You Are Worthy, Oh So Worthy: When Imposter Syndrome Comes Knocking — Erica L. Williams

I struggled with calling myself a writer, although it has always been a part of my life. While neighborhood kids were outside playing until the sun disappeared, I preferred to be indoors writing about the various characters that introduced themselves to me, their voices demanding to be heard.

I didn’t know what to label this itch that insisted upon being scratched until I read J. California Cooper’s essay in I Know What the Red Clay Looks Like: The Voice and Vision of Black American Women Writers’ by Rebecca Carroll. Cooper said, “I don’t analyze my writing patterns, but there are a few things I know. If it rains, I’m going to get a story.”

She continued, “It gets to the point where my mind starts developing a conversation with a new character a day or two before it rains…That’s why I’m trying to move to Seattle, where it rains all the time.”

Although my characters didn’t show up during rainstorms, they always appeared. My literary spirit connected with Cooper’s, and I knew being a writer wasn’t something that had I chose, but it had chosen me.

Once, I emailed a Black male writer expressing admiration for his novels. I prided myself on being disciplined and diligent about the craft and sought out any advice. I was pleased to see that he’d replied until I read it. ‘If you’ve never published a book, do not call yourself a writer.’ That was his advice. I don’t remember if he’d offered any other words of wisdom, or wished me luck in my creative endeavors. Surely, he must’ve. However, I only remember pushing the delete button in a state of disbelief.

Had he received the same advice, I wondered, and felt obligated to pass it on to every zealous writer searching for the literary Holy Grail. His words smarted, and transformed into an arrogant, berating tone that took up residence in my mind like an unwanted tenant. He isn’t to blame for any of my image deficiencies, but his dismissiveness added to an already am I ‘worthy enough’ mentality that plagued me since childhood.

Although I had obtained my Master of Fine Arts, written a novel, and had managed to place several excerpts in various journals, deep down, I felt that I wasn’t worthy of calling myself a writer since I hadn’t traditionally published.

Psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne Imes created the term “imposter phenomenon” in the late seventies.

The syndrome embodies people who experience deep feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt despite high achievement. Although the original study was composed of women only, it’s been asserted that men and women experience imposter syndrome, and it is not only limited to highly successful people. So there, I qualify.

With imposter syndrome, you find it hard to believe you are as talented as others may deem you to be. You feel like a fake. Despite my credentials, skills, and positive reactions received about work I’ve written, I often deflect compliments. Not in a self-deprecating or fishing for further praises type of way, but in a let’s change the subject type of way. I’ve turned down financial opportunities to edit or review works, referring the requesters to “real” writers instead, who almost always have the same qualifications.

I’ve had experience with agents, and with publishers reviewing my work. When the noes outweigh the yeses, it’s easy for the writer title, in my mind, to diminish even further, especially when it’s hanging on by a string in the first place.

It’s happened in other professional areas of my life. I am a Teach for America Alumni. More than 44,000 applicants applied, and 15% were accepted the year I became a corps member. Imposter syndrome led me to describe my acceptance as luck or a fluke.

Although millennials are more prone to experience imposter syndrome in higher percentages due to peer pressure and social media analogies, all generations and genders are subject to crippling self-doubt despite their successes. A study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine in December 2019 suggested that up to 82% of individuals may experience imposter type feelings.

Although it isn’t a diagnosable disorder, it can lead to mental health ailments such as anxiety and depression. Author Brene Brown’s books, The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly, were great resources in helping me to combat my struggles. In Daring Greatly, she goes into detail about worthiness and how “a strong belief in our worthiness doesn’t just happen-it’s cultivated when we understand the guideposts as choices and daily practices.”

I write on despite any doubt that may persist. I finished a novel and started another one. I’m working on essays and other new work. And sometimes I get emails or DMs from strangers who’s read something I’ve written to tell me how they enjoyed it. Or I will receive a text or a message from writer friends with encouraging words. It’s as if the universe knows what I need when I need it.

Recently Author Tayari Jones tweeted, “If you’re writing, if you are honoring your practice-you are a writer. From the work, comes the work. Can I get a witness?”

Amen.

Originally published at https://ericalwilliams.com on July 18, 2020.

MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Work has appeared in Necessary Fiction, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Blood Orange Review, & elsewhere.

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