Impostor Syndrome: How I fight the feelings that I'm a fake

Commentary: Neil Gaiman, Meryl Streep and other big names have fought Impostor Syndrome. Here's how you can defeat the inner killjoy that tells you you're a big phony.

Bonnie Burton
Journalist Bonnie Burton writes about movies, TV shows, comics, science and robots. She is the author of the books Live or Die: Survival Hacks, Wizarding World: Movie Magic Amazing Artifacts, The Star Wars Craft Book, Girls Against Girls, Draw Star Wars, Planets in Peril and more! E-mail Bonnie.
Bonnie Burton
8 min read
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Fraud. Pretender. Phony. Charlatan.

These are just a few names I call myself on a daily basis. No matter how many articles I write or how many books I publish, I can't help but worry -- obsessively -- that at any moment someone will wise up, point at me and yell, "Fake!"

This fear of being outed as a professional fraud isn't unique to me. It's a common phenomenon called Impostor Syndrome, and plenty of people suffer from it, including well-known author Neil Gaiman and stars including Tina Fey, Meryl Streep and Ryan Reynolds. Clinical psychologist Jaruwan Sakulku, in a 2011 paper titled "The Impostor Phenomenon," said 70 percent of people will experience at least one episode of Impostor Syndrome in their lives.

I have episodes daily, almost every time I sit down to write.

Even getting a positive comment on an article can send me into a tailspin. I consider compliments carefully, dissecting them for hidden slander or sarcastic double meanings. Am I being pandered to? Maybe the congratulations on a job well done is more about the sexy topic than my writing style.  

Every time I sign a book deal, I wonder if it's just because I was at the right place at the right time. I get paranoid I'll disappoint my agent, and myself, by thinking I can deliver the best book of my career only to end up failing spectacularly. This kind of mental panic sets in before I write a single word.

I simply can't internalize my accomplishments or accept that maybe, just maybe, I'm a good writer. The anxiety especially hits late at night when I'm trying to sleep, but my mind races with thoughts of whether I should rightfully consider myself a writer.

I'm not fishing for compliments here. In fact, if you praise my writing, I'll most likely dismiss it as polite banter. I'll wonder if you're saying that just to be nice and make me feel like I'm not the hack I think I am.

The comparison game

Psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes first coined the term Impostor Syndrome in 1978, defining it as a feeling of "phoniness in people who believe they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement." They studied 150 highly successful women who, despite degrees, scholastic honors, high scores on standardized tests and professional recognition from colleagues and respected authorities, considered themselves to be impostors.  

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Some suggest Impostor Syndrome isn't a syndrome, but a natural extension of success. We're all plagued by self-doubt at some point. It's part of being human. But for people with Impostor Syndrome, which affects men and women equally, the self-doubt can be crushing. We consistently feel our accomplishments don't mean anything. Deep down we don't think we're talented enough to deserve praise.

My Impostor Syndrome hit around 2003, after I already had a few books under my belt. I started comparing myself with friends who were more prolific.

I was writing and publishing a book every other year. But my author pals were publishing more books than me while going on extensive book tours, speaking on prestigious author panels, leading workshops at luxurious writer retreats and working on original movie screenplays and TV pilot scripts. How could I compete with these superstars when I was just trying to get my latest book idea out of my head and onto paper?

These kinds of thoughts present a pernicious mental obstacle. While I've never sought therapy for them, by reading about Impostors Syndrome and talking to others who have it I've discovered some useful strategies for combating the litany of self-destructive lies swirling around my brain.

In very good company 

For starters, it helps to remind myself that many authors -- no matter how productive or successful -- have self-doubts about their writing.

There's Gaiman, who during a 2012 commencement address at Philadelphia's University of the Arts shared his personal experience.

"I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door," he said, "and a man with a clipboard would be there, to tell me it was all over, and they had caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job, one that didn't consist of making things up and writing them down, and reading books I wanted to read."   

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Then there's the late Maya Angelou.

"I have written 11 books, but each time I think, 'Uh oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out,'" she was often quoted as saying.

Angelou is the same author who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her book of poetry, won three Grammys for her spoken-word albums, was given the National Medal of Arts and Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was awarded over 50 honorary degrees. She accomplished more than most authors could dream of in a lifetime, and yet…

While Impostor Syndrome can hit anyone, evidence suggests it's especially common among those underrepresented in their fields, such as women and minorities working in tech.  

"When you're the only woman or person of color in the room, it can sometimes feel like you're in the wrong room," writes Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in an article on Impostor Syndrome published on LinkedIn. Gates has tackled the challenges faced by women in tech before, including in a commentary for CNET

High achievers are also susceptible to Impostor Syndrome, says psychotherapist and author Dr. Aaron Balick, because they push the bounds of their professional areas, often working at the edge of their area of expertise. "It can be said that the more successful you are, the more likely you are to experience this, since your experience at the top of your field is, by its very nature, unusual," he tells me.

