Imposter Syndrome and the Art of Comparison: How to Beat Self-Doubt

Here you are, an MFA candidate in a program competitive with the best in the country. You know that you have earned your place within this program and that you’ve worked tirelessly to get here. Your relentless pursuit to achieve a goal that only a handful of individuals get to attain has finally been realized. You know that you deserve to be here and, yet, something feels off. There is an insatiable pit in your stomach that even the most prestigious of accomplishments don’t seem to satisfy. You don’t quite know how to explain it, but you feel apprehensive and a little bit irrational as if no one else could possibly be going through the same motion. That, my fellow sufferer, is Imposter Syndrome.

This charmingly titled condition is very much real. So real, in fact, that it has been defined in the Harvard Business Review as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success,” later adding that “‘imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.” Although you feel (and are) competent, the aforementioned chronic self-doubt is a definite truth and is undeniably accompanied by intellectual duplicity.

Regardless of your newfound ailment, you soldier on and bury all of your insecurities as you start your program and meet your cohort. You sit at orientation with fellow writers that both teach and learn, anxiously awaiting someone, anyone, to mention and affirm that what you are experiencing is valid and not as bizarre as you initially deemed. But no one says a word, and you think to yourself that you must be the only one dealing with this.

Then you attend your first class. Surrounded by established and up-and-coming writers, you read the incredible, awe-inspiring, magnificent works that your classmates have created, and you find yourself equally inspired and intimidated. Now, your syndrome has evolved and grown into a constant comparison between you and those who you consider to be far superior and more skilled than yourself.

Research suggests that this, too, is fairly common. Imposter syndrome and the art of comparison walk hand-in-hand and can attack at any moment. We are all susceptible to both of these conditions, but all hope is not lost. There will be days where our insecurities will creep up and overwhelm us into thinking that we can’t and shouldn’t be pursuing a writing career or a graduate degree. There will be days where we will feel uninspired and unimaginative. There will also be days where the light at the end of the tunnel will dwindle and the silver lining will erode, but it is absolutely crucial to remember that these days are fleeting. These days will pass, and we will prevail over our condition.

As a long-time sufferer, I have concocted some effective techniques to get myself out of my head and onto the page (or into the real world) when I feel self-doubt about to set in.

Talk about it

          A close friend once told me that “closed mouths don’t get fed.” This statement resonated with me and I took it to heart, especially concerning matters of self-doubt. I realized the importance of addressing my insecurities through conversation. I found that people were very supportive and actually enjoyed offering helpful advice. All I had to do was talk about it.

Don’t fall into the comparison cavity

          I gain so much inspiration from fellow writers, both established and up-and-coming, but that can quickly turn into intimidation and uncertainty about my own capabilities. I have to remind myself that all of the other writers out there in the world are human too. Even my biggest idol is still just a person. They have their own issues and insecurities to navigate, so there is simply no point in comparing myself to them. They are no different from me or you. No better. No worse.

Stop trying to be a great writer

          This may sound counterintuitive, but one of the reasons why I experience self-doubt is because I always strive to be the best. There is a significant difference between being the best and doing your best. In doing my best, I get to write in my own voice and style and create stories that I am proud of. In trying to be the best, I don’t write at all and give up. We don’t need to morph ourselves into a Wilde or Fitzgerald to be good writers. We just need to write as ourselves.

Start being yourself

          This cliché statement bears more weight than I tend to give it credit. There is no true step-by-step strategy to become confident in yourself or in your writing. All you have to rely on is yourself (and your support system, of course). Since writing is about showing how you see the world, it is important to shape the best version of yourself into words, and the only way to do that is to start being yourself. Yes, it’s easier said than done, but if anyone can do it, it’s you.

   More self-love, less measuring up

          Self-love is a contested concept in our modern society. It is often perceived as selfish and greedy, but in reality, all it entails is us not being so hard on ourselves. Don’t beat yourself up as often as you do and don’t let fear tell you otherwise. There is still room for us in the writing world and we will become the unsurpassed writers we are destined to be.

Corkindale, Gill. (2008). Overcoming Imposter Syndrome. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2008/05/overcoming-imposter-syndrome

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Marelize Roets is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Central Florida. She primarily writes flash fiction, short stories, and screenplays. Her favorite genres include horror, historical fiction, and drama. As a globe-trotting member of the only white tribe in South Africa, Marelize is rapidly gaining her ten thousand hours of experience writing. She lives her life by making bad decisions until someone comes from the future to stop her.

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