3 Ways to Manage Imposter Syndrome as an Orthodox Writer

One morning earlier this week, I woke up to four or five messages from new readers who had some positive things to say about my work at Ancient Faith, specifically my book, Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life.

There was nothing excessive about these notes–they were polite and positive and encouraging, by all accounts just the kind of thing an author likes to receive from time to time.

But because this is a behind-the-scenes blog, I’m going to be unabashedly transparent here: the rest of the day I had to viciously fight the overwhelming urge to close the blinds, climb back in bed, and gorge on my secret stash of dark chocolate.

Welcome to imposter syndrome! It’s a demon most writers are to some degree familiar with and which thrives on a sense of unworthiness and inadequacy. Counter-intuitively, it also thrives on compliments and praise. Because go figure.

Most days, I can keep the imposter feelings at bay, but some days… Not so much.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

According to a 1993 review essay in Psychotherapy, the imposter phenomenon is defined as “the psychological experience of believing that one’s accomplishments came about not through genuine ability, but as the result of having been lucky, having worked harder than others, or having manipulated others’ impressions.” In other words, folks prone to imposter syndrome tend to see their accomplishments as a fluke, or worse, a mistake or oversight–not the result of an actual skill or aptitude.

In the words of psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, it is “the low, constant rumbling of insecurity, fraudulence, or self-doubt that strikes successful individuals. Even when there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, the feeling persists.”

The tricky thing about imposter syndrome is that it’s not just about how good (or bad) one’s work or writing is, or how successful others try to convince you it is. This is about fear and shame, and often feels as though one’s entire sense of self is somehow precarious, inadequate.

To which, on my more confident days, I am able to say: Amen! The truth is, we are all imposters. And not just in the feel-good-psychology sense–we really are imposters. This is not our world, it’s God’s. We get to be here–not because we asked for it, not because of our merit or lack thereof, not because of how many or how few Amazon ratings we have, but because God wills us to be here in the form of our unique personhood and self. He doesn’t ask us to be perfect writers or artists or content developers–He asks us to be His children.

I’ve been thinking about the “demon” of imposter syndrome lately. It’s always been a part of my creative life, like a doleful, incessant counterpoint. I’m realizing, though, that to move forward–not merely as a writer, but as a human being with some semblance of sanity–it might be good to develop better coping mechanisms than fantasizing about chocolate all day.

Here is what I’ve come up with so far…

3 Ways to Manage Imposter Syndrome as an Orthodox Writer

I think it’s important for Orthodox writers to recognize that imposter syndrome is not only destructive for one’s professional performance. It can also expand to engulf one’s entire sense of self and relationship with God.

Plus, as a friend and colleague recently reminded me, imposter syndrome is a subset of pride, one that has the false appearance of humility but in actuality is sustained by self-focus. Ouch! But true.

Bearing this in mind, here are 3 practices that have recently proven useful to re-direct my own imposter anxiety. I can’t say I’ve mastered them (read: I feel like an imposter even sharing these), but more than anything else, they’ve helped me foster a more healthy attitude towards the more vulnerable aspects of public writing.

  1. Celebrate the success of others. In Romans, St. Paul exhorts us to “rejoice with those who rejoice” (12:5). It sounds cheesy, but when I’m in the mire of imposter syndrome, I try to look around me and find others who could use some encouragement or promotion. It could be as simple as liking or sharing a nice blog post my friend has recently written, promoting a colleague’s book, or saying something encouraging to an author who I know is in the “messy middle” of finishing a novel. Supporting the endeavors of others signals to them and myself that creative work is not a competition–one person’s success and prestige is not another person’s demise.
  2. Remember the last Beatitude. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus comforted the multitudes with these words: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-13). Although I have never truly been persecuted before, I find these words comforting when I encounter other forms of criticism or hostility. Christ had the best and most redemptive message of all; He said and did all the right things, and engaged others with divine love and truth. Yet even His “intended audience” still found countless things to take issue with. It just goes to show: at the end of the day, you’re eventually going to face undue ridicule in some form or another. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are in imposter, but it does give you an opportunity to face harshness with discernment, humility, steadfastness, and forgiveness.
  3. Give Thanks. Probably more than anything else, giving thanks to God sends imposter syndrome packing (for the time being–it will probably be back). Like celebrating the success of others, giving thanks gets our minds off our selves and our supposed inadequacy and redirects us back to the mercies and blessings of God. What to give thanks for? Well, anything–and everything (c.f. 1 Thess 5:18). But when the imposter demon lurks, I particularly try to give thanks for how God sustains my creative work in ways that have nothing to do with my success or output. I give thanks for the time He has given me to write, for the people in my life who support me even on my lowest days, and for the sights and sounds around me that inspire me with His goodness. I even give thanks for that blasted imposter syndrome because, when I can recognize it for what it is, it keeps me aware of my dependence on God–which is, after all, a pretty good place to be.

 

6 comments:

  1. Nicole,
    I very much appreciate the article. I have, more or less, labeled this phenomenon as an aspect of “shame.” The attention generated by such public work creates an inherent vulnerability – we are made “visible.” No one really lives up to their billing. When I travel and speak, I have become accustomed to having a “shame storm” when I get back to my room. I haven’t tried the chocolate yet! I particularly like your suggestions – giving thanks, especially.

    We have found your book quite helpful and useful in the parish. I pray God’s blessings on your work. Also, may He grant you lots of chocolate.
    Fr. Stephen

    1. Fr. Stephen,
      Thanks so much for your kind words! 🙂 I hope you are well.

      The “shame storm” you refer to I’ve also heard called a vulnerability hangover (not sure who coined that phrase, possibly Brene Brown). I too have a similar feeling after virtually anything that requires some form of visibility–not just speaking engagements, but to some extent also blog posts or podcast episodes (esp if they are on a more vulnerable topic), or engaging reviewers and peer reviewers on my writing. I have learned to spread vulnerable things out a bit–don’t take on more than my threshold for “putting myself out there” can really handle in a certain frame of time.

      And yes, so much of this comes from a latent sense of shame, which I often experience as inadequacy (or at least a sense of inadequacy). But there are many faces of shame, as you’ve pointed out in some of your writing. Sometimes it is detrimental and unhelpful; other times… Not that it’s helpful but it’s at least sane sometimes. I think of Adam and Eve in the Garden, covering themselves after the Fall–their shame was pathological in one sense (b/c they were not meant to live that way), but a completely sane response to the broken condition they’d gotten themselves into.

      Personally I find it most beneficial to seek out God and “work with” the imposter shame I feel, rather than trying to do away with it. If I offer it to God, He will work with it–and within me. But if I am hiding and cutting myself off, or thrashing around on my own trying to make it go away, I’m not acting cooperatively with Him.

      And yes, chocolate. Never seems to be enough of it in this life, lol 🙂

  2. in my experience the ‘imposter syndrome’ is not limited to thoughts of shame/guilt but to those of success/achievement too. It is the same imposter who experiences both and that imposter is just a thought, without basis in reality. It is the ego thought- “I, me, mine, my”. Getting rid of it for me is just a matter of looking and seeing its imposture. However, this looking is just witnessing- no reaction, no need to fix anything is required. It may though require the ‘breaking of the heart’ by abstaining from reaction [in terms of judgment and desire to change]. Another tool to use in combination with the mentioned abstinence is ignoring the thought and the desire of the mind to return to it, over and over, until surrendering the broken heart [that which hurts because of unfulfilled desire]. This is not ‘one shot’ kind of action but a sustained effort of vigilance over where attention goes, and keeping it in the serenity of God, until the effort disappears and only God remains.

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