Battling imposter syndrome

You’ve been there. The feeling that you’re a total failure, unequipped to do the job. You know it, but no one else does… yet. Those around you are on the brink of figuring out that you in fact totally suck. Forget the training and preparation that brought you to this moment, and the experience that can give us the guidance to go forward and accomplish great things. Nope. Doesn’t count. You suck and you’re about to really screw up and everyone is about to learn the truth.

Hello, imposter syndrome.

I’ve encountered this jerk-of-an-outlook plenty of times in my professional and academic life. In both areas, I didn’t do anything more than ignore, as much as I could, the tiny voice that was telling me how close I was to failing. I put my head down and worked, persevered, absorbed the hiccups that come with any endeavor (the typos, the bumbling presentations, the misreads of situations). With time, I got over this clamoring self-doubt. Academic insecurity isn’t a problem anymore as I’m no longer a full-time student (YAY.) but I can weather some of the work-related self-questioning better than I have in the past. I can take risks, raise questions, do all the productive employee stuff I was too scared to do in the past.

But here I am again, grappling with a very beast-like bout of imposter syndrome. Same voice, but a different script: I’m a crappy writer, can’t write fiction or essays, and should give up. I should give up now and stop wasting my time.

This runs through my head regularly. It’s been particularly fierce in recent days. I made the choice (mistake?) to share a first draft of a piece of writing with my critique group, and while the feedback on the overall idea of the piece was positive, I’m having trouble shaking the feeling that I suck. A few readers were caught up on errors and choices that I would have caught or done differently in a later draft. Another reader echoed the same feedback she shared the last time I submitted writing for the group to review, that she’s looking for “something more.” I felt put on the spot when I didn’t have any additional questions for the group other than the ones I’d asked initially.

So here I am: I feel like the moron who should have worked harder at revising this draft before sharing, who has dumb ideas, who doesn’t have a good idea for the direction of my writing. I’m wasting everyone’s time. I should just quit this critique group and, better yet, writing.

I know, intellectually, that this is a silly line of thought. Of course I shouldn’t share a first draft with a group like that to review; I can catch places to revise on my own in a first draft. Not every reader is going to be in love with my work, but I can always work to think through new ideas for new work or existing drafts. It’s OK if I want to mull over the feedback just dumped on me (that I had asked for) without asking additional questions in that moment. Further, I’ve been complimented on the feedback given to others in this group, so no, they’re not going to kick me out. (Is that even a thing? Anyone know of writers who have been kicked out of critique groups?)

That little voice won’t quit, except in the moments when I’m actually putting in the work. Producing, revising, editing.

So, I’m going to do what I’ve done in the past. I’m going to put my head down and work. I’m going to acknowledge the whispering of doubt in my ear but I’m only going to listen for so long before I get back to work. I’m going to keep submitting work for others to read. I’m even going to submit writing–my first story submitted to this group–for publication consideration, very soon. I’m going to keep working. Some day, I’ll stop feeling like I suck. The only way to do so is pretend I don’t completely suck.

How do you all battle feeling like an imposter?

Old habits die hard

For the past couple of months, I’ve been doing that thing where I procrastinate on writing. That thing you might do with any creative project or larger effort. Something I did for, uh… almost five years.

To be fair, life has been a little hectic this summer. Since June, I:

  • Looked for and bought a house
  • Packed
  • Closed and moved into the new house on the same day
  • Dealt with an absolutely difficult landlord
  • Went camping?
  • Got engaged??
  • Unpacked because a lot of that wasn’t done when we left for camping
  • Bought a fridge and a lawn mower + other yard equipment
  • Used the lawn mower + other yard equipment several times
  • Battled a broken air conditioner
  • Spent time with family
  • Did some more camping
  • Drove 15 hours round trip to see the moon eclipse the sun

… plus a bunch of other miscellaneous stuff that adds up in time and energy lost.

(Of course, when I say “I,” my SO was involved in much of this. I personally did not battle an A/C unit.)

All of this is exciting–it’s been a full summer. But now it’s time to recommit to writing.

