What To Do When It Feels Like You Don’t Know What You’re Doing (or, How to Handle Impostor Syndrome)
Quick note: be glad I found this illustration of a trophy. While struggling to find an image to accompany this blog post, I came across a picture of a surly man mowing his lawn in his slippers and underwear. Why Wix keeps that photo in its stock images is anybody's guess, but I almost used it as an attention-grabber. I've opted for this trophy instead. You're welcome.
Let’s be clear up front: if you want to know how to avoid impostor syndrome, this post isn’t going to help you. I can help you manage your time, I can help you find the motivation to write, and I can help you polish your prose, but I can’t prevent you from feeling like a fraud. Most of the time, I can’t prevent myself from feeling like a fraud. So that we’re all on the same page, Merriam-Webster’s defines impostor syndrome as “a psychological condition that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one's abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one's ongoing success” (holy run on, Merriam). Impostor syndrome is what makes many of us feel that, sooner or later, everyone is going to realize we don’t know what we’re doing, and we don’t deserve the successes we’ve achieved. It’s that little voice that tells us we’re not qualified, not good enough, not as good as, and not capable. And, it’s the fear that even though people like our books, or applaud our work, they’re satisfied not because we gave them a quality product, but because we fooled them. (Quick note about what impostor syndrome is not: impostor syndrome is not the same thing as the actual bias underrepresented individuals often face in their careers. There’s a whole separate post to be written about the ways systems and institutions could be changed to make it less likely for people to experience impostor syndrome. This post, however, will focus on the ways individuals can fight the impostor syndrome driven by internal monologue rather than external biases.) Usually, my blog posts flow fairly easily. This one did not. I suspect that’s because impostor syndrome is something that I contend with regularly (and by regularly, I mean almost daily). I’m a perfectionist and I can be incredibly hard on myself. Feeling like I don’t measure up comes with the territory. So, this post isn’t prescriptive, but rather it’s a public “kicking around of ideas.” About the only thing I know for sure is that the only wrong way to handle impostor syndrome is to give into it and throw in the towel. So, given that quitting isn’t an option, here are some ideas about how to contend with your inner critic:
Ignore it. You have the power to reject your inner critic. It’s your own brain telling you you’re a fraud, after all. That’s the whole thing with impostor syndrome … everyone else tells you you’re great, but your brain tells you they’re wrong. So, ignore the one negative voice in the crowd. Easier said than done, but effective if you can manage it. Remind yourself of the upsides of impostor syndrome. Just like anxiety has its benefits as well as its drawbacks, so too does impostor syndrome. Most importantly, if you’re worried you’re a fraud, chances are you’ve stepped outside your comfort zone and taken on a new challenge. If you were playing it safe and staying in your lane, you wouldn’t doubt yourself. Impostor syndrome also makes you more open to learning new things in order to feel more competent. And, at least one researcher at MIT determined that experiencing impostor syndrome makes it more likely you’ll demonstrate strong interpersonal skills. So, as long as impostor syndrome doesn’t prevent you from writing or publishing, it won’t negatively impact your performance, but it might positively impact your networking.
