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How to Get over Impostor Syndrome

I wasn’t familiar with the term “impostor syndrome” until I joined a group of women writers.

Comprised of several thousand accomplished journalists and authors in a variety of genres, many of them quite successful by any objective measure, there was also a contingent that frequently expressed doubts about their knowledge/skills/abilities/quantity and quality of work, and on and on. Among them were writers who spoke of challenges they faced in dealing with “impostor syndrome,” the sense that they were really just posing as writers, that somehow they simply weren’t good enough.

Here’s the best definition of impostor syndrome I’ve found:

… a term coined in the 1970’s by psychologists and researchers to informally describe people who are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Notably, impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women. (Wikipedia… of all places)

Although I felt glad they had a safe space to express their feelings and receive support from the rest of us, I also felt astonished and troubled by the number of women who felt this way, how acutely, and how much it was affecting their work– not only what they were doing, but all that they weren’t doing because they were occasionally paralyzed by self-doubt.

There’s a lot of advice offered to women who experience impostor syndrome, but I think most of it isn’t very useful. It tends to fall into one of two categories: (1) Think or act “like a man,” which, frankly, is insulting to men and women, and/or (2) “Fake it ’til you make it,” which suggests that if one merely pretends to be confident, assertive, and self-assured, those qualities will magically develop over time.

Neither category of advice offers concrete actions or a permanent fix that will help a woman writer kick impostor syndrome to the curb. With that precise goal in mind, I offer the following:

1. Do a professional self-inventory.
If you don’t know, objectively, what your skills and worth are, it’s time to sit down and do a self-assessment. What do you know really well– inside-out? What can you reasonably claim as your area of expertise? When you’re doing this, think only of yourself: the goal isn’t to compare yourself against anyone else. It’s to become as self-aware as you can.

2. Fill in the gaps.
Maybe your self-inventory revealed that, hey, you ARE an impostor and you’ve got no business being a writer. But I doubt it. In any case, though, it likely helped you identify areas where you need to shore up some skills or knowledge. There’s no shame in that and it doesn’t mean you’re an impostor. It means you’re a person and professional who understands that we are all always growing, learning, and changing, and that we can all always learn more.

Not sure where to go to fill in your gaps? Poynter, Dart Center, and EdX are just a few organizations that offer a number of free courses online. Prefer one-on-one coaching? There are lots of talented journalists and writers who offer personalized sessions and/or ongoing small-group workshops. I recommend Jordan Rosenfeld for fiction writers; Faith Adiele for memoir; Christine Gilbert for blogging; and myself for journalism and general non-fiction (you can contact me at writingjulie[at]gmail).

3. Identify and cultivate your sources.
In some respects, a writer is only as good as her sources. Do you already have a go-to list of experts and stakeholders in your particular niche or beat? If not, identify a few and start cultivating contacts. Listen to them carefully. Learn from them. Live in a state of constant curiosity.

4. Keep up with developments– not the Joneses.
It always boggles the mind when I talk to writers who don’t read every single day. You must read. Your goal should never be to compare yourself against another writer, but to know who’s covering what, how they’re covering it, where it’s being covered, and how you might be able to cover it in your own way. I keep a hand-lettered sign above my computer: “What’s the story not being told?” Whether I’m thinking about writing a feature or a quick Q&A or profile piece, and whether I’m covering someone who’s famous or someone who’s unknown, that’s usually the question that drives my approach.

5. Gather your tribe.
There’s a lot about the writing life that is solitary. The extrinsic validation so many writers crave isn’t always accessible, particularly when there are people who live to troll in the comments section of online publications. If you really struggle mightily with nurturing your own intrinsic motivation (and even if you don’t), identify a small core group of colleagues who will help buoy you during your bouts with self-doubt. Choose people who know your work and respect it, who will give you concrete reminders–not just vacuous pep talks–about why your work is good and important. Lean on them when you need it and reciprocate in kind.

6. Work on your monkey mind.
All that mental chatter rattling on about how you’re not worthy, you’re not worthy, you’re not worthy? You know it’s not going to go away magically on its own, right?

You have to work on your monkey mind, all the self-talk that undermines your self-esteem and your good, productive work. And I’m sorry to say that that work isn’t easy. As a former psychotherapist, I’ve worked with several hundred people actively working to change a habit or behavior that was what therapists call “maladaptive” (ie: not good for them); only a tiny fraction of them successfully broke the old habit and replaced it with one that was more adaptive.

