At an early Romance Writers of Australia conference, I remember author Marion Lennox saying that despite having multiple books accepted, she felt as if her success was a fluke. She was waiting for her editors to tell her it was all a mistake and ask for their money back. This from a wonderful writer who was weighed down by her Romance Writers of America RITA winner jewellery and Australian awards when we met at at the Melbourne romance writers’ conference a week ago.
She’s far from alone. Many writers say that having huge international sales and dozens of books published doesn’t stop that niggling sense that it’s all a fluke, rather than an achievement born of hard, persistent work and talent. The feeling is so common it has a name – The Imposter Phenomenon, popularised by Dr. Pauline Rose Clance whose book first exposed the problem. Writing about the chronic self-doubt hidden behind a mask of success, Dr. Clance said a staggering 70 per cent of successful people in America find the condition stops them from enjoying what they’ve achieved. Inside they feel like a fake, attributing their success to every reason except ability and brains. Men are every bit as likely as women to feel this way. Clance’s book lists 20 questions to determine how affected you are by Impostor Phenomenon. She also says she’s talking about people who, by any objective measurements, are genuinely successful rather than people who shrug off compliments out of false modesty, or claim credit they haven’t earned.
Some of the problem starts with children encouraged to be smart and high achievers. If the family brags about a child’s achievements to others, rather than to the child themselves, the child gets no idea of how well they’ve done. More may be made of one B grade than a string of As. Other families move the goal posts so each achievement is seen as a step toward a far-distant goal, rather than something to be celebrated in its own right. If we buy into this deal, as writers often do, we forget to celebrate requests for manuscripts; praise by editors; and even offers of publication, until the work can feel like an unrelenting grind instead of a passion.
My first books were non fiction titles like Growing and Using Herbs, Coping with Diabetes, and The Changing Face of Australia. Despite steady sales, my family barely acknowledged them as books. It took the Society of Women Writers making a fuss to convince me that I had written a “real” book. Even now, relatives ask when I’m going to write “my best seller” as if 26 million sales worldwide barely counts.
While Impostor Phenomenon may be hard to cure, my solution is to accept praise with a simple “thank you” rather than dissembling. I try to celebrate milestones and above all, enjoy the process of writing which was why I became a writer in the first place. And I make sure others around me know when they’ve done well, even in small things. As a sign in a nursing home said so beautifully, “Don’t tell me what I’m doing wrong, tell me what I did right.” Does someone tell you what you’re doing right? Do you tell yourself? I hope so.
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