(I’m not going to dive too deeply into this point because research on the Dunning-Kruger effect seems to have become a bit controversial, but if you’re worried you don’t know enough, it’s probably a good thing. Often, people who are truly ignorant overestimate their abilities because they don’t know what they don’t know.) Remember how you respond to other writers. Many extremely successful people experience impostor syndrome. If you don’t believe me, just google “successful people who experience impostor syndrome.” All of us on the outside looking in can see that—objectively—they’re successful. They’re not frauds, no matter what their inner critic has to say on the matter. When we evaluate people who haven’t “made it” yet, we don’t think, “What frauds! Why are they even trying?” we just assume they’re working on it. It’s just as likely that the people in your orbit look at you and see either success or the potential for it, and it’s fair to see yourself that way too. Remember how far you’ve come. One way to do this is to take mental stock of all the things you’ve learned and accomplished since you started whatever role or job is giving you impostor syndrome—books you’re read, manuscripts you’ve written, conferences you’ve attended, webinars you’ve watched, classes you’ve taken, etc. Remind yourself that you know a hell of a lot more than you did a few weeks, months, or years ago. Another option is to keep a folder (digital folders and hard copy folders both fit the bill here) filled with positive feedback from your editors and readers. Other, smart people think you’re great at what you do, and having the evidence in hand might make getting your brain on board easier. Remember what you stand to lose if you give in to your impostor syndrome. Most importantly, if impostor syndrome causes you to surrender, you lose the chance to reach your goal and succeed. Your words never make it into the world. Beyond that, however, impostor syndrome has the tendency to create power dynamics where they shouldn’t exist. So, what does that look like? For writers, that might mean you treat your editor as if they’re doing you a favor by being willing to read your work, instead of coming to the relationship as an equal partner who’s paying for a service. An editor with impostor syndrome, meanwhile, may undervalue their work and feel squeamish about charging a fair wage. Impostor syndrome makes us feel like we don’t deserve what we’re asking for, no matter how hard we’ve worked for it. Embarrassing personal anecdote time: A year or two into my PhD program, I came to the realization that I felt “ditzy” in class. Now, if you want to see impostor syndrome in action, talk to a bunch of graduate students. Feeling like a fraud who’s one professor’s-realization-away from being kicked out is pretty much par for the course. That said, my feeling that everyone around me was smarter and knew more than I did was causing me to act differently in class. I was presenting myself as if I was a less serious student than my peers. Pretty dumb given that I’d gone through the same application process and the same coursework as everyone else, was earning good grades, and was on course to finish with my doctoral degree in a timely fashion. Fraud or not, less intelligent than my peers or not, I was keeping pace just fine, so there was no need to act as if I was a kid allowed to sit at the grown-ups' table.
Fight it with self-talk. Many of us talk to ourselves in ways we would never consider talking to anybody else. Learning how to recognize your critical thoughts and replace them with positive ones can help you overcome impostor syndrome. Over time, positive self-talk actually creates new neural pathways. By changing your neural pathways, your reaction to the same stimulus changes. Let’s say your current reaction to seeing someone else publish their work is to think, “I’ll never be that successful.” If you consistently notice that reaction and gently remind yourself, “I’m happy for them, and I’m working hard to publish too,” eventually your brain’s knee-jerk response to someone else’s publishing success will be to think, “That’s great! Soon it will be me.” I’ve seen a couple of studies that suggest talking to yourself in second or third person can help you observe and replace negative self-talk, so thinking “soon you’ll do it too” (or in my case, “Calm down, Armstrong.”) might be even more effective.
Accept it. If you can’t shake the feeling that you’re faking it, consider accepting it as a sign that you need more training. For the overanalytical (myself included), this tip won’t be popular because it introduces the idea that maybe we’re right; maybe we don’t know what we’re doing. But, if that’s the case, go out and learn more. Take a class, watch a webinar, attend a conference, read a writing craft book, create a daily writing practice and seek feedback on the results. Lean into the feeling of incompetence and remedy it. When your brain says, “You’re a fraud!” tell your brain “What of it?” and get out there to keep learning.
There you have it. As promised, no solutions whatsoever for avoiding impostor syndrome. Hopefully, however, this has provided some food for thought about how to handle impostor syndrome when you experience it. Do you have other effective strategies for contending with impostor syndrome? I’d love to hear about them here or here!
 Eben Harell, “Imposter Syndrome Has Its Advantages,” Harvard Business Review, May-June 2022, https://hbr.org/2022/05/impostor-syndrome-has-its-advantages.  Shishira Screenivas, “Dunning-Kruger Effect: What to Know,” WebMD, November 9, 2021, https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/dunning-kruger-effect-what-to-know.  See, for example, “5 Tips to Improve Self Talk,” Psych Central, https://psychcentral.com/blog/5-tips-to-improve-your-self-talk#1.