Embracing Imperfection: How to Silence Writer's Imposter Syndrome

By Melissa Burnham

Crumpled up paper and a notebookYou sit at your computer, staring at a blank screen. There are no words—not on the page and not in your brain. How can you call yourself a writer when you have no words? You should probably just give up and get a boring job in a dreary department store trying to sell crappy things to irritating people, while your brains dribble out your ear.

Imposter syndrome has struck. Again.

That little voice inside your head that tells you that you can’t do it, that you’re not good enough, so why even try. Imposter syndrome seems like it’s everywhere these days. And yet, when we’re sitting there, staring at that blank screen, it seems like we’re the only ones who have ever struggled to feel like we’re good enough.

Forbes has written about it—multiple times. The BBC has talked about, Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today, WebMD (of course), and even the National Institutes of Health. (If you want to pick just one of those to read, the BBC article is solid.)

There are a lot of theories floating around about why so many of us seem to have imposter syndrome. Is it a cultural phenomenon? Is race a factor? Is it based on gender? I’m not going to go into the theories, but there’s a lot of information out there if you want to look. Regardless of where it comes from, it’s here. So, what do we do about it?

In his book 10% Happier, Dan Harris wrote, “The voice in my head is an asshole.” (Which, apparently, he also considered as an alternate title.) The book is about mindfulness and how to recognize that voice and start changing its tune, but the concept is applicable here as well. The first step is recognizing the problem, and in this case, the problem is that the voice is a lying asshole.

What is that voice telling you? How do those thoughts of inadequacy impact your behavior? I tend toward procrastination. I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to stare at that blank page as all the words I know fritter away. Which leads to me not even wanting to start. Maybe you’re the opposite, and you overwork yourself, striving for “perfect.” Or maybe when you get feedback on your manuscript, you ignore all the positive feedback and focus entirely on the negative (if someone is just lambasting your work without offering any constructive criticism, you should be ignoring it completely). Once you know how imposter syndrome manifests in your behavior, it’s much easier to identify when it’s happening and to recognize the sound of that voice resonating in your mind.

Writers tend to work alone; it’s just the nature of writing. But this can make our plight worse. When we’re comparing ourselves to others, we’re looking at the great published authors, New York Times bestsellers, and that is not at all helpful. What we need are people around us who are in the same stage (more or less) of their writing journey. Having that camaraderie is immensely helpful. You need a group of supportive writers, other creators who are in the same boat that you are. A group that can affirm you, and you, in turn, can affirm. It seems counterintuitive, but having supportive writers around you, even in an online venue, is one of the most powerful tools to combat that internal voice and rewire it to be encouraging, or at least less negative.

Motivational sign that says "you got this" next to a laptop.

Another part of the equation involves you refuting that voice whenever it starts interfering. One of the jobs I used to have had a saying, “Good enough is a dirty word.” (Yes, I know it’s a phrase not a word. That bothered me too.) Their idea behind it was that you have to go beyond “good enough,” and that stopping at “good enough” would lead to a deterioration of quality. But “perfection” is an illusion, and sometimes “good enough” really is good enough. You have to let go of the idea of being perfect or that your work must be perfect. When that voice starts telling you that you have to be perfect, that you’re not good enough, that there’s no way you can do this, recognize it for the lie that it is.

You don’t have to be perfect. Your work doesn’t have to be perfect. You can do it. You can do hard things, and you are good enough.

By Melissa Burnham

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