Do you suffer from imposter syndrome?

imposter syndrome

Reading time: Just over 3 minutes

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a New York Times article about imposter syndrome…..

I was 27-years old when I became the features editor of a large metropolitan daily newspaper. I thought I was qualified for the job, but I knew for sure that I didn’t fit in.

First, I was female and every senior editor, except for one other, was male. Second, I was at least 10 years younger (and up to 30 years younger) than everyone else on the team. I stood out like someone wearing a snowsuit at the beach in July. Did I feel like a fraud? A little. But not as fraudulent as I felt when I published my first book, 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better.

Why was the smaller accomplishment of writing a book so much more anxiety-provoking? Well, I’d known since I was 15 that I was a really good editor. The job of features editor — even though I was really young — just seemed like a well-deserved outcome of my natural aptitude and hard work.

But I’d also known for the roughly same length of time that writing was difficult for me. It wasn’t a job that came easily or naturally, and I felt nervous about my abilities. When I published the book — a book about writing for god’s sake — I felt as though I was wearing a “kick me” sign. What gave me the right to declare myself an expert on writing when I had always found the job so hard? (I, of course, discounted the idea that my own difficulties might have made me a more knowledgeable candidate for writing such a book.)

Yup, I was suffering from imposter syndrome. That term was coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. Those exhibiting the syndrome — despite all evidence of their great competence — remain convinced that they are frauds and don’t deserve the success they’ve achieved. While impostor syndrome appears to affect both men and women in equal numbers, it seems to attach itself to writers like Velcro. And not just beginners!

Read these words from the great American poet and writer Maya Angelou, (pictured above) winner of three Grammys and nominations for both the Pulitzer and the Tony:

I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’

If Maya Angelou felt that way about her writing, what hope is there for the rest of us? I’ve written about imposter syndrome before, but I’ve taken a closer look at the phenomenon this time, to try to present some more specific strategies. Here are four that could make a difference for you:

1-Recognize imposter syndrome is a common, if uncomfortable, part of life

You are not alone. I love the story that writer Neil Gaiman tells about famous astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first human being to walk on the moon.

“I was standing at the back of [a] hall, while a musical entertainment happened,” Gaiman writes. “I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, ‘I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.’ And I said, ‘Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.’”

See a photo of three Neils (Armstrong, Gaiman and Stephenson) here and remind yourself that if the guy who walked on the moon feels like an imposter, this is a syndrome that surely affects everyone.

2-Learn to be a healthier imposter

Don’t ignore your feelings of being an imposter or, worse, beat yourself up for having them. Just make sure you’re exercising these feelings in the healthiest way possible.

Mainly, you want to avoid self-handicapping, a habit identified in 1978 by social psychologists Steven Berglas and Edward Jones. People who use this strategy deliberately lower their own chances of success for example, by leaving writing projects until the night before it is due. This action — beloved of university students around the world — allows them to have a ready-made excuse when things go wrong.

So, acknowledge that you feel inadequate, but make a plan to do the best job you possibly can (even though you know it won’t be nearly good enough). Don’t allow your self-handicapping impulses to make the situation worse for you.

3-Help someone else overcome impostor syndrome

Have you discovered yet that the best way to deal with your own problems is to help someone else overcome the same problems? Sounds crazy, I know, but it’s true. We’re more helpful to people other than ourselves, and we treat them better, too. Further, in helping other people, we can learn lessons that we can apply to our own situations.

Find someone you know who appears to be suffering from imposter syndrome and do what you can to help them. The act of showing such empathy will improve you as well.

4-Continue to do your writing and let doubt do its own work

Imposter syndrome is an expression of doubt, which is a topic I’ve addressed before. If you don’t want to re-read my 2013 post, let me give you a summary: Doubt is an emotion that is neither good nor bad. Do your work regardless and know the feeling will pass, as feelings inevitably do. Consider the sage advice of yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar:

If doubt arises in your discipline, let it come. You do your work and let doubt go about its work. Let’s see which one gives up first.

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My video podcast last week aimed to help writers struggling to take notes during an interview.  Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel.  If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email,  Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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Do you suffer from imposter syndrome? How to 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 of my blog. We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to T. Fasolino, the winner of this month’s book prize, Crucial Accountability by Kerry Patterson et al for an April 12/18 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by May 31/18 will be put in a draw for a copy of 59 Seconds, by Richard Wiseman. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

Posted May 1st, 2018 in Power Writing

  • Nancy Nyberg

    Mostly new to me. Helpful and a little surprising. I’m rarely shocked by feeling out of place but often deeply touched to learn how much I share with everone else. Might be time cut myself and others more slack.