Because it’s easy to allow distractions to take up more time than necessary when writing isn’t urgent–even with impending submission deadlines. The time spent looking on Pinterest for brown couch/blue color scheme living room decor ideas and dairy-free zoodle recipes, or Googling skin-clearing nutritional supplements and the Portland-area traffic predictions in the time immediately before and after the solar eclipse wasn’t completely wasted. But I certainly could have stopped, stepped away from my phone, and put in some work when instead I continued to find gluten-free meal plans (because that’s my life now, too: regretfully free of gluten).

The upside of realizing the slipping creative discipline is that there’s an opportunity recommit. To take a moment and reflect on what’s been keeping you from practicing your craft (for me: lots of exciting life events and, as always, fear). To realize what you had been doing well in terms of habit and what you can do to improve. And, to tie a nice bow on that period of reflection and then to whatever creative work it is that you do.

So this is my acknowledgement of my bonkers summer, and my recommitment to writing.

The power of the creativity journal

When I refocused this blog a few months ago, I maintained an ambitious goal of posting approximately once per week.

Clearly I do not regularly meet that goal.

In my defense, I have a lot going on at this juncture. That’s not an excuse but an admission to myself that there are several other things competing for my time and attention.

Something that’s also taking a hit of late is my creative work. I had developed a creative writing routine in the past few months that led me to accomplish some great things; I also had some external deadlines to give me the motivation I needed to finalize some projects. But, as project drafts are wrapped up, new work doesn’t materialize.

What’s helped me maintain a habit of writing and also provided me with an outlet for exploring my frustrations and ideas is what I’m calling a creativity journal.

I’ve written about work journals in the past (and I do occasionally journal about this). What’s different than “here’s what’s going on in my day” of a standard journal is “here’s what’s going on in my head with regard to my craft.”

You can write about how your commitments are proving to be a distraction. You can mull over an idea for a project. You can write about your insecurities large and small in a space that no one is going to encounter.

collage of journal and pages

I write in a paper notebook but of course this can be digital. (I like using paper because this is one of the few moments when I get to handwrite something instead of typing.)

You can pick whatever frequency works best for you. I aim for once per day, even though that doesn’t always happen. Maybe you shoot for one longer entry once per week, to really do a deep dive on whatever’s been on your mind.

The benefits:

  • You have to write. Even if you’re stuck creatively, you commit to journaling on a regular basis.
  • You get to explore whatever’s on your mind. Identify themes and connect your life to your creative endeavors.
  • This is for creative work. Do your best to aim your thinking toward this goal.

What do you think? Have you used–do you currently use–a journal to help cultivate creativity and keep you on track when things are busy?

You’ve probably got a lot going on–and that’s OK

I drafted this post on the plane while heading home after a trip to visit family, during which I worked my 9-to-5, deliberated on and put in an offer on a house (!?!?!), did some other employment-related tidying up (interpret that as you will)… and spent time with a variety of family. Thing were a little hectic but that’s how I feel like life has been as of late.

I’ve also been revising a short story that I’ve been working on for several weeks. This has been fun, challenging, terrifying, even more so due to the fact that I have deadline to send this to my writing critique group, very soon. (Did I mention that this is also the first critique group that I’ve ever been a part of? And that this is my third meeting with this group? And that this will be my first submission for review? Well, then: all true.) I have quite a lot left to do, but not terribly confident in when I’ll be able to get that work done.

Ever since I’ve re-embraced my creative side, I’ve had to battle with other dynamics in competition for my time, attention, and energy. This very moment, though, is particularly intense. And I know I’m not alone. What I’ve learned so far:

Be realistic.

Sure, I’ll have a draft to share with my critique group, but I may not have the headspace to incorporate their feedback into a next draft until much later. We should all strive to make progress on our work but understand that some goals need to be adjusted when necessary.

Be generous.

While adjusting goals, don’t beat yourself up. I liked the idea of submitting this particular story for competition early this summer but I don’t think that’s going to happen–and that’s OK! I have a goal in mind, and I’m getting so much out of this work, so what’s wrong with pushing back a deadline a few weeks while instead I, uh, I don’t know, move into a new house that I purchased? (Did I mention that I’m a first-time homebuyer and just barely aware of what I’m doing? Also true.)

Be active.

