I used to have a boss who wrote every member of staff a personalised letter at the end of each term, telling us how much he valued us and reminding us of all the wonderful things we had each done in those last few months. I still have those letters, and they still make me feel like I'm glowing whenever I think about them (P.S: Paul, I don't know if you'll ever see this, but you're a legend. Thank you.)
Of course, in an ideal world, we wouldn't need other people's approval in order to feel better about ourselves. Our own self-assurance would be enough. But the reality is that we are social beings. We do crave others' approval, rightly or wrongly. Everyone loves being told they're valued and that their efforts are worthy. When those gremlins start shouting and your own mind isn't feeling strong enough to shout back, let others' words do your shouting for you. It's a great short-term solution to get you through a bad day.
Tip 3: Talk it out
When those gremlins are shouting at you, it can make you feel like you just want to hide under the bed and never come out. You don't feel like you deserve love, friends or success. I get it.
What you need to try to remember, though, is that a lot of other people feel have moments where they feel like this too.
Give someone a call. Drop them a message. Heck, drop a few people messages- ask them how they are. They might be feeling low too, and really appreciate someone checking in on them. Remember they might not respond straight away- don't let your gremlin fester over the whole 'why haven't they responded yet, are they angry with me over something, have they forgotten I exist, do they even care I'm alive...?' issue. There are a whole host of reasons why people take a while to respond, and it's very unlikely to be personal.
If you like, tell them that the impostor syndrome is strong today and you just fancied a chat with someone to cheer you up. Either they know how you feel and will be able to reassure you that it's just the gremlins playing tricks on you, or they won't know how you feel because they are so confident about their own perfection that they have never doubted themselves in their lives (in which case why are you friends with them? They sound like an obnoxious douchebag, delete their number immediately).
Don't feel ready to talk about your gremlin issues? Still make that call or drop that message, even if you chat about something completely unrelated. At the very least they'll be able to give you a friendly voice to brighten your day and have a nice chat with you to take your mind off the gremlin's shouting. And that can only be a good thing, surely?
I'm lucky enough to know others who have already published their debut novels. They know how it feels and what today means to me, and will be ready to offer a supportive ear. Once I've finished writing this post, we plan to have a good chat over messenger so that we can ridicule our gremlins together.
Tip 4: Prepare for battle
This one takes a little advance preparation, but it's worth it. It might sound obvious, but one way to put an enemy at a disadvantage is to cut their supply lines. If they have no ammunition, they're going to have a much harder time hurting you.
In the case of your gremlin, this is about working out what your own triggers are and cutting them off at the source. For me, I know that my anxieties like to play with my confidence in my own work, so I take away that ammunition by editing and proofreading obsessively. I get other people to proofread my writing and help me edit, and I repay the favour for them. That way, when the impostor syndrome starts to make me doubt that my work is good enough, I can stop and remember that I did everything I could. My work was as good as I could possibly get it before I marked it as 'finished'. I didn't cut any corners or take any shortcuts. I was as meticulous as possible with my research and my editing. Even if there are still occasional mistakes- and there are bound to be, nobody's perfect - my gremlin can never accuse me of not trying hard enough or not giving it my best. I've taken away that ammunition.
Try identifying your triggers and thinking about what you can do to take away the gremlin's ammunition. For example:
Is your Gremlin shouting at you because you're always late for things? Make a plan to help yourself get more organised. Make a schedule. Set yourself reminders. Get into good habits, like getting everything ready to go the night before. Whatever works for you.
Does your Gremlin accuse you of being rubbish at something? Think about how you can expel self-doubt by improving that skill, like taking a training course, reading up on things you don't fully understand or watching some good instructional videos. Maybe ask a friend who you know to be an expert on the subject, and they might be able to give you some pointers.
Of course, it's not possible to remove all triggers this way. But it might help with some of them, and that's a start. This method is useful for triggers that are within your control, but what about those that aren't? That moves me neatly on to my next tip...
Tip 5: Learn to accept your limits
This is one I know I need to get better at, but I'm working on it.
Someone very wise once said to me, "pick your battles, and don't engage in fights you can't win". She had a good point. I think this is something many writers are particularly bad at, myself included. We are used to being in control, the gods of our own universes. Our characters do exactly as we tell them to. We know exactly what is going to happen to them. Every detail of their lives, even the backstories that never make it as far as the page- we know and control them all.
Non-writers do it too. Do you ever find yourself wanting to re-watch a favourite film or re-read a favourite book over and over again? It's been suggested to me recently that this might also be a control thing. There's a certain comfort in knowing exactly what's going to happen. Those lines the actor says, those lyrics in your favourite song and the printed words in your favourite book- they are all set and unchanging. They offer security that our temperamental, unpredictable daily lives can't give us. Like children clinging to the familiar musty smell of our favourite cuddle blankets, we need this reassurance to make us feel calm and secure.
