Imposter Syndrome

One of these days, maybe I’ll stop feeling like ANY MINUTE NOW the world’s going to discover that I’m actually not as 1) smart or 2) hard-working or 3) talented or 4) deserving or 5) worthwhile or 6) [insert adjective here] as they thought I was.

One of these days, maybe.

In about a week, my third novel will be published. MY THIRD NOVEL.

Wut. Wut? Like. Wut!

Three novels.

Three. Novels.

Count them. That’s three! One, two, three. That’s…three more novels than most people get published, I believe.

And a lot of people are like, Wow, Sarah, that’s awesome! And instead of saying things like, THANK YOU, I WORKED REALLY HARD AND I’M REALLY PROUD OF MYSELF, I start to say things like this, instead:

-Oh, they’re just with a small press; it hardly counts.
-Haha, maybe three people have read them.
-Yeah, but it’s not like I’ve made any money on them, that’s not how it works with a small press.

SARAH E. STEVENS, I am telling myself right now. STOP YOUR NONSENSE. You have written three novels that someone liked enough to PUBLISH. And other people have PURCHASED AND READ. People have written GOOD REVIEWS of your novels.

Like, so what if you’re not rich or a NYT Bestseller (yet)? Does that mean you need to sell yourself short every time instead of feeling pride in what you have accomplished?

You’re not inadequate. You’re not a fraud. You’re not an incompetent failure.

Let’s talk about imposter syndrome for a minute. Did you know that Maya Angelou felt like a fraud? She said, “I have written eleven 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.’ ”

I’m the Director of an Honors Program and I work with a lot of super smart, high achieving students. Almost all of them reach a point during their years in college where they worry about the same thing: “I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” I remember worrying about the same thing when I was in graduate school. School had always come easily to me. I’d skated through my classes, written good papers, easily grasped material. Then suddenly? I sat in graduate seminars surrounded by equally smart people and felt like the man-behind-the-curtain in The Wizard of Oz. I was convinced some small terrier was going to come pull that curtain away and reveal me for the charlatan I was–a mere mortal, a fool, a slacker, a lazy person with more luck than talent and a lot less intellect than everyone had always suspected.

One of the reasons we feel imposter syndrome is that we have no way of knowing how hard other people work, what obstacles they may overcome, or how much they know/understand compared to us. We have no way of comparing our own experience to the experience of those around us, so we assume that everyone else actually knows more than we do, works harder than we do, and had to overcome a lot more to be where we are. We assume we somehow lucked out, skated through, and that we’re bumping around in ignorance, while everyone else is the expert.

This is a kind of pluralistic ignorance.

I love that concept, pluralistic ignorance. Pluralistic ignorance is what keeps everyone quiet when the teacher says, “Do you have any questions?” EVERYONE has questions! But everyone assumes they’re the only one with questions, so they stay silent, thinking they’re the stupid one and everyone else understood it all the first time.

(Here’s a teacher’s trick, by the way. If you say: I’m going to take three questions and just stand there at the front of the classroom and wait….and let the silence drag on…and on……..SOMEONE WILL ASK A QUESTION. If 1) you set up the expectation that of course there are questions and 2) you let the silence become more awkward than asking a question, THEN! you’ll get the questions.)

So we assume everyone knows more than we do. We assume we’re the only one with doubts and questions and insecurities. We assume we’re the only one who feels lost and confused.

Imposter syndrome. I guess everyone has it, but I’m pretty sure that every single writer in the world DEFINITELY has it? A while back, I saw that someone had tweeted something like: “After years of not finishing book 3 of the Kingkiller Chronicle, Patrick Rothfuss is now totally irrelevant. Discuss.” And Patrick Rothfuss tweeted back: “Totally agree.”

I don’t know Rothfuss personally, of course, but sometimes I think about what it would be like to be him–to have your debut novel be SUCH a smashing success, such a worldwide bestseller–and then to have all the pressure on that second novel, only to have it meet with equal acclaim! And now! Now…to have all the pressure resting on your shoulders of somehow bringing that trilogy to an equally satisfying end, as thousands (millions?) of fans wait and wait and wait for the end of a much-beloved story. Now THAT is pressure. THAT’S when some serious imposter syndrome would sneak in and start murmuring in my ear, anyway.

So. How do we combat it? How can we remember to feel proud of our accomplishments? How can we remind ourselves that we have done something remarkable?

How can we stop saying:
Oh, it’s with a small press.
Oh, these books hardly count.
Oh, I’m not worth your praise.
Oh, I’m not that good.

I guess I’m not sure, actually.

I do think the first step is talking about it, so that’s what I’m doing. Talking about it.

Do you ever struggle with imposter syndrome? What helps you?

Featured image by Kaptain Kobold , used under Creative Commons license terms



  1. Who let you into my head? Sorry about the mess in here. I’ve been meaning to clean the place up some, but you know… life.

    Great discussion of a problem we all try not to make direct eye contact with.


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