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Ryan MacEachern

It is a rare – and fortunate – person who hasn’t felt the cold grip of panic that they are quite inexplicably out of their depth, whether that’s in the workplace or a swimming pool. ‘Imposter syndrome’ may have become common parlance over the past decade, particularly in but it’s not a uniquely millennial – or zeitgeisty – condition. 

In fact, it was first defined in 1978, by the psychologists Pauline Rose Clane and Suzanne Imes. They argued that women were unique in being affected by imposter syndrome, though more recent studies have shown that all sorts of people are capable of experiencing the tell-tale signs of feeling inadequate or like they might be found out at any moment: imposter syndrome is particularly prevalent among high achievers, creative people and students.

Which means that authors are all too familiar with it. In fact, renowned novelist Maya Angelou may have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize (and earned 50 honorary degrees), but it didn’t mean her immediate reaction to filing another manuscript wasn't, as she once said: ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody.’ 

My favourite interpretation of imposter syndrome comes from Dolly Alderton, whose self-doubt didn’t get in the way of her debut book, Everything I Know About Love, becoming a best-seller. Alderton, arguably the UK’s most prominent literary millennial, coined ‘I’m In Trouble Syndrome’ in March 2019, and personally, I’ve never felt more seen. 

‘That feeling of harbouring a shameful secret that you can’t describe, but you know is about to be discovered,’ Alderton wrote in The Sunday Times. ‘A feeling of being on borrowed time; that you have cheated a system, committed a sin or are living outside the law and - at some point very soon - you will be found out and reprimanded.’

Alderton distinguishes it as ‘a step beyond the self-diagnosed and prolific imposter syndrome’, but I believe the two are entwined – certainly when it comes to inspiring literature. You may find resonance, maybe even comfort, in how other writers have tackled such demons. 

In 2013, Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings examined creative talent and the envy and self-consciousness it could induce in her epic portrayal of four summer camp friends from different backgrounds, who grow up to achieve varying levels of riches and happiness (the two, we learn, don’t always come hand-in-hand). If you’ve ever greeted your closest friends’ successes by smiling through a secret sense of crushing inadequacy, Wolitzer may help (in her subsequent novel, The Female Persuasion, the feminist icon Faith Frank is full of trite, but nevertheless helpful, nuggets of motivational advice such as “Anyone who ever gave a speech was once someone who didn’t”). 

Rewind half-a-century to the events of The Bell Jar, and Sylvia Path’s autobiographical character Esther Greenwood is a relatable combination of misplaced confidence and querulous fear as she embarks upon a journalism career in New York. There’s some wisdom in the approach she takes to navigate her strange new world: 

I liked looking at other people in crucial situations. If there was a road accident or a street fight or a baby pickled in a laboratory jar for me to look at, I’d stop and look so hard I never forgot it. 

I certainly learned a lot of things I never would have learned otherwise this way, and even when they surprised me or made me sick I never let on, but pretended that’s the way I knew things were all the time.  

Elif Bautman also seized upon the fragility of late adolescence for her Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel, The Idiot. Mostly, The Idiot is preoccupied with love, the kind that comes in the form of searing, unrequited crushes. But its subject, second-generation Turkish student Selin, is also no stranger to imposter syndrome when she joins Harvard University in the mid-Nineties. The kind of unintentionally witty naif who asks of an ethernet cable, ‘What do we do with this, hang ourselves?’, Selin’s adventures through the Ivy League school are addictively poignant in their awkwardness. 

So fiction can show that those suffering imposter syndrome are not alone in feeling alone. But when it comes to reassuring yourself against self-accusations of fraudulence, certain non-fiction titles may prove more useful. One of the newest is The Middle Finger Project, Ash Ambridge’s unsurprisingly outspoken guide to achieving success in spite of what your brain may be telling you. 

Elsewhere, Wild author Cheryl Strayed earned an ardent following under the guise of Sugar, the generous and unflinching agony aunt for US website The Rumpus. The release of Tiny Beautiful Things in 2013 compiled her columns and advice, which frequently dealt with low self-esteem and feeling out of place. Once you’ve sorted out your imposter syndrome, Strayed might help you tackle the other niggles in your life. 

If you’re allergic to self-help, there’s salvation to be found in memoir, too. Tara Westover’s Educated tells the compelling story of a girl who escaped an abusive and near-illiterate fundamentalist Mormon upbringing in Idaho to land a PhD from Cambridge, proving that you don’t have to fit in to do well. 

But perhaps the best advice – and motivation – to shirk your pesky imposter syndrome lies in Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming. Obama also struggled with worrying that she was ‘too loud? Too much? Dreaming too big?’ until she didn’t. ‘Eventually, I just got tired of always worrying what everyone else thought of me,’ she writes. ‘So I decided not to listen’. That’s certainly one way of dealing with it. 

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