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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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