A few days ago, I received an email from a reader (first of all, an email from a reader...when did this kind of thing start happening to me?). In it, she praised my books and congratulated me on a recent award. For a few moments, that email filled me with joy and gratitude, a sense of accomplishment, even a bit of pride.
Then all those positive feelings washed away in a wave of insecurity. Who, me? Did the woman get the wrong email address? Had she intended to send this lovely note to a real author?
It's much the same response I had last month at Killer Nashville when Clay Stafford called my name at the awards banquet. As I walked toward the podium to collect my medal with my heart pounding and my mouth turned up in a disbelieving grin, part of me expected someone to dash across the room, tackle me, and inform me I'd misheard. Perhaps it was another Lori Roberts Herbst he meant...
I know I'm not the only one to wrestle with such emotions. In fact, a few years ago at a conference, I heard a speaker address the topic, referring to it as Writers' Imposter Syndrome: the idea that, no matter what you've accomplished as an author, it's just an illusion. Soon, people will realize you're a fraud, and you'll be summarily ridiculed and ostracized. Deservedly so, the voice in my mind whispers.
I can sense all you writers out there nodding your heads. You understand. I suspect many of you even identify.
Of course, Imposter Syndrome isn't unique to authors. Artists, musicians, and actors confront it, too. As a journalism teacher, I dealt with the malady every time the publications I advised earned accolades. Though I assured my students they deserved the recognitions, I found it difficult to take any of the credit for myself. I'm lucky to be surrounded by such talented students, I'd tell myself (which was true, but leadership matters too, right?).
On her website The Creative Penn, Joanna Penn offers an excerpt on Writers' Imposter Syndrome from her book, The Successful Author Mindset. In it, she quotes Charles Bukowski:
"Bad writers tend to have self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt."
Well, then. There you have it. I know that statement should comfort me, and yet...you see the conflict, right? It's like the philosophy of the Liar's Paradox, in which a person who claims, "I am always a liar," can't be telling the truth. By the same token, Bukowski's quote tells me that if I experience self-doubt, I'm likely a good writer. If by extension I believe I'm a good writer, I gain self-confidence, which in turn means I'm a bad writer, and so on...
But enough of that rabbit hole. As a trained counselor, I understand that Writers' Imposter Syndrome is simply one more way my brain sabotages me. Those who chase the muse can be especially prone to such mental and emotional responses. Our minds are adept at latching onto something good and twisting it until it feels unreal or undeserved. Fear, negativity, and self-doubt can consume us and render us paralyzed if we allow it.
So what's the cure? Sorry to say, but from everything I've read, a cure doesn't exist. I'm told even the most successful and experienced writers occasionally succumb to the affliction. Chronic by nature, WIS can only be managed. I can't get over it, only through it.
But how? For that answer, I turn back to my counseling education, which tells me that first, I must train my mind to recognize the symptoms. When I feel self-doubt creeping into my psyche, I identify it, call it out, and remind myself that thoughts aren't reality.
Next, I make myself act. I push ahead. I craft that next sentence, paragraph, chapter, book.
And if all else fails, you'll find me standing in front of the mirror, Stuart Smalley style, in a daily affirmation. Recite it with me, if you need to: "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me."