From the age of about 14, I’ve been convinced that I am not very good at writing. That’s funny, or at least, ironic, because I’m kind of, sort of, a writer. I write a lot of things for a lot of places – but I don’t think I’m actually good at it.
I know that I was 14 when this revelation came about. I know this because in June 2008, I wrote a teary diary entry about how I wish I could write. Anything I wrote turned bad, I wrote, if I could finish anything at all.
Apart from brief flirtations with the idea of being (in chronological order) a barrister, a robotics engineer and a barista, I went through school set on the idea of being a writer. And now I am a writer, nominally. I don’t make a living out of it, but I do write, and it does get published, sometimes. Despite this, however, I still struggle to see myself as having any actual talent when it comes to writing.
I don’t always think I’m bad at writing, of course. There’ll be times where I’m pretty convinced – hey, I’m actually a good writer – but it’s always there, a tiny voice in the back of my mind: haha just kidding, you suck.
Is it just the generalised anxiety? Why do I believe so vehemently that I’m terrible at something that I simultaneously seek out? And it’s not just writing I think I’m bad at. Deep in the back of my mind, I’m pretty sure that I’m not actually good at anything. I was anxious for weeks leading up to my dream job, because I was sure I wasn’t going to be good at it – and everyone else would know it.
I vocalised my lack of confidence in my abilities to a friend a while ago, and he asked me if I thought I had something called ‘imposter syndrome’. I’d never heard of it before, but in the years since, it’s made the rounds on the internet.
Imposter syndrome was coined in 1978, to describe ‘an internal experience of intellectual phonies’, with high-achieving individuals convinced they will be exposed as frauds. The paper it was coined in identifies women as particularly susceptible to the phenomenon.
‘Despite often overwhelming evidence of their abilities, imposters dismiss them as merely a matter of luck, timing, outside help, charm – even computer error,’ Young writes in The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. ‘They feel that they’ve somehow managed to slip through the system undetected [so] in their mind it’s just a matter of time before they’re found out.’
Amy Cuddy, the author of Presence, says: ‘It’s not simple stage fright or performance anxiety; rather, it’s the deep and sometimes paralyzing belief that we have been given something we didn’t earn and don’t deserve and that at some point we’ll be exposed.’
When the idea was first developed, the psychologists behind it theorised that it was a gendered phenomenon, afflicting women more often than men. That idea persists to this day, and it makes sense — after all, men are generally socialised to be confident, while women are taught to not to be bossy or too braggy. It also marries with other statistics about modern workplaces: while men will apply for jobs they’re 60 per cent qualified for, women won’t unless they have 100 per cent of the stated qualifications; women often give themselves lower performance reviews than others give them; and of course, there’s that lingering pay gap.
More recent research has found, however, that imposter syndrome may affect women and men equally — in fact, most high-achieving individuals feel like they’re fakes at some point. Neil Gaiman, Emma Watson and Lena Dunham have all felt it. So perhaps it can strike any gender, but women are more likely to vocalise it or hold themselves back because of it.
That may alleviate the worries of high achievers, knowing that they’re hardly the only ones to feel like they’re not as good as people think they are. If someone like Emma Watson could possibly have imposter syndrome, anyone could!
The thing is, imposter syndrome isn’t actually a syndrome. It isn’t defined as a formal mental illness; there are no standard definitions or treatments. A more apt phrase would be ‘imposter phenomenon’, which strips some of the medical connotations away. It also acknowledges the fact that most people in their lives struggle with imposter phenomenon, no matter what gender they are or how good they are at what they do – it’s not necessarily a detriment to their work unless their anxiety gets out of hand.
There are a lot of articles out there telling you how to ‘bust’ imposter syndrome or ‘cure’ your feelings of imposterism. But maybe there’s nothing to cure. Maybe feeling like an imposter is a part of the human condition, and something everyone just has to deal with.
It feels self-indulgent and self-defeating to do the one thing I’m meant to be good at – to write – when deep down I’m pretty sure I’m crap. It feels even more self-indulgent to write about feeling like a fake, because the obvious solution is to quit.
If those feelings sound familiar to you – but perhaps in a different context – maybe you have imposter phenomenon. But it might be comforting to know that most people feel the way that you do at some point. I’m not necessarily saying that you’re the next Neil Gaiman or Emma Watson (maybe you are), but it can be comforting to know that you’re not alone. The world is just full of people who are sure they’re frauds but are proving otherwise every day.
And perhaps the only way to truly combat imposter phenomenon is to trust in other people’s judgement of us as capable or competent, and keep on striving to be the best we can, while accepting that perfection is not attainable, but progress is.
As Kilroy J Oldster said: ‘It is tempting to accept defeat, surrender to our insecurities, and admit that because of failing to accomplish one particular goal that the best part of our life was wasted. Cynically writing ourselves off as a failure, we are free to capitulate to the emptiness of our lives.’
Image: Fritz Bielmeier
Sharona Lin is a recent graduate and recent Canberra convert. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Pop Culture-y (popculture-y.com), has written for The Age, Tone Deaf and The Music, and has written several award-winning short stories. In the coming years, she hopes to publish her first novel.
This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.