The Author Burnout Coach
Episode 13: The Cause and Cure of Imposter Syndrome
Hello writers and welcome to The Author Burnout Coach. Together, we will dismantle the burnout culture in book publishing and reclaim our love of stories. I am your host, Isabel Sterling, and this is episode 13.
Y’all, today we’re talking about imposter syndrome. You know the one. Where you’re not sure how you managed to trick everyone into believing you’re good at this whole writing thing. The one where every doubt feels like proof that you have zero idea what you’re doing and how in the world did anyone ever like one of your stories let alone pay money for it.
Imposter syndrome can happen at every single stage of writing, from the first hint of knowing that you WANT to write all the way through your first book, your querying process, getting an agent, selling your first book, hitting best seller lists, and more.
And while it can happen at every stage, it most strongly affects people socialized as women, BIPOC writers, queer and trans folks, and disabled folks. Pretty much anyone living in a marginalized identity, and that is very much by design.
As Dr. Valerie Rein talks about in her book Patriarchy Stress Disorder, those of us who live in historically marginalized identities have inherited ancestral and cultural traumas that affect our ability to feel like success is safe for us. We’ve also been taught, implicitly and explicitly, that success and knowledge and authority do not belong to us. That those belong to other people–and in our patriarchy white supremecist society, the holders of authority are often cishet able-bodied white dudes.
Where this gets tricky, though, is that we’re not all walking around thinking “I’m not an old white dude so I can’t achieve my dreams.” If it sounded so blatant, we’d call it out as bullshit. This stuff is sneaky and subtle and sounds insidiously true - like we’re reporting on some boring facts about life.
Early in my writing career, I remember feeling like writers and librarians and booksellers were almost otherworldly. Like they were all these rich fancy people who lived in NYC and LA and being among their ranks was impossible for someone from a small town in a rural part of NY. I’d see people talk about making connections with booksellers and it never occurred to me that included people who worked at my local Barnes & Noble. When people mentioned authors, I could only conjure up the image of some kind of fancy, special person who lived in a fancy place with their fancy friends and had all this formal writing education. Certainly not someone like me. Not someone from my hometown. I was too boring. Too ordinary. Too…I don’t know…unimportant, I guess.
And here’s where this ties back around to the patriarchy: WHY did I think I was too boring and plain and unimportant to be a writer? What did I think was missing that these other people somehow had?
If you’d asked me that back then, I probably just would have shrugged and said I felt like I didn’t belong as part of that world. That authors had to come from prestigious writer programs and have family connections and all sorts of things like that. I believed that there must be some sort of external thing that I was missing and would never have.
This personal example may not resonate with you specifically, but anytime you’re feeling like you don’t belong in a career or space, or you’re sitting around thinking “am I allowed to just achieve my dream? Is that really a thing?” it the same idea. This sense that a particular type of success is for other people is very much a function of the patriarchy.
The other piece of imposter syndrome goes back to that ancestral/cultural trauma I mentioned with Dr. Valerie’s work.
Historically, it was physically dangerous–even deadly–to be successful, powerful, and visible as a marginalized person. I think of outspoken women who were hanged or burned at the stake. I think of the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa. There are just countless examples, historical events and individuals whose names were lost to time, buried by the wave of oppressive forces.
And to this day, there are also overt voices telling us we don’t belong, at varying degrees and levels of obviousness depending on our particular identities. I think of the “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida and the legal attack on trans children in Texas.
With all this historical and ongoing trauma swirling around, success does not feel safe for many of us. Not just intellectually, but deep down on a nervous system level. On a fight/flight/freeze response level. So when we reach for a new height of success, our body goes ‘uh wait a minute. I don’t think this is safe.’ And from that feeling, we believe we don’t belong in that arena. And feeling like our success doesn’t belong to us is a huge part of imposter syndrome.
Now, with all that said, what the fuck do we do about it since it’s not like we have any power over the past and we can’t snap our fingers and eliminate all this patriarchy bullshit.
Friends, I invite you to Celebration Station.
Celebration is not frivolous. It is not something to reserve for only big exciting accomplishments. I want you to set up camp in Celebration Station and visit as often as you possibly can.
Intentional celebration is how we normalize new levels of success and visibility in our nervous system. It’s how we show the primal parts of us that success is safe, that’s it’s something we want to continue to create. It’s how we show ourselves–and eventually show others, too–that people like us DO have knowledge and authority and wisdom and that we DO belong in these spaces. At these levels of success.
It’s what starts to unwind imposter syndrome so you feel at home in your own brilliance.
This is, of course, an infinitely ongoing process. As we continue to grow and evolve, we bump up against the trauma responses that go “wait, this isn’t safe” and we get another opportunity to celebrate and soothe that stress response. We grow into new realms of feeling like an imposter, celebrate and acclimate to that new way of being, and then begin the process again.
I invite you to bring this celebration into your body in whatever way feels good. Do a little happy dance. Treat yourself to some fresh air and warm sun. Eat something you love. Hug your favorite person (with permission). Snuggle your pets as you tell yourself what an amazing job you did by showing up for yourself and chasing your dreams.
It might sound small or insignificant, but it is so vital. The more uncomfortable celebration feels to you, the more you need it. Start small. A 10-second happy dance after each writing session. A quick fist pump as you close your laptop. A high five in the mirror in the morning.
I challenge you to pick a celebration and do it for a month. Your relationship to writing can’t help but change when you celebrate in this way, and it will chip away at your imposter syndrome, too.
And if you’re considering working with me but aren't sure you belong, I want to offer that you DO. My 4-month program is for writers of all stages who want to reconnect with their love of writing and burnout proof their career. If that’s you, let’s make it happen. Visit IsabelSterling.com to enroll or you can schedule a call if you have questions.
Until next time, friends, happy writing!