Change is hard. Really really hard. But it’s not impossible and it’s worth working–constantly–on contesting the negative self-talk that makes you feel like an impostor. Though my own clinical orientation was oriented more toward psychodynamic psychotherapy and the creative arts therapies, there is a great deal of value in the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which anyone can use at any time. Basically, CBT involves practicing changing your “negative scripts” (ie: crap self-talk). There are loads of resources online where you can read more about CBT. I recommend The Beck Institute as a good point of departure if you’re interested in learning more.

Struggling with impostor syndrome or have a kick-ass way to deal with it? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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12 responses »

  1. Nicely done, Julie. Thanks.

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  2. Thanks for this, Julie. Very helpful.

    Reply
  3. Great article, started me down a number of paths, especially the free online courses suggestion. Following up on some great leads, thanks!!

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  4. Reblogged this on life is one and commented:

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  5. I never realized there was a term for this! I always attributed it to just general self-deprecation, thinking I suffered from low self-esteem mainly influenced by genetic disposition. Which, now that I think about it, constantly brushing it off as moments of uncontrollable low self-esteem took the responsibility away from me and I was essentially just trying to “ride it out.” I went to school for editing and did nothing with it for eleven years, aside from bemoan the fact that I couldn’t afford to intern to build up the necessary job experience the market was demanding. I only just recently began trying to change all that, desperate for a career change out of customer service. I ordered self-help books on how to build a portfolio and start my own editing business. I’m in the process of building my portfolio and things are looking up. Now I just regret wasting those eleven years wallowing in my own fear and doubt merely because of one tiny obstacle…not enough experience. Excellent advice, I only wish I had read this eleven years ago. Thanks for posting!

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  6. Aspiring writer here. Much appreciated advice for this novice. Keep it coming.

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  7. Pingback: How to Get over Impostor Syndrome | Black Pineapples, Pink Sands & Hat Shells

  8. Wow…..very thoughtful post, Julie…..I can’t thank you enough for sharing this.

    I definitely suffer from ‘impostor syndrome’, and had no idea that others did too, or that there was a name for it…….I’ve spent 30 years doing a job (and based on feedback, doing it well) for which I have no formal training or degree. Whenever opportunities come my way, my first thought has always been “oh I’m not qualified”, when in fact I probably am. I’ve also shied away from the spotlight and preferred to let others take credit, because I’ve always been afraid of scrutiny…..what if someone discovers that I have no degree? I’ve worried, likely needlessly, about rejection or even derision from peers and clients. Apparently that’s just been my monkey mind (another thing I had never heard of), to which I will promptly stop listening.

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  9. I want to thank you for your wonderful post! I definately have been struggling with this my whole life. I will, if that is ok with you, translate this into my mother language, spanish, and post it in my blog so that the spanish speaking community can also benefit from this great article. I also want to share with you the amazing technique I have been using during the last 2 years…it IS a kickass technique to overcome this issue, and virtually any issue one could have. It’s called tapping (or EFT, Emotional Freedom Techniques). There is a lot of info about this technique out there but I will share some links with you.
    http://www.thetappingsolution.com/
    https://www.youtube.com/user/TryItProductions
    https://www.facebook.com/tappingsolution

    The Ortner Family is dedicating their lives to making this technique more accesible to the world. They are doing a magnificent job. Once a year they host the Tapping World Summit, which is a 10 day free online event, in which, each day, 2 experts are interviewed. They talk about a wide variety of issues ranging from physical pain to traumas, stress, loneliness, fear of failure, fear of success and many more!

    Thanks to them I also got to know Brad Yates. He is an outstanding tapping expert that has hundreds of videos on Youtube, all dedicated to help people with tapping.
    His Youtube Channel is:
    https://www.youtube.com/user/eftwizard
    Here is one of his videos on “I’m not good enough”:

    Margaret Lynch is another great tapping expert:
    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkj2ZIQpRE1LC3P6dzejOpg

    I really hope this helped!! Thanks again.

    Much love,

    Lara

    Reply
  10. Julie, you stopped me dead in my tracks! Never, did I dream there was a term to describe the anxiousness that has fed my self doubt. Thank you for not only raising awareness of this topic but also for providing concrete and easily implementable steps to tackle this beast. You are quite right when you write that most advice tends to fall in to one of two categories. Both are well meant but neither one nor the other proves to be a long term solution. At best they are coping techniques, I know because I’ve relied on both as crutches for longer than I care to remember. Only recently, after going through a period of self-introspection have I started to appreciate my accomplishments and myself for who we are. This has lead me to finally embark upon my writing career. Thank you not only for sharing but for empowering. My compliments and my warmest regards to you.

    Reply

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