When I was first starting out as a freelance writer, I was at a party, and a woman asked what I did for a living. I said something vague, like, “I do a little bit of work for a few websites… sort of writing things…” At that point, a good friend, who happened to be standing next to me, interrupted and said, “She’s a writer.”
My friend was right, so why did I feel so uncomfortable saying it like that? Why did that declaration feel so intimidating? Impostor syndrome. Back then I didn’t know there was a name for it, but that’s exactly what it was.
Impostor syndrome is that nagging worry that you’re a total fraud, and that eventually everyone’s going to find out that you don’t deserve any of your success.
Two psychologists coined the term in the 1970s, and several studies have found that the feeling is very common, especially among high-achievers. (Researchers once believed it mainly affected successful women at work, but it turns out that men suffer from it, too.)
For a long time, I felt like I wasn’t a “real” writer. I thought my writing income was due to sheer luck, not to any actual skills, and that eventually someone would notice I wasn’t any good at it. Nowadays, I’m comfortable describing myself as a writer, but every once in a while, when I open a blank document to write something new, I still hear a skeptical voice in my head saying, “Maybe you wrote all that other stuff, but you don’t have what it takes to write this!”
Why Do So Many People Feel Like Frauds?
I’ve been reading a lot about impostor syndrome, because I thought if I knew the cause, it would be easier to get it under control. One of the simplest explanations I’ve found is in this video:
As that cute little animation demonstrates, we only ever really know what’s going on inside one person’s head—our own. If our head is full of anxiety and confusion, but we look around and everyone else looks like they’re doing fine, we figure they can’t possibly be as messed up in the head as we are. If we could see inside their heads, we’d see that most of them have similar worries.
It’s sort of like how everyone’s life looks better on social media, but those carefully-selected images aren’t a good representation of reality. What you see when you look at someone doesn’t tell you much at all about what’s going on in their head. Even if your coworkers all appear to know what they’re doing, remind yourself that you’re not seeing the whole truth.
Don’t Let Impostor Syndrome Hold You Back
I have a feeling impostor syndrome will always be a part of my life, but I find it reassuring that it’s common among high-achievers. Looking back, I’ve probably had impostor syndrome my whole life. (As a middle child, there were times I didn’t even feel like I belonged in my own family.) I’m starting to get better at handling it, so I’m going to share a few tips.
1. Understand that you are not alone.
I believe very strongly that everybody is a little bit messed up in the head. Some of us are struggling more than others, but nobody’s path is all that easy. I used to think I was the only freelance writer who was “bad” at it, but as I’ve befriended other writers, I’ve realized how many of us doubt our abilities. This humor piece about a woman who turns in her thesis by saying, “I wrote a thing,” is funny because it’s so true. Many of my writer friends have used that exact phrase to share their work—thoughtful, intelligent articles!—on social media.
2. Own who you are.
Be able to describe yourself and what you do in a clear, confident way. I probably had to tell a hundred people, “I’m a writer,” before I really believed it myself. I live in Los Angeles, where almost everyone either works in the entertainment industry or dreams about doing so. When a Lyft driver tells me, “I’m a screenwriter,” or a barista says, “I’m an actor,” I believe them. Even if they aren’t making a living that way yet, their ability to define themselves as part of that world makes it feel more likely to happen.
3. Remind yourself of who you are.
This may seem silly, since I work from home, but I have a nameplate on my desk. It says my name, and underneath that, where a title would go, it says “WRITER.” The sign was a gift from someone who knew I often doubt myself, and it lifts my spirits at least once a day.
4. Be honest with yourself.
Maybe your impostor syndrome is just a sign of low self-esteem, but if you’re really concerned that you aren’t good enough at your job, don’t ignore that feeling. Make a change. Take a few classes, get a mentor, and focus on developing your skills.
5. Accept compliments and awards.
On the surface, Emma Watson is a superstar actress and outspoken activist, but a few years back, she told Vogue UK that when she receives recognition for her acting, she feels “incredibly uncomfortable.” Yes. Emma Watson, who seems good at everything, sometimes feels like an impostor. The next time someone says something positive about you or your work, don’t correct them, or say “it’s nothing,” or point out one of your flaws. Just accept the compliment (or the trophy), and say “Thank you.”
Let’s make Emma Watson the unofficial spokesperson for impostor syndrome, because with everything that she has accomplished, she proves it’s possible to achieve even the highest levels of success. There’s no easy cure for feeling like a fraud, so all you can do is fight it. Prove to yourself, over and over, that you have exactly what it takes to succeed.
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