Writers’ Anxiety

How to approach overcoming anxiety and the sense of being an imposter.

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Have you ever felt like you’re out of your depth, as if you’ve somehow stumbled your way into a position where you are claiming to be something you’re not, but no one else has noticed? Have you ever thought that perhaps you don’t deserve to be writing, that other people are much better than you, and that any minute now someone will realise you’re a fraud?

I have.

Recently, I was at a poetry performance night. It followed the usual pattern of a host introducing a selection of individuals who each performed a handful of poems. I was one of the people waiting to be introduced.

Before the event began, the host told me who was on before me. I assume this was done for everyone, so each person knew when to get ready. The event started, and one poet after another took to the stage.

The person before me was someone I greatly admire. They are a good friend, a wonderful person, and they—without realising it—inspired me to take poetry seriously. Frankly, they are one of my heroes. They stepped up to the microphone and began reading a selection of new and old poems, and as usual they were brilliant. Their performance was perfect, their poetry incredibly well-written and evocative, and their presence captivating. I was up next.

As this person spoke, I found myself conflicted. On the one hand, I was enjoying their work and admiring their delivery of it. On the other, I sensed a rising anxiety, a dark fog of dread that clouded the inside of me—deep in my chest—and climbed my neck, burrowing into my brain. Then I felt it talking to me, telling me I wasn’t as good as this poet, there was no way I could follow this. My poetry is amateur in comparison. I’m not cut out for this. Everyone will see it, too. They won’t like my poetry, they’ll find it dull and simplistic.

Now I know I can hold my own on stage. I’m able to perform, to keep the attention of a crowd, and deliver words in a way that people enjoy. It wasn’t my performance that worried me, but the content itself. Despite the fact that the poems I would be reading have been published in various magazines and so forth, despite the praise the poems had previously received, and despite me knowing that the poems I had chosen to perform always garner a positive reaction at events, I was still full of anxiety.

Then the fear hit, like a brick to the face.

At this point, the poet on stage—the one I admire, the one I was following—said they would read one last poem. That meant I had two to three minutes before the host got up and called my name. I was faced with a choice. Either I could not perform (which would involve getting out of my seat, going over to the host, and telling them I wasn’t going to perform, or just leaving without saying anything and potentially ruining my reputation) or I could deal with this and get on with it. I chose the latter.

In no way do I want to dismiss or trivialise the weight of anxiety like this, nor do I want to say that ‘Keep calm and carry on’ is an appropriate response to it. What I do want to say is that whilst it can feel like a huge and seemingly impossible hurdle, it doesn’t have to be one. As writers, we look at the world through a chosen perspective, whether of factual reporting or a character’s interpretation or the lens of poetry or stylistic adaption or whatever we decide. Anxiety is no different.

What I was facing in that moment is sometimes referred to as ‘imposter phenomenon’ and is a recognised psychological condition.

The psychological experience of believing that one’s accomplishments came about not through genuine ability, but as a result of having been lucky, having worked harder than others, or having manipulated other people’s impressions, has been labelled the impostor phenomenon.

The Imposter Phenomenon by Joe Langford and Pauline Rose Clance

To overcome this phenomenon in that moment, I adjusted the way I was thinking. Instead of looking at the anxiety I was confronted with as a cliff face I had to scale, I pictured it as a cliff edge right behind my feet. Rather than listen to the fears and doubts attacking me from within, I remembered specific reactions from people about the two poems that bookended the set: the first, and the last poem I was going to perform. I recalled words people had said, comments online, and where those poems were published. I took all that and decided that even if I was doubting my writing, others haven’t. Whether I thought my work was good enough or not, as soon as it was published it stopped being mine: it belongs to the audience. That was enough to stop me leaning backwards and falling off the cliff edge. Instead, I took one small step forward and suddenly felt a lot less anxious.

That refocusing of my thought process gave me enough of a push to prepare to stand up and perform. Then the host got up to introduce me and said a lot of nice things about my writing, which—unbeknownst to them—I really needed to hear at that moment. Not for my ego, but for my self-esteem. Combined, all of that gave me the will to climb onto the stage, make a joke, and say the first line of the first poem. At that point instinct took over and, before I realised it, I had finished the first poem in my set. People clapped, and I kept going with the next poem. By the end of my set I had completely forgotten about any anxiety that preceded it, and I left the stage feeling accomplished.

This is not the first time this has happened to me, nor will it be the last. Writing articles for local publications, submitting short stories to magazines, bringing extracts of a novel to a writers’ group; all these and more have brought me this same sense of anxiety. My way of getting through it is to refuse to allow it to consume me.

I am stronger than the doubt, than the fear, than the worry. So are you.

So if you ever get that feeling like you’re out of your depth, or that you don’t deserve to be writing, like you’re a fraud, don’t listen to it. You’re not.

Everything you have done, all you have achieved, is down to you. You have got here. You have earned this.

You can do this.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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