Keep working, in some capacity. Draft, journal, sketch–do whatever appears to require minimal brainpower, or something that can be done quickly. You may not make tremendous progress on a project, but small steps forward will add up.

Re-read everything

… that you read in school.

Please.

My mom (who’s reading this, hello!) always said that philosophy is lost on 20-somethings. I’ll specify by arguing that short fiction is lost on 20-somethings. Not all, and not always me, but looking back on all the fantastic essays, short stories, and novels I was assigned to read as an undergraduate, much of what I remember reading that really should have resonated with me simply didn’t. And those pieces that didn’t hit me hard weren’t because due to a valid critique on my part, but because I was a distracted, moronic, self-centered 21-year-old.

I’m sure you can think of a ton of assigned readings from your field of study or area of interest that went over your head at a young age. Now’s the time to revisit those readings.

I’ve gotten rid of a lot of texts from those days but kept many more, lugging essay and short fiction collections east and west, unpacking and arranging them on bookshelves, promising myself that I would revisit them but pushing that pledge from my mind and I found things to concern myself with.

But recently I cut the bullshit. A month ago I picked up a Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories from my junior-year advanced fiction writing class (right.) and turned to Joyce Carol Oates “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” something I’d read for the first time seven years ago (ugh) and not again since but remembered as haunting, absolutely. And it was just that, but fuller than what I remembered. I found another, this one from the Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction: Pam Huston’s “Cowboys Are My Weakness,” read for the first time in an intermediate-level short fiction writing class. I remember wanting to like the story but not getting much out of it. I likely attempted to read it in a time span of 15 minutes on four hours of sleep before rushing to a job I had at the time that was preposterously stupid and too many hours for what I was paid. Reading it again, almost eight years later (double ugh), the story knocked me to the ground. The answers I was looking for only half-heartedly when I read it at age almost-22 were there for me when I rediscovered it at age still-29.

There’s a lot to be said about re-reading: it allows a reader to slow down, pick up on details likely missed in the rush to the conclusion. As we age and gain experiences, the themes, characters, conflicts, settings of the things we read and reacted to at a younger age are cast in a different light upon return. That’s all true.

But we mature as we age, thank goodness. Revisiting an assigned text blazed through is a generous act for the person we currently are: likely not a student and therefore without the opportunities for intellectual stimulation as available to students, but someone who can give a text well-regarded by others the consideration it deserves. I certainly know of people in my writing classes who had the focus and discipline to fully immerse themselves in the texts assigned for craft discussions, but they were few and far between.

My experience is that of a nerdy white girl at a public university who turned her English major into basically a creative writing degree and privileged as hell in that regard, but whatever your field, there are probably some seminal texts that are part of the canon for some reason. Maybe you read them, maybe you skimmed them, maybe you didn’t. But go back and read them. Pause and reflect. Think about them after you’ve set them aside. Read them again. Even if the younger version of you didn’t think much of something you were required to read, the present-day you just might.

Be Selfish with Your Work Space

You need a dedicated place to do your creative work. Dedicated. This workspace can be a corner, an entire room, and entire floor (and if this is the case, what a lucky duck you are).

We’ve all see this advice before, right? And it makes sense. You need a place with minimal interruptions and something of your own so that you can focus on whatever it is that you do.

But that act of staking out a place can be terrifying.

Opposite of the act of preparing yourself for writing–talking about what you want to create, setting yourself up somewhere, preparing your tools of the trade at the expense of actually creating something–not having your own work space can hinder your work in a similar way. Even if you’re eager to begin to practice your art, if you’re unable to do it due to external elements that are under your control to quell, you’re putting up a road block.

Key to this is communicating to others. You need to tell your family, friends, pets (in case you have any that listen to you, which again, lucky duck, as my dog and cat, in particular, do not) that your work as a writer, painter, sculptor, something. You need to tell them this and say that you need space to do your work because your work is important to you.

This may be terrifying.

Last weekend, I was jazzed to sit down and write. I had a block of time on Sunday when I decided to not clean bathrooms or vacuum or scrub the refrigerator shelves (all tasks that are still awaiting to be done). So I sat down at the desk where I spend over 40 hours a week at my day job, located in my living room. Nope–the creative juices weren’t flowing. So I moved to the kitchen table, a slightly more private space. In traipses the cat, followed by the dog, and soon, my SO.

