Wednesday, March 9, 2011

You're such a fraud!

Sandra Parshall

Does success or praise ever make you feel like an imposter? Do you secretly worry that you”ll be “found out” and everyone will realize you’re not as intelligent or talented as they believe? Does praise embarrass you because you think your success is due mostly to luck?

If you answered yes to those questions, you’re far from alone. The “imposter syndrome” is as common as it is baffling. I’d say it’s especially common among writers, judging by the number of talented authors who react to success with jokes about waiting for everybody to realize they’re really hacks. In his latest newsletter, for example, the fabulously successful John Connolly says he's about to turn in a manuscript with "the usual misgivings about whether I've managed to fool most of the people most of the time once again."

Authors who say things like that are, admittedly, more charming than the jerks who think they’re the greatest writers alive and want everybody to know it. But when a person is demonstrably talented and widely praised, where do the self-doubts come from?

I’ve been poring over an article in the March/April issue of Scientific American Mind, trying to find out why so many perfectly decent people see themselves as fakes, frauds, imposters, con men. I was especially interested in whether women are more prone to this phenomenon than men. The answer is yes – and no. Some studies have shown that women feel less worthy, but other studies have found no difference between the sexes. The results of such research apparently depend a lot on who is studied and where they are in their lives at the time. Some people, male or female, may develop more inner confidence as they age and build up an indisputable record of success.

But what about those who never lose the feeling of being an imposter? Psychologists believe they’re caught in a “closed thought loop” that makes them over-prepare for even the simplest challenge – then attribute their success not to their ability but to their extreme preparation. If they don’t do any extra preparation and still succeed? Pure dumb luck, in their minds. If they fail, they blame their own stupidity and lack of ability, not their lack of preparation.

How do you break this vicious cycle? The experts don’t have a lot of help to offer beyond the kind of advice your mom might give: Reflect on your talents and intelligence, your strong points, all the things you do well. Respect yourself. Give yourself credit where it’s due. Easier said than done.

Back to the original question: Do you suffer from imposter syndrome? Exactly how much success would it take to make you stop feeling like a Great Pretender? 

12 comments:

MaxWriter said...

I suffer from it a bit, but not too badly. Although this morning, having just scored 3 full requests and 1 partial request after querying 19 agents, I said to my beau, "Maybe I just have a really good query letter and credentials and my writing sucks." He said, rightly so, "If they didn't like what they already read of your writing, no amount of credentials would make them want to read on."

But Michael Connolly - really?

Edith
http://edithmaxwell.blogspot.com/

Judy Alter said...

When I was first published, if someone said "Are you an author?" I looked over my shoulder to see who they were talking today. Now I feel reasonably competent but realize I'll never write a bestseller or a classic. Best of all, O know I can help others who want to write.

Sandra Parshall said...

Not Michael Connelly -- John Connolly. Also a worldwide bestselling author and a marvelous writer. Irish, but sets his books in the US.

MaxWriter said...

Woops, sorry, wrong author! Still...

Sandra Parshall said...

Even the most successful people have memories of times when they've made stupid mistakes or performed poorly. Many writers endure so much rejection before they get published that it's amazing we have any confidence at all in our writing. The memories of those unkind rejection letters never fade.

Alan Orloff said...

Whenever I see a book with my name on the cover (not that there are so many!), I think, "Seriously? I wrote that? Unlikely."

I think it breaks out to 85% fraud, 15% "doesn't stink too much"

Sandra Parshall said...

I know what you mean, Alan. All I can recall is the anguish of trying to write something readable, and I never quite believe the finished product is my own. Waiting for reviews of a new book is torture: Somehow the others managed to get good reviews, but surely reviewers will HATE this one.

Shirley Damsgaard said...

Great post, Sandra! And one I've thought a lot about...it seems to be very common with writers. In fact, after I signed my first contract, one author's response was "congratulations, the world just called your bluff!!" lol And I guess that's a feeling I've never quite escaped!

Personally, I think it's because most writers I know are "people pleasers" (myself included) and we're so afraid that the next book won't!

Kaye George said...

Absolutely I suffer from it! My first book has yet to come out, but when it does, I assume I'll never get another one past them. But I'll try!

Supriya Savkoor said...

I feel so exposed...

Kathy McIntosh said...

Great post! When I give a speech and seem to please the audience, I have to fight against saying "Well, they had nothing better to do. I certainly couldn't have had a worthwhile word to share."
I imagine I'll have to fight it once I'm published. That's a problem I welcome...nay, yearn for!

Pat Driscoll said...

My first novelwill be published by Five Star/ Gale in Jan. 2012. Nice to know that my fears and doubts are felt by others far more experienced.