So what do you do when your gremlin starts shouting about things outside of your control?
You channel your inner Elsa and learn to let it go.
Bear with me here. I'm not being one of those irritating, patronising people who simpers at you and says, "oh well, just stop worrying about it." I know that doesn't work.
What I'm suggesting here are diversion tactics. Learn to recognise when your gremlin is shouting at you about something out of your control, and divert its attention to something you can actually fix.
"Trevor should've got this job, not me. He deserved it, he was always much better at this stuff than I am. I don't even know how to create a new field on this database."
Let's break this down, shall we? There are two separate anxieties at play here. First, guilt that you got something someone else wanted, depriving them of it and causing them misery that can be attributed to you (or so your brain is telling you). Second, that you're not good enough at part of your job.
Let's look at the first bit to start with. Trevor. I'm going to say this in the nicest way possible... sod Trevor. Trevor is not your problem, and he is not your responsibility. For whatever reason, Trevor did not get this job. Your boss chose you, and comparing yourself to Trevor isn't going to help anyone. This situation is outside of your zone of control, and torturing yourself over it won't change anything. Let Trevor go (sorry, Trevor).
You can't stop your gremlin from shouting, so divert his attention to Part 2 of his rant. He's telling you you're not good enough at your job because you don't know enough about databases. Let that gremlin shout, because you know what? This is within your control! You can fix this!
Ask a colleague if they'll spare a minute to show you what to do (possibly not Trevor, though). Pop onto YouTube and have a search for how-to videos. Find an online forum and ask someone. Put aside a little time one evening to have a play around with it on your computer until you feel more confident about what you're doing.
Now your gremlin won't be able to accuse you of not knowing what you're doing anymore... and you've been so busy focusing on improving your skills, your gremlin has hopefully forgotten all about Trevor too.
Putting the pieces together...
Today my gremlin is getting his knickers in a twist about my book release. It's not a huge surprise. A lot of writers struggle with impostor syndrome (hence why I've written this post in the hope that these tips might help in the same way they've helped me). This is the first time I've ever been in this specific situation. I've never published before, and so despite having a very supportive publisher reassuring me at every step, it's both very exciting and very scary at once. My gremlin is having an absolute field day.
The narrative currently goes something like this:
"You're not good enough to write a book, what were you thinking?"
Wrong, Gremlin. I am good enough to write a trilogy!
"People are just going to be disappointed when they read it anyway- romance readers expect smut."
Perhaps, Gremlin. Some people don't seem to realise that there is a difference between 'romance' and 'erotica'. I can pre-prepare myself for this one, though, by aiming my marketing at the right readers (people who like epic historical romances with action thrown in, like Poldark for example) and not people who are only interested in books with heavy sexual content. There are plenty of readers out there who love slow-burn stories just like mine.
Some people will buy my book and then find that it's not the sort of thing they wanted. I can't control that, so there's no point worrying about it. Rather than letting my mind fester on readers who won't like my book, I need to put more effort into finding the readers who will.
"Everyone will leave horrible GoodReads reviews because they hate it."
Everyone else's opinion is not within my control. If they love it, they love it. If they don't, they don't. I did my absolute best to make it as good as it could be. So did my editors. So did my publishers. It's been printed, it's too late to change it now, and even if I could I wouldn't. Some people will always want to find something to complain about, no matter how many sensitivity readers, editors and proofreaders the books have been through. There comes a time when you just have to hold your hands up, say, "I did my best," and see what happens.
"Bet it's got loads of mistakes in it and it'll look really unprofessional, and you'll spend the rest of your life hiding under your bed in shame."
Rubbish, Gremlin. It's been edited to within an inch of its life, and from the cover to the font and internal layout, my publishers have done an excellent and thoroughly professional job. We came prepared for this battle, and there will be no shame or hiding under the bed for this girl.
Now... silenzio, Bruno!
This won't be the end of my gremlin's grumblings for the day. He's going to keep rearing his ugly head, just because that's what he does, but I'll do my best to keep him under control and not let him spoil this moment.
As for you, dear reader, I hope something in this post has been useful to you. Please remember you are not alone. We are all impostors in our own heads sometimes. It doesn't mean that we don't deserve all of the good things that happen to us. If you've tried everything and that gremlin is still ruining your day, never be ashamed to talk to someone about it. Family. Friends. Your GP. Confidential helplines (see details below). There are plenty of people out there who would love to help you, because no matter what those gremlins tell you, you do deserve to be happy.
Now get out there and kick impostor syndrome's a**!
Click here to see a list of mental health helplines you can contact in the UK.
Click here to see a list of mental health helplines you can contact in the US.
Click here to see a list of mental health helplines you can contact in Canada.
Click here to see a list of mental health helplines you can contact in Australia.
Rachel's debut novel, 'Artie's Courage', is available to pre-order now.
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Do you have any more useful tips for dealing with Impostor Syndrome? Share them with me in the comments below!