‘You’re doing fine. Keep going. You’re nearly there. You’ve got this.’
I remember repeating this to myself on a long walk in the Lake District a few years ago: having climbed Scafell Pike and Great Gable, I ran out of energy on the descent with three miles to go. It took sheer willpower to drag myself back to the carpark.
Developing a supportive voice inside your head, imitating the soothing, coaxing tones of a parent or a best friend, is something perhaps we all need to do from time to time to keep ourselves balanced. Often, the face we present to our friends, the confident one with the positive thoughts and attitudes, is not the same face as that of the anxious individual who sometimes doubts his or her own potential. It’s no surprise that we often hear how people who show a self-assured, cheery exterior are, in reality, quite vulnerable and alone in their darker moments. Think Robin Williams, the most ebullient and talented of comedians. Apparently, even Lady Gaga suffers from low self-esteem.
It is interesting that, often, when other people appear so assured, they have all the answers, they seem to understand the world, say the right things, make all the right moves, it’s no wonder that we sometimes feel isolated, exposed and less capable of doing what is expected of us. The inner voice, less welcoming and supportive, tells us we will mess up, we don’t deserve success: it’s the voice that says we are impostors, we have taken a place we don’t merit and soon we will be found out as frauds, with embarrassing consequences.
I only heard the term ‘impostor syndrome’ relatively recently and, on hearing it, I had one of those moments when things seemed to click into place. It explained exactly what I’d felt on several occasions and, all of a sudden, there was a name for it.
As a child in the playground, joining in with all the others, I knew my family were ‘different’. At grammar school and beyond, surrounded by many lovely people, most of whom were very privileged, I often felt that I had no right to be there, I didn’t really belong and, at some point, someone would jump out from behind a curtain and explain that to everyone.
As a teacher of theatre, my central impetus was for every student to achieve their best, more, if possible, and I was always aware of the injustices that might hold the less privileged kid back. It was something I sought to identify and change.
Now as I writer, I’m still occasionally revisited by the familiar voice that asks me what I’m doing here. I have a smart and brilliant agent; my publishers are wonderful; the editors are kind, astute, cool people who are so self-assured. Everyone is glamorous, talented, warm and friendly and they all have every right to be where they are, bathing in the soft light of well-deserved success. The negative voice whispers in my ear that I must be an impostor.
Of course, the friendly voice in my head takes over at this point. I’m not out of place; I work hard; I can write and my books are selling well. I’ll be ok if I just keep going.
Then realism kicks in; these beautiful, talented writers who publish brilliant books that drip from their fingertips like magic spells are really just like the rest of us: they sit at the laptop into the early hours of the morning, writing and editing and searching inside their heads for the right phrase, the clever ending, the smart plot points. They wake up in the morning with a head full of stories and they lurch for the black coffee before stumbling towards the laptop, not even having brushed their hair. They have moments of self-doubt which happen on the day before their new novel is released, wondering what will happen if no-one likes it; what will happen if this is the one where everyone thinks ‘Why is she even here?’ Then the sweet voice whispers to be calm: all this anxiety is completely normal and will fade away soon.
Nowadays, I’m so much better at positivity. Equality, inclusion and fairness are my priorities and I’ll go out of my way to encourage and support others. If I’ve ever experienced impostor syndrome, then other people will have experienced it too. Moreover, there are so many talented people who don’t know or believe in their own potential or have something holding them back, so others should be more often the focus of my energies.
Of course, self-doubt is normal; we’re all vulnerable, flawed, imperfect, human. That’s what makes us ultimately better at what we do. It’s the very nature of being human that makes us want to Improve our own skills and, at the same time, to reach out, to support and encourage others, to remind others that we deserve to be where we are, that we can aspire beyond the present moment. And, I have to say, my agent, publisher, editors, fellow-writers are all blessed with the ability to inspire and reassure: I couldn’t be luckier.
So, back to the voice in our heads, the one that soothes and cajoles, the one we should listen to more often, and the other voice, the one that criticizes and says that we are impostors who have no right to be here, the voice we should mostly ignore: I have developed the ability to switch them on and off. I know which one to listen to and believe, and which one to discount, to use as the voice of criticism which is there simply to keep me on my toes.
When I sit at my laptop and begin a new novel, the voices are quiet: I’m utterly consumed with a brand-new idea. I can hear conversations between characters; I can imagine settings, feel emotions. I’m off and away when I’m writing. There’s no time to stop and doubt what I can achieve. Hard work and rampant enthusiasm are brave companions.
But it is the quiet time, the time alone, the moments of emotional vulnerability when things are not going as well as they might or the biorhythms have taken an almighty dip that I have to be vigilant. It’s then that the doubt can arrive, the underlying feelings of being an impostor. We are all the same: we all feel similar emotions and suffer similar insecurities. Everyone understands both the feeling of strength and surging confidence and the opposing feeling of self-doubt.
We need to remember that whatever it takes, with the help of friends, family or our own sheer bloody willpower, we can reach our goals. Let’s replace the ‘impostor’ with ‘I deserve to be here.’ Let’s change the sense of being out of place with a sense of equal entitlement. Solidarity is so important. As we join hands and support each other, we realise that together we are stronger, whatever the journey. Let the voices of doubt whisper what they will, we can shout louder. We’ve got this.