Real reasons for feeling fake

Impostor Syndrome developed in two distinct ways for the women Clance and Imes studied. In one, a woman grew up in a household where she was overshadowed by another sibling or relative who was designated the smartest person in the family. She then spent most of her childhood and adult life over-achieving to prove her intelligence. If the family didn't acknowledge her accomplishments, she started to doubt them as well.

The syndrome also afflicted women who were told as kids they were perfect and could do anything with ease, only to be hit later with the reality that their skill set could only get them so far. The women began to wonder if their parents had been overstating their talents. The pressure for perfection took hold and they began to doubt their self worth.

My parents never told me I was perfect, but they never told me I wasn't smart enough either. I fell squarely in the middle. I was already showing an exceptional ability for writing stories at a young age, but I wasn't exactly a budding J.K. Rowling. I had awhile to go before the idea of publishing a book popped into my head.

From an early age, though, I showed some of the characteristics Balick identifies as common to people battling Impostor Syndrome. 

"People who suffer from low self esteem and negative self-talk are particularly vulnerable, as are, perhaps surprisingly, high achievers and perfectionists," he says. "Also, folks who can't take compliments from others are unlikely to be able to give them to themselves."

Slaying the internal killjoy

So how to combat the nagging voice inside your head that gets in your way? It's daunting, but it's not impossible.

"Instead of agreeing with the thought 'I'm not good enough,' collect some real evidence that you might be intelligent and accomplished, like higher-than-average grades, positive feedback from mentors and teachers, endorsements, assignments, promotions, praise from bosses, sales of your product..." suggests clinical psychologist Andrea Letamendi. She shared her own battle with Impostor Syndrome in a 2015 TEDx talk.

In her article, Gates also stresses the importance of encouraging self-talk. She recalls the self-doubt she experienced upon walking into her first computer science class, one full of men, and how she countered the internal voice telling her she probably shouldn't be there. 

"I couldn't silence the voices in my head telling me 'I'm not good enough,'" she writes, "but I could amend them a little, to say 'I'm not good enough -- yet.' With that one change, that message stopped being devastating -- and started being motivating."

Best-selling author Jenny Lawson, who's listed by Nielson Online as one of the 50 most powerful mom bloggers, has her own way of dealing. She fakes herself out.

"When I was recording my first audiobook, I couldn't do it because you could hear the fear in my voice," says Lawson, whose latest, a coloring book called "You Are Here: An Owner's Manual For Dangerous Minds," debuted in the No. 2 spot on the New York Times Bestseller list this year. "Neil Gaiman gave me an amazing piece of advice: Pretend you're good at it. So I did. And it worked. I still write 'Pretend you're good at it' on my arm every single time I have to go out on stage."

In his 2012 commencement address, Gaiman said he and his wife Amanda christened Impostor Syndrome the "fraud police."

One powerful way to fight feeling like a sham, Letamendi tells me, is to think of ourselves not as a list of achievements, but as a complex mix of wins and losses. And to remind ourselves we're constantly evolving and learning from not being afraid to live the life we want.

"Each task, each project, gave us something meaningful to learn about ourselves and our passions, and these aren't necessarily tied to its outcome," Letamendi says.

When artist Lucy Bellwood felt the overwhelming weight of Impostor Syndrome crushing her creativity, she turned her self-doubt into the comic book "100 Demon Dialogues."

"I've come to have a grudging respect for the character I've created to embody my own Impostor Syndrome, because he can make a stink about anything," Bellwood said. "If I'm focusing on promotion for a new project, he'll chime in and declare that I'm no longer a real cartoonist because I've been directing attention toward something other than full-time drawing. If I'm spending all my time drawing, he'll get on my case about not being a successful career person because I'm not getting my work out there enough."

As frustrating as the negative voices can be, Bellwood has come to understand they're just part of the creative process.

"Often I'll look back on a project I completed while slogging through insufferable amounts of negative self-judgment, and it turns out those pages are indistinguishable from ones I drew when I was feeling on top of the world," she says. "It's a mental state that doesn't actually impact my drawing ability. It's a mind game."

A mind game indeed. I'm slowly learning the debilitating perceptions that characterize Impostor Syndrome can be overthrown. It's an ongoing process, but it's also worth remembering that doing what you love is more important than obsessing over whether you're worthy to do it in the first place.

For real.

First published Dec. 18, 2017, 5 a.m. PT. 
Update, Jan. 8, 2018 at 2 p.m. PT: Adds comment on Impostor Syndrome from Melinda Gates. 

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