Do you really have impostor syndrome?

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Do you really have impostor syndrome? If you want to improve your writing, it’s worth asking yourself this useful question…

If I had been given $10 every time someone told me they had  “impostor syndrome” that posed a threat to their writing, I’d be able to retire tomorrow. 

I’ve even written about it myself. I’ve offered a lesson about it in my popular Banish Your Fear of Writing course. And when I perform a Google search on the term I get eight million results in less than half a second.

But a recent article in the New Yorker by Leslie Jamison (it appears under the headline “Why everyone feels like they’re faking it”) has me questioning the value of the term.

And I recognize my questions fly in the face of popular sentiment. As Jamison says in her article:

The phrase “impostor syndrome” often elicits a fierce sense of identification, especially from millennial and Gen X women. When I put out a call on Twitter for experiences of impostor syndrome, I was flooded with responses. “Do you have room in your inbox for roughly 180,000 words?” a high-level publishing executive wrote. 

“A graduate of Trinity College Dublin confessed that her feelings of fraudulence were so strong that she’d been unable to enter the college’s library for her entire first year. A university administrator said, ‘I grew up on a pig farm in rural Illinois. Whenever I attend a fancy event, even if it is one I am producing, I feel like people will still see hayseed in my hair.’ ”

Interestingly enough, the syndrome wasn’t even identified until 1978 — making it less than 50 years old — with the publication of a paper by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, both of whom had their PhDs in psychology. 

Clance and Imes had noticed feelings of profound inadequacy in themselves and in their colleagues, and they conducted focus groups to explore the issue. While they struggled to get their resulting paper published (ironic, indeed), once it was out in the world, their idea resonated deeply.

But here’s where I think the issue has veered off-track.

A ‘syndrome’ is a pathological problem

Did you know that the developers of the term never called it a “syndrome”? That moniker came from the public or the press, or both. Tellingly, Clance called it a phenomenon and described it as “an experience rather than a pathology.” (Notice how “impostor phenomenon” doesn’t trip off the tongue so easily as “impostor syndrome”.)

Now, you might think that what you call something isn’t important, but names matter. The word syndrome suggests a mental health condition like anxiety or depression that is pervasive across all parts of life. It sounds more dire, more overwhelming and more difficult to overcome. 

But doubting your ability to write (or do anything else) doesn’t mean you’re pathological. Instead, it simply suggests that you have the habit of thinking you’re unqualified for success. And we can always change habits. 

You accept all the blame yourself when the problem might be systemic

Many people are surprisingly eager to accept blame for what they perceive to be their own problems. 

But, if you feel as though you might be an impostor, consider asking yourself: how much is that feeling a fault with the system?

Many decades ago, I was the first woman to be features editor at my newspaper. When I went to news meetings, I was one of only two women in a group of about a dozen people. 

Later, when I was promoted to the business side of the operation, I was the only woman in the executive suite, attending a daily 8:30 am meeting with seven men. Did I feel like an impostor? Not exactly. But I felt woefully out of place. It also irritated me when the men swore and apologized (only) to me. It made me feel patronized. I always wanted to say to them, “Believe me, I heard and used worse language than @#Q*# when I was in the newsroom.”

Researchers Ruchika Tulshyan and Ann Burey, have argued against the concept of impostorism. Instead, they say that women — especially women of colour — receive little support in their professional lives. In a 2021 article in the Harvard Business Review they write:

“Even if women demonstrate strength, ambition, and resilience, our daily battles with microaggressions, especially expectations and assumptions formed by stereotypes and racism, often push us down. Impostor syndrome as a concept fails to capture this dynamic and puts the onus on women to deal with the effects. Workplaces remain misdirected toward seeking individual solutions for issues disproportionately caused by systems of discrimination and abuses of power.”

Their conclusion? Fix the bias, not the women. 

Impostor phenomenon is as common as table salt

Research suggests that around 70 per cent of adults may experience impostorism at least once in their lifetime. And while it seems to be more common in women, men face it, too. 

That’s far more common than learning disabilities (1.69%), coronary artery disease (7.2%) or left-handedness (9.2%). And my own observational experience suggests that impostor phenomenon is likely more common in the academic world than anywhere else. 

We should always remind ourselves that the number 70 percent means most people will experience some sort of impostor phenomenon during their lives. 

Impostor phenomenon is a good excuse

If you say you have “impostor syndrome,” notice what happens. You think your failure to write every day results from the syndrome. It increases your sense of helplessness and reduces your ability to do anything about it.

My advice for people who suffer from impostor phenomenon — or any of the myriad of other blocks to writing — is simple: Start small. As small as one minute is fine. Write daily. Do it first thing in the morning. Don’t worry about quality. Just focus on getting words on the page. Edit later. 

As Jamison put it in her New Yorker article: “When mothers came to Clance describing their impostor feelings around parenting, her advice was not ‘Work on your feelings.’ It was ‘Get more child care.’ ”

Don’t allow what might be an accurate diagnosis to derail you. If you want to write, make the time to do it. 


My video podcast last week addressed how to improve your thinking as a writer. Go here to see the video or read the transcript, and you can also subscribe to my YouTube channel.  


Need some help developing a better writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. There is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.


Have you ever suffered from impostor phenomenon? How did you deal with it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Feb. 28/23 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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