We see those professional writers and entrepreneurs bask in the glory of their successful careers. They deliver quality work, become an authority in their niche, and seem to connect well with their audience. People get the idea that they definitely know what they are doing.
But beneath that surface can be a frustrated individual who feels like a fraud despite the glaring evidence of success.
We have all been there, one way or another. One minute, we’re feeling a sense of accomplishment with our work, and then next, we’re dragging ourselves down, flooded with guilt, because we feel undeserving of any kind of merit.
“Is it because of pure luck, or is it because of talent?” we may wonder.
This psychological phenomenon was coined “impostor syndrome” by Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes in the article The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention in 1978. They defined it as the feeling of self-perceived phoniness, and found it prevalent among high-achieving women. Individuals who are experiencing this often find it hard to feel competent in their area of expertise. They are “psychologically uncomfortable with acknowledging their role in their success,” according to psychologist Dr. Reneé Carr.
Impostor syndrome isn’t limited to women, of course: A clinical research paper estimated that 70 percent of people in the U.S. have, at some point in their career, experienced it.
Dr. Joseph Cilona, a Manhattan psychologist, says:
“Those struggling with impostor syndrome also tend to attribute success to luck rather than merit and hard work, and also generally tend to minimize success.”
Therefore, people who suffer from this syndrome downplay their skills and feel inauthentic, inadequate, and incompetent because they perceive their success as a case of “just got lucky.”
It’s normal for us to feel self-doubt when talking about the skills or knowledge we’ve cultivated in our career. Writing can be such a solitary endeavor; it’s easy to feel like you’re alone in your impostor syndrome and, in fact, creatives are more susceptible to it. Famous writers, artists, actors, directors, and even top executive leaders often experience this syndrome—normally, they are those whose line of work is subjective and rely on ideation or concepting.
As writers, once we let the pieces of our work out into the cyberspace or a published book, we become prone to other people’s scrutinizing eyes. It’s easy to feel inadequate, especially if one is not classically trained in that area but seems to be receiving the spotlight. We fear that we might not be able to live up to the standards.
But when impostor syndrome strikes, you may suddenly find it hard to even call yourself a writer. Thoughts like, “I haven’t written anything new for the last three months,” or “I’ve been writing for years already and I still haven’t published my own book,” come into our minds. Every inch of validation that was once present drifts away, just like that.
Impostor syndrome impedes your growth as a writer and affects your writing habits. For instance, you may often find yourself endlessly critiquing your own work, constantly revising drafts and fixing every little detail, and starting to question whether what you’re doing is even right.
When I started a blog of all things food- and travel-related based in Cebu in the Philippines, I didn’t expect for it to gain traction with readers aside from family and friends. Five months into it, I received blogging awards, both on a local and national scale—a feat that’s quite an achievement for a newcomer to the scene.
But every day after that, I continuously questioned myself, my capabilities, and even if I was truly worth all the achievements I’ve received. It chipped away every single motivation, every single day.
“Why am I writing about food when I’m not someone who studied it intensively? Why am I even calling myself a travel writer when I don’t travel every week in search for new places to write about?”
A year later, and I was still left pondering those thoughts, while my blog got stuck in a rotten state waiting for new content to be published. The impostor feelings plagued me and barricaded me against my thoughts. And then I realized that the feeling of impostor syndrome is indeed a constant battle both amateur and professional writers deal with on a daily basis.
We’re well aware that any minuscule habit or trait can turn into something dreadful if you’re unable to recognize it early on. Spotting the signs and acknowledging that you need to and can do something about it are just the first steps to overcoming this. Here are some telltale signs of impostor syndrome that are common in most professional writers.
The impostor cycle happens when an achievement-related task is on your desk. (This is a results-oriented job, like managing a new group of editors or being assigned as head of the newest venture in your company.) The person who’s suffering from impostor syndrome will resort to either over-preparing or procrastinating on the task in response.
For instance, if you procrastinate with a task and it still ends up garnering praise, after a short feeling of elation, you start questioning yourself. “Why am I being praised when I utterly panicked while doing this job?” you might ask yourself. Presto! Your success has become the result of sheer luck, and has nothing to do with your own merit.
And what about the over-preparers? Well, any successful outcome may lead you to think that such results were possible only because you’ve done twice the amount of hard work, and not because you were capable of it in the first place.
This makes you feel like a fraud instead of having your self-esteem built up, because you attribute the root of your success to your act of over-preparation or procrastination.