  • LJ

    I feel like women do this a lot more, from what I’ve read. Probably more doubt-related but I did look around in a conference room last summer–full of people I knew who were selling their books–and I thought to myself, “Why aren’t I at one of those tables selling my book?” I’ve got as much writing experience as most of them. Well, I didn’t have a book, for starters, and didn’t know how to successfully approach writing and completing one–so that’s why I signed up for your class:) I’ve already gained confidence from learning your system so I won’t feel like an imposter!

    • It interests me that the research appears to show there is no difference between the # of women and men afflicted with imposter syndrome. (See link in the post, above.) I think, perhaps that men are just more aggressive about hiding it.

  • Ingrid A

    Thanks, I’ve actually been looking for good, practical approaches to dealing with imposter syndrome – both to pass on to others and for myself in moments of doubt. It’s something that is so well recognised now (especially in academia!), yet I haven’t found much concrete advice on how to overcome it. Two things I’ve found help are: (i) as you note, helping others. It’s amazing how that puts also your own worries and achievements into perspective; and (ii) writing down everything I have done/achieved recently (e.g. in the last 12 months). I recently had to do this for work purposes, and it really made me realise how far I’ve come and how much I’ve done. Oh, and a third thing that helps is simply accepting being an impostor, and then investing in becoming a really, really good impostor (by which stage you’re not, of course, but somehow it seems easier to accept being a good impostor than a good writer – the mind is funny).

    • Indeed, the mind is very funny. As I said in a comment above, I think the combo of acknowledging the feeling of being an imposter and resolving not to let this feeling influence our behaviour is a powerful way to deal with the challenge.

  • Leigh Candy

    Aha!. I hadn’t heard of this syndrome but certainly recognise it from the first time as a motorcyclist and another bike pulled up beside me at traffic light. And the day I shifted from being a teacher to a school principal. And now, of course, every time I hit the keyboard. I’ve no doubt helping others is the best way to learn.

    • Yes, I think on some level we are ALL total frauds who are held together by nothing more than bubblegum and spit! I find it comforting to know that many clearly talented writers have also felt like imposters.

  • Fantastic advice, told with great compassion. And I love the examples! Definitely will be pondering this and sharing with my writer friends.

  • Jagadish Kumar

    The remedy for imposter syndrome is beautifully summarised in your last two lines:

    “If doubt arises in your discipline, let it come. You do your work and let doubt go about its work. Let’s see which one gives up first.”

    Thank you for the solution, Daphne.

  • Rabbit Pellets

    I love your calling out doubt, the “do your work and let doubt do his.” It grants permission to aim high, even ridiculously high, as every aspiring professional ideally ought. While the handicapping insight provides a gently sloping path out of procrastination. Bringing forward again the curative power of fulfilling work done well.

    • For me, what works with the idea of “leaving doubt alone to do its work” is that it both acknowledges the existence of doubt (which is healthy) and simultaneously suggests the value of IGNORING it. I think that combo is exceptionally powerful.

  • Rusty LaGrange

    I really appreciated this insight for imposter syndrome. I hadn’t heard of it before now.
    I’d like reprint permissions for this article for our statewide Bulletin of Calif Writers Club.
    For a sample of my work go to http://www.calwriters.org/current-issue then click on the Bulletin icon. It should open up a new viewing page. Not sure where all of the other issues are — should be there. I print three issues a year.

    I’d like to share an insight of my own. When I was trying to figure out my journalism career and its direction toward reporting and graphic arts, I would try not to compare myself to others but I always did. I was talking myself out of major steps forward because I didn’t feel I had earned the right.

    I read that if you “Act as if you do” in all things that you wish to attain, then by consciously telling yourself, you will eventually believe that it is more true than you realized. I posted a small sign on my computer and it became my mantra…

    Act as if you do … so I acted as if I was a great writer and photographer, won a couple of awards in college, then moved on to my career taking that mantra with me. It worked. My confidence grew; my abilities blossomed and I realized many of my goals. I still fight self-doubt and that dreaded “imposter syndrome” but now I know what it is and I “kick it to the curb.” That’s my new mantra.

    • Thanks, Rusty. Of course you have permission to reprint my work. Please just use the credit we’ve spoken about in the past.

      I love your suggestion of “acting as if.” This is a really smart strategy and works well for a great many people. Thanks for mentioing it!