Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.
If you’ve ever felt inadequate or incompetent about your writing, you may have Imposter Syndrome. Not sure? You may recognize yourself by these kinds of nasty thoughts that plague your inner dialogue.
If any of that sounds a bit too familiar, then you’re not alone. Medical students, journalists, performing artists, national politicians – even noted figures like Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg – admit to suffering from feelings of fraud. “Researchers have estimated that 70 percent of the general population has experienced the impostor phenomenon at some point,” says science reporter Sandeep Ravindran. “It’s a concept that seems to resonate with many.”
And of course, writers are a part of the mix.
World-famous mystery novelist Agatha Christie, American poet laureate Maya Angelou, and best-selling author Seth Godin have publicly confessed to feeling like writing fakes. So no, you’re not the only one.
Imposter Syndrome a pattern of thinking. You doubt your skills and fear that you’ll be exposed as a phony, even when evidence suggests otherwise.
Introduced as the “imposter phenomenon” in an article by Georgia State University’s Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes in 1978, the syndrome was first studied in high-achieving women. In the decades since, the syndrome has been readily reported across genders.
It’s not identified as an official diagnosis in American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Nevertheless, practitioners regularly address Imposter Syndrome’s patterns, particularly when treating patients who struggle with self-doubt, anxiety, and depression. The syndrome can range from a perpetual kernel of self-questioning on one side of the spectrum to mid-level stress to full-blown anxiety on the opposite end.
It’s a little bit different than simple insecurity. Yes, Imposter Syndrome sufferers feel uncertain about their competence. But these writers have been given some sort of external confirmation about their abilities, yet don’t accept the evidence. Instead, they feel that people are “just being nice” or that “they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Those of us who feel like writing counterfeits know how debilitating those thoughts can be. The good news is that you can fight back and use your feelings of fraud to your benefit. More on that in just a minute. But first, what causes Imposter Syndrome?
“Personality traits largely drive Imposter Syndrome – those who experience it struggle with self-efficacy, perfectionism, and neuroticism,” say the experts at Psychology Today.
Neurotic? Perfectionistic? That seems harsh for those of us who waffle just before hitting the “Submit” button to an editor and then chew our nails for days after.
In contrast to Psychology Today’s take, Clance & Imes found that Imposter Syndrome victims typically fall into two key groups. One group was raised from birth to believe they had superior intelligence, abilities, or talents. These “imposters” feel obligated to fulfill those overwhelming expectations, not always believing them to be true.
The other primary group of “imposters” had a sibling or other relative who was designated as the family’s success story. The “imposters” work hard to achieve acceptance or to prove their worth. Yet without encouragement or confirmation, these hard-working folks continue to feel they just didn’t (and don’t) measure up. External success doesn’t eliminate fears of being found out to be a fraud.
At this point, you may see yourself in the experts’ explanations. Or you may be afraid that your racket is up. You’ve been discovered.
Whether or not you fit the standard imposter profile, here’s how to know if you’re suffering.
But are those feelings of inadequacy all bad? Nope.
The opposite of Imposter Syndrome has a name: the Dunning-Kruger Effect, dubbed the Expert Syndrome. You know these folks. They’re the ones that incorrectly believe they know more than they do.
No one likes a know-it-all. Self-proclaimed experts rarely have lots of friends. But worse, these smart alecks are paralyzed by their false sense of genius. They know everything already. What’s left to learn?
“Real experts underestimate their level of expertise,” says project management guru Dr. Mike Clayton, author of 13 books. “People with low ability overestimate it.”
That makes me stop and think about my Imposter Syndrome. Would I prefer to incorrectly perceive my skill level as better than it really is? No way.
Underestimating my adequacy stretches me. Self-doubt drives me to continue to learn more about writing and improve my craft. If I suffered from the Expert Syndrome, my skills would make me mark time or languish. That reality presses me to embrace my inner imposter and deal with it head on.
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome is not impossible. In fact, you can take some practical steps to face it down and even use it to your advantage.
Acquire a skill and you’ll build confidence. I was able to move past my first imposter hurdles because I took a course about writing articles. There I discovered how the freelance market operated. The writing school showed me the many opportunities that were available to freelance writers who were willing to do the hard work of learning what editors needed and then delivering it. The course creators’ expertise gave me confidence that writing is a viable option for people who keep at it and acquire skills. I became better equipped.
Record small, personal writing goals. Maybe it’s writing for 30 minutes every day for a week … submitting a query to a new publication … finishing a first draft. Once you reach a goal, make a note of it in your journal. You’ll track your progress and stay encouraged. And if you get positive comments about your writing? By all means, record those, too. Re-read them during those moments when your feelings of fraud resurface. A written record of successes and positive responses offers tangible proof your mind needs to bring you back from the edge.
Meet in person or online with a group of like-minded writers who give each other valuable feedback. You’ll gain confidence not only from putting yourself and your words out there, but also in the process of reviewing others’ work. Check the group rules when you join to make sure the focus will balance constructive criticism and practical encouragement. You need both in order to believe the good stuff and use the hard stuff.
Individual coaching is the fastest path to writing success. Find a professional writing coach who will work with you one-on-one. A good coach will point out your writing strengths and help you capitalize on them. Quality coaches also address weaknesses with concrete tips. Your confidence will grow with pointers from a professional who understands the business.
Whether it’s gaining a new subscriber to your email list or receiving a book contract, celebrate milestones that indicate others recognize your writing ability.
I’m not a big proponent of disingenuousness – of faking it till you make it. However, I’ve also learned to not always trust my feelings, particularly those of inadequacy, insecurity, anxiety, and worry. Instead, I place a much deeper trust in perseverance and hard work.
My husband always says, “You make your own luck,” meaning sticking with a project leads to success. He’s right. Even for me, an imposter.
And for you. Persist through the uncertainty. And you’ll make your own luck, too.
More about The Writing Life
As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Named to 2022 Writer's Digest list
BEST GENRE/NICHE WRITING WEBSITE
Grab your exclusive FREE guide, "5 Simple Writing Tips You Can Put to Use in 10 Minutes or Less"