This vicious cycle only leaves you haunted with fears of getting exposed for being a fraud, because you lack that perceived self-efficacy.
There are all sorts of circumstances that make you feel like a fraud in what you’re doing, and this could potentially become dangerous in any profession: You’ll constantly feel inadequate and anxious, and you might even end up derailing your own career without realizing it. In the long run, your mental health may suffer.
The feeling of being a fraud often kicks in when you decide to step outside your comfort zone. For example, you may have applied for the editor-in-chief position in your company, and you’re up against all the other highly competent writers who also have their eyes on the prize. You got the job, much to your glee and horror, because what if you get exposed and they find out you’re actually not that good enough?
Hey. You’re qualified. They’ve interviewed and vetted you. You haven’t tricked the company into hiring you. People who feel like frauds simply do not acknowledge that they have the skills and capability needed to accomplish a job.
Have you ever shuddered at the thought of being called a professional writer or a successful entrepreneur? It may seem scary to try and live up to the expectations of what these job titles entail, but knowing in the first place that you’ve got what it takes by internalizing your accomplishments and re-assessing yourself and your capabilities can help alleviate the feeling of impostor syndrome.
Remember that we are continuously learning and bulking up our skill sets to become a highly competitive professional out in the market. You must not chalk up your success to luck, chances, or even connections—because, really, you give way less credit to yourself than you could ever imagine.
A promising gig awaits once you send that pitch, but your impostor self clings to that steady, low-paying job because, as you think to yourself, who would even consider you and your work?
But deep inside, you know you’re worth more than your current rate. You’re just terrible at negotiating—not with others, but with yourself. You downplay your skills and capabilities; hence, you pass on opportunities that may actually help you grow and find success.
It’s a sad reality for many professional writers who are stuck with god-awful rates or terrible clients because impostor syndrome looms over them, saying in a sinister voice that they’re not cut out for that raise.
But a line should be drawn when it’s enough, especially when you’re slowly sabotaging your career.
Just go and do it. Apply for that job or position you’ve coveted for so long. No more hesitating for that rate increase you so truly deserve. Don’t pass up that new experience. Consider what Margaret Atwood, the famous author of The Handmaid’s Tale, said: “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
Indeed, just do it.
No matter how great you are with your work, you still feel unsatisfied with any outcome. Much to your chagrin, you feel like you’re not measuring up at all, self-doubt starts creeping in, and your goal is now excessively high and at a standard that you constantly chase to fulfill.
There’s nothing wrong with being a perfectionist, but if you take this to the extreme, nothing will be good enough. Small achievements may mean nothing. This may lead to lack of motivation or sudden burnout, and trust me, it’s no fun feeling those roadblocks at all.
Perfectionist overachievers may find themselves damaging their career when they set these excessively high goals, because when failure slaps them in the face, they’ll start feeling self-doubt and anxiety. Perfectionists who experience impostor syndrome introspect and become anxious of this lopsided aspect in their lives.
Remember that you are entitled to make mistakes once in a while. Find solace in forgiving yourself: No one will remember your mistakes five years from now. Let go of that toxic trait of never wanting to be wrong; mistakes are what make us human, and forging the belief that it’s wrong to make one will only create internal chaos.
As a captain of your own ship, you are deeply tied to your own success. You do not owe your achievements and recognition to anybody. It is simply unfair to attribute your skills and work to a fluke just because you do not find yourself worthy enough of that success.
After taking some time off from blogging and acknowledging that I have these signs of impostor syndrome, overcoming the feeling of being a fraud became much easier. Nobody likes the feeling of being undervalued; and if you yourself undervalue the success you have attained, the experience and skill set you have mastered, and your own capability to accomplish anything, then it’s time to take a step back and do some introspection.
The key is to start acknowledging it first and recognizing what triggers this feeling. It could be that you’re so pressured to achieve success that fear only causes a downhill in your performance, or you simply attribute too much of your success to luck.
In any case, knowing how to reframe your thoughts and realizing that nobody’s perfect will eventually help alleviate the feeling of impostor syndrome.
Remember when that voice in your head just won’t shut up, tell yourself with all the love and self-validation: “I am enough.”
Arnela Gonzales is a travel and food photographer and blogger at Chasing Bleu from Cebu, Philippines. When she’s not learning web programming, she pursues creative projects and travels as much as she can all across the country—continuously wandering and soaking up herself in new experiences and beautiful scenery.