SIGH.

Resisting the urge to be passive-aggressive and say “EVERYTHING’S FINE,” I expressed that I felt distracted. SO suggested we move a spare table currently in the second bedroom into the master, so that I can shut the door on the animals and have a work space. Table moved, blinds opened. The cat snuck in but napped quietly (check him out mid-yawn below).

cat and desk

I made a lot of progress on a first draft of a new project while enjoying the relative peace and quiet of this corner of the house that was all mine. Almost as important, I was proud of myself for stating what I needed in order to do something important to me.

You need to get into that mindset–and you need others to know that when they see you in your work space, then know you’re focusing on your work.

So do it. Stake out a place, and from there do you creative work.

An alternative to comparing yourself to others

One of the most potentially destructive things a person can do is to compare themselves with others. I say “potentially” because the act of considering the successes, failures and milestones of others to our own experience can provide us insight into what’s important in our own lives.

For example (as these things have been on my mind lately):

Huh. Seems like a lot (maybe 10 that I can think of…) of people my age are purchasing their first homes. Should I focus on doing that? Well, maybe not; I don’t think that’s a good financial decision for me right now because I don’t know if I will be living in this area for at least five years. The people I see on social media who are doing so seem like they will be staying put for a while.

Or…

Wow, some of my contacts on my age from school seem to be getting promoted, to management or even director-level positions. Is that something I want? Well, not right now. I enjoy focusing on myself and my customers; approving time cards, providing feedback for performance reviews and everything else involved with managing a team doesn’t sound appealing to me right now.

Of course these reasonable thoughts were not the first to pop into my head upon encountering such news on Facebook and LinkedIn, specifically. Re: people my age purchasing houses, my train of thought went more like this: Oh my god, I have no where near enough money for a down payment and I need more in my emergency fund even if I do have enough for a down payment how is it even possible that these people can afford to buy a house how much did that house cost where did they get the down payment oh my god why did I buy that case of wine last month and why did I go skiing last weekend I should have saved that money for a down payment I’m such a financial disaster.

Or, people my age seeming to get what appeared to be sweet promotions: Oh my god, I’m so behind in my career what is wrong with me I’m never going to be promoted I’m never going to find a good job these people are going to be making so much more than me in a few years when am I ever going to get a job like that what am I even doing with my life right now I’m about to be unemployed.

Oh my god oh my god oh my god always seems to be the introduction to panicked, illogical thoughts.

There are truths and falsehoods in both of those thought hurricanes. But what’s so unproductive and detrimental is that I don’t recognize my own truth – what comes out of a rational thought. And there’s the problem: when we’re comparing ourselves with others in a way that puts ourselves at the deficit, we’re not seeing what’s positive about our own situation.

I recently heard a television writer speak at an event at the local university. Mainly the audience was made up of undergraduate students, and therefore lots of advice on careers and creativity was dispensed. One line from this writer stayed with me, though:

Rather than focusing on what you don’t have to offer, think instead about what you do have going for you.

How great is that?

In the context of comparing yourself to others, think about what’s to your advantage. What are you getting out of life that these other people doing and achieving things you’re not getting? And not in a negative context, not to put others down. What does not owning a home right now afford me? What does not having to manage others enable me to do at work?

I also like this advice in the context of pursuing creative endeavors. What unique experiences do you have? What academic training do you have that makes you different than others, in a good way? Who do you know now?

And don’t just think. Every day, write down something in your life that you’re grateful for. Something you have going for you.

Do this to remind yourself that everyone is on a different path. Everyone has had and will have different life experiences that you have had and will have. And that’s cool, because you  have an opportunity to put your experiences and perspectives to use in positive ways. Comparing yourself to other people who seem to be

  • Smarter
  • More successful
  • Richer
  • More creative
  • More popular

… than you isn’t a good use of your time. Think instead about what makes you smart, successful, rich (in any definition), creative, a good person. Imagine the ways you can build on your skill set and talents to bring light into the world, to impact others.