A monthly column from The Writer’s Center

by Whitney Fishburn

Silence the Impostor Syndrome’s voice so you can hear your own

You are an impostor. You don’t belong here. You can’t write anything that will sustain anyone’s interest.

Sound familiar? Then you are under attack by the Impostor Syndrome.

The battle is waged in your own mind where you are alone on a high ridge, in perfect range for its cruel blows. Even if you take cover, it finds you. Likely, you don’t ask for reinforcements because the most pernicious of the Syndrome’s weapons is that it renders you silent, making you keep your misgivings to yourself, and worse – stopping you from sharing your work.

This cancer on creativity was a recent topic of discussion among a group of women writers I know, all of us at various stages in our respective and varied writing careers. Over the course of the evening, what emerged through conversation and listening to three accomplished writers speak briefly to the group about their “big break”, was that we women so often assume we are not voices worth paying attention to. Each speaker in her own way disclosed a tendency not to take herself seriously at first, not until after ample evidence accumulated in the plus column of the ledger of our writing souls, that they began to argue with the Impostor Syndrome’s cutting tones.

The term was first coined in the 1970s by psychologists to describe what happens when perfectly accomplished and clearly competent people fail to connect internally with the reality that they are capable of their dreams, and that their success is not attributable to dumb luck. Naturally, the ones most likely to over-achieve are the ones who suffer from the Syndrome the most.

Here’s my own version of it: it was nearly a decade before I could bear to see my byline without getting so anxious my palms would sweat and I would breathe funny. That was even though I was a columnist and had my dream come true and I was getting paid to write about the world as I saw it.

I still feel it from time to time, especially when I think of a new project I want to pitch. It wasn’t really until a friend said to me a few years so, “Do you think all the people who have accepted your pitches and hired you to do things were stupid or lying to you about your ability to do the job?”

That made me laugh. No, they’re not stupid liars.

Why each of us feels it will be personal to each of us, but what sufferers of it have in common is that if we succumb, we run the risk of harming others. We end up turning earnest people into “liars” or worse, we prevent the others who just might benefit from our ideas from ever seeing or hearing about them.

Put another way: if you let Impostor Syndrome win, you admit that you are do not have much impact. Ouch. Who wants to be thought of as milquetoast?

There is a powerful antidote: community.

Various women that evening shared that as they struggled to find their voice, get their words on paper, get past the fear of showing their work to someone, if they didn’t get outside of their own head space, they remained a clear shot for the enemy, that icy Impostor Syndrome.

But partnering with others who would hold them accountable for a page, a paragraph, or even just a phrase helped them progress. A writing community could be as small as two persons or as large as 10 or even more. There have to be rules, but you are the ones who make them and you are the ones who hold yourselves and your partners accountable.

In that way, the writing is yours, but it belongs to everyone. When you know you are not alone, the Impostor Syndrome loses its voice.

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Whitney Fishburn is an award-winning journalist based in Chevy Chase, Md. You can find her at documental.substack.com