How to Beat Imposter Syndrome
Updated: Jan 17
You’re making this world, you’ve got characters you’re in love with, and you’re writing your novel... then you get to that point where you become self-critical.
“I’m not good enough,” you say. “Somebody's probably already told this story better than me. I’m going to get rejected, I’m going to get terrible reviews, and I’m going to get terrible sales.”
So what can you do to help yourself through those times?
I’m not good enough.
First, if you thought you were the only person who thought that, if you were the only person who felt that, you would be in a lab somewhere and the government would experiment on your brain because that is the inner cry of every soul.
It is the human condition.
When someone says to you, “I like your t-shirt,” and you go, “It's only H&M,” you’re not even acknowledging that the clothes you’re wearing are suitable. You’re constantly deflecting and pushing things away. You’re investing time in worrying about things that haven't happened yet and what do don't do is lift your head up and look back. That's the key thing. When you look back, you see where you were and where you are now, what you've achieved. Those little wins — it's really important that you mark them.
Get a jar then stick a label on it that says, “The Truth About Your Writing”. When people compliment you or your writing, smile, maintain eye contact, and say thank you. Later, write down their compliment, then pop it into your jar. When you’re feeling discouraged, open the jar and read every slip of paper, because I want you to think, "I’m not a terrible writer". That jar, full of little successes, is going to become an enormous boost when you’re feeling down.
Metal Wall or Picket Fence?
The idea isn't to get rid of imposter syndrome because if you did, you'd be like Donald Trump. Love him or hate him, he’s totally authentic and had zero vulnerability. I’m not even sure the word "weakness" is in his vocabulary.
With imposter syndrome, the idea isn't to take it down so that you've got no vulnerability, but to take it down from an impenetrable metal wall to a white picket fence so you can notice it, recognise it, then step over it.
You need to be self-critical to look objectively at your work and say, “Okay, this is what's working, and this is how I can fix it”. But when that becomes too much, that's when it pushes you down and you have this "I’m not good enough" feeling.
Who’s It for and What’s It For?
If who it's for is for yourself, then you can never not be good enough. If you want to write something and then criticise yourself, then you might as well lick a toad.
That's miserable. Do that instead.
But if who it’s for is not you, then—and only then—you’re accountable to your audience. Knowing who you are delivering for is really important because you're not the best judge of whether it's good enough, because it's not for you. Getting clear on who it's for is important and tying that in with the feeling of I’m not good enough.
Here's the thing — good enough for what? Who is this person who is measuring people's worth? I’ve never met them. And also, we tie our self-worth to our achievements. That's where "I’m not good enough" comes from. We tie in what we do with how good we are.
Your brain's a liar and that voice saying, “I’m not good enough,” will constantly be there, so if you can ignore it, you can take heart from it. Remember who your story is for, then ask them if it’s good.
If you get into your own head, you’re finished. Writing is a gift for you and it's a gift for others, so think about your audience.
I once had a beta reader tell me she didn’t like my main character. I focused my entire book on his side of a romantic relationship. I thought I’d written him as feisty, but she read him as angry. My first thought was,“I’m terrible. I can't even write a sympathetic character”.
In the UK we had a TV show called Family Fortunes (Family Feud in America. 100 people were surveyed with everyday questions, e.g., ‘Name something you’d spread on toast.’ Contestants had to guess the top answers the 100 people gave. You could ask 100 people who read your book what they didn’t like. 21 might dislike what your main character said to the undertaker in chapter one, 13 might dislike your description of a papaya in chapter four, and 33 hated the fact that the wedding was held on a beach (because they went to a stunning ski resort ceremony where the theme was Frozen).
What I’m getting at is there’s a difference between writing for other people and pleasing everybody. As much as who your story is for, there are those it’s not for. And those people might pick up your book, hate it, and write a scathing review.
Now, if 100 readers came back and hated your main character, you’re on to something and that’s feedback worth paying attention to. But it really is a numbers game.
And anyway, can you really write something that everybody hates? People are weird. There’s someone to like everything you do. Judging your work on one person's reaction, or a few people's reaction…? It’s not the healthy thing to do.
Don’t Let Emotional You Win.
There are two voices in your head, and there's more than one side of the story, but when you get feedback, congratulate yourself on being brave because you put it out there. Most people wouldn't do it because they fear "what if I'm not good enough?".
Emotional You: “Oh my God I’m an awful writer.”
Rational You: “Well, you know it's just one person’s view…”
Emotional You: “But it's terrible. I wanted them to like it and they don't like it so I’ve got to stop writing forever.”
Rational You: “That’s one option, but here's another one…”
Let’s be honest—there's no if you're going to fail. Of course you are. Do you want to be the only human on the planet who doesn't fail? Never going to happen. You are going to fail. You're better investing your energy in "when this manuscript comes back, and I have negative comments, what is my strategy going to be?" How are you going to navigate that perceived failure and use that as a ‘failure rung’ on your ladder that takes you to success?
Dealing With Rejection.
When an agent rejects your book, remember that it's not a judgment on you as a human being. It's likely to be a judgment on what’s working right now, what's selling.
Most agents come into their jobs hoping to find an undiscovered genius, but they don't get paid unless they find someone who's marketable. There's so much more at play, so judging the creative value of something against someone who has targets and is part of a commercial machine…? It doesn't make sense.
It's possible for creative people to lose that perspective. If you want to pursue traditional publishing, the agent is going to ask you make changes to your book so a publisher will be interested and once a publisher is interested, they’ll (probably) ask you to make changes to your book so the public will be interested. Make the shift from, "this is my passion project" to, "this needs to be something marketable so it sells".
As a book coach, I’m always going to encourage people to publish a great manuscript because their story is so many other people's story. Your story might be the one thing that gives someone that element of agency, so I think it's selfish not to share it.
Book are like babies. They start inside you, and you spend a long time making them. Then somebody says your baby is fat and ugly and looks like a football. (According to my sister, I looked like a pickled onion.) Of course you want to lock yourself away because this thing just came out of you and someone is telling you it is absolutely hideous. Of course you want to lock yourself in a room. I could quote you my one star reviews word for word. My five star reviews? Couldn’t quote you a single one.
But you're doing yourself a disservice. Your one star reviews are like velcro—they stick to your brain whereas the five star reviews could be velcro but we dismiss them because our inner voice when someone says something good we go back to "oh no, it's only H&M". If you don't have a way of being able to notice and describe—adding no judgment—your reviews they are going to own you and what the world loses, if you give up, is your words. You're actually stealing the opportunity for people to grow because you're giving up.
Don’t Let Fear Drive Your Bus.
Becoming a writer is a choice. "I’m a writer" does not require agreement from the Writers’ Guild of [insert your country’s name here]. When people say, "one day I'd like to write a book" what they're actually saying is, "I am not a writer. I feel like I have a story in me but as up to this moment I have not yet been brave enough to even consider putting down words".
The truth—that they want to write—keeps coming out.
"Oh, my gosh—one day I’ll write a book—but I’m not brave enough, and I think that other thing’s more important, I don't have time, my job doesn't allow for it, it’s going to be rubbish, anyway."
All that external loci of control erodes their creativity, their own ability to be fulfilled. We set these upper limits of success around identity.
Only you can achieve what you believe you deserve, so if you’re telling yourself "I’m not good enough," try, "up until now I haven't felt good enough".
See the difference?
Because every time you say, "I’m not good enough" it's another brick in the wall shutting off your creativity.
Don’t let fear drive your bus.