Writers Talk About Writing
How to Beat 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 affects both men and women, 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 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. But 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.