Impostor Syndrome

There’s been an outbreak of impostor syndrome in my social media feeds lately. I’m not going to be terribly specific because I don’t want to embarrass anyone, but I belong to several Facebook groups about writing (fiction writing, academic writing, editing…) and follow several twitter accounts and a few twitter chats on similar subjects.

A common theme over the last couple of weeks has been people wondering if some colossal mistake has been made—the hiring committee wouldn’t have hired me if they knew…; the publisher wouldn’t have accepted my manuscript if…; how could they give me a degree/certification/job? All of these worries stem from the worrier thinking they’ve somehow erroneously achieved whatever it is they’ve achieved. And now the worrier fears everyone will find out the truth—that they aren’t good enough.

When I was researching this topic, I came across several TED Talks on impostor syndrome. I watched four of them: ‘Thinking Your Way out of Impostor Syndrome’ by Valerie Young, ‘Impostor Syndrome’ by Mike Cannon-Brookes, ‘Why Does a Successful Person Feel like a Fraud?’ by Portia Mount, and ‘The Surprising Solution to the Impostor Syndrome’ by Lou Solomon.

The speakers all mentioned the statistic that 70% of people have experienced impostor syndrome at some point in their lives. I, however, have to agree with Lou Solomon when she suggests that number sounds rather low. For the general population, perhaps it’s correct—I have no way of knowing. But for the highly-driven creative types I spend most of my time with, 70% is way too low.

The very qualities that are necessary to be a writer, an academic, or an editor are the same qualities that lead to impostor syndrome. We have high standards, tend to be perfectionists, and care deeply about what we do. I’m not suggesting that you lower your standards or stop caring, just that you find a way to put your inner critic in their place.

The Effects of Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome can cause significant physical, emotional, and professional damage. Near the end of her video, Valerie Young discusses the effects of impostor syndrome. She says it can cause sufferers to ‘fly under the radar’ at work; by this she means sufferers don’t take risks or speak up. They don’t want to draw attention to their perceived imperfections, but in the process they don’t call attention to their strengths, and they risk being overlooked for promotions.

This image made the rounds of a few of my social media feeds; try to remember it the next time you’re struggling to speak up:

tornado full of sharks

Impostor syndrome, according to Young, can also be responsible for procrastination. The logic of the syndrome can be ‘if I don’t do anything, I can’t fail at anything’. Of course we all know this only works in the short term, but if you’re just trying to avoid the negative feelings brought up by the syndrome, that can be enough.

Young also links impostor syndrome to workaholism. Lou Solomon and Portia Mount address workaholism as well. In all three talks, the link between workaholism and impostor syndrome is perfectionism. Our education system tends to teach from an early age that it’s good to always have the correct answer, to always present work in the correct way, etc. This becomes a problem, though, when the need to be perfect leads to agonising over insignificant mistakes.

Solomon tells a story about not being able to sleep because of a typo in a memo she’d distributed at the office (in the days before email); she got out of bed, went back to work, retyped the memo, and redistributed it. She didn’t get back to bed until about 2am, but no one knew she’d made a mistake. For a mind controlled by impostor syndrome, that lack of sleep was justified.

Portia Mount describes how impostor syndrome felt to her: “I was unravelling; the more success I experienced the more anxious and insecure I became. Thoughts kept racing through my mind; I couldn’t shut the voices off. I lost weight; I couldn’t sleep. On the outside I looked happy and successful, [but] inside I was dying”. This idea that success worsens impostor syndrome was common to all four talks.

Impostor syndrome doesn’t only effect you at work; it causes problems elsewhere, too. Whether it’s causing procrastination or workaholism, it will be having an effect on your personal life. If it’s making you miserable (emotionally and/or physically) it will affect your relationships.

How Can We Deal with Impostor Syndrome?

Valerie Young suggests changing your thinking—she says the body doesn’t know the difference between fear and excitement. So, when you feel your nerves kick in tell yourself you’re actually excited. She acknowledges that you won’t believe it at first, but in time you will.

I’ve had some success with this in certain situations. When we expressed performance anxiety, my flute professor always told the flute studio to ‘fake it till you make it’. She was right; week after week in studio, I walked onto that stage and pretended I was confident and happy to be there. By the end of my degree, I really felt that way.

Mike Cannon-Brookes takes a different approach. He doesn’t believe one can overcome impostor syndrome; instead, one must learn to use it and to slightly reframe it. He says successful people still experience doubt, but they don’t doubt themselves; they doubt their knowledge and skills—things they can change. Most importantly, he says successful people don’t see asking for help or guidance as a weakness, but as a necessity.

Portia Mount emphasises focusing on facts; you have had some success, so don’t diminish it. She also encourages people to challenge limiting beliefs. Finally, she says we need to ‘talk about it’. We aren’t as perfect as our overly curated online lives suggest; our meals are not always picture perfect, our hair is not always perfectly coifed. Find a time and a place that you can discuss the realities of your life.

Lou Solomon suggests dealing with the inner critic’s voice directly. She says having impostor syndrome is ‘like having a crappy best friend in your head who says mean things’; she’s named hers Ms Vader.  She deals with Ms Vader through another internal voice, ‘a radical hero’ she’s named Betty Lou. Betty Lou calls out Ms Vader’s nonsense.

As this list demonstrates, there may be as many ways to deal with impostor syndrome as there are people suffering from it.

What Can You Do About It?

imposter 3

First, remember that you are not alone.

If impostor syndrome is causing writer’s block, try some of the tips I cover in my post and ebooklet on dealing with writer’s block. If it’s keeping you from submitting your work for publication, get someone else’s opinion. The options for finding someone to read your work are endless: a friend who doesn’t sugar-coat the truth, a writing group, an editor, a mentor, a writing coach… Also, follow through on the age old advice—if it’s rejected, send it off to somewhere else as soon as possible.

If you’re a student (undergraduate or postgraduate) and impostor syndrome is making it difficult for you to participate in seminars or conferences, you’ll find some helpful tips in my post on succeeding in seminars. To recap the main points; set small, achievable goals (like speaking once per seminar and building up from there); discuss the issue with your personal tutor or supervisor; seek support from your university’s counselling services; and talk to your GP.

If you’re in an academic post and your impostor syndrome is making it difficult for you to assert yourself in staff meetings or in lectures and seminars, your university likely offers a lot of support options. The teaching support department probably has workshops on running effective seminars and giving lectures. You may have access to confidential counselling (some universities require you to go through occupational health to access this—if that sets off a whole different kind of anxiety, and you can afford it, hire a private counsellor or talk to your GP). Make contacts with academics at other universities (private social media groups are great for this); it may be easier to ask for help from someone you won’t see at the next board of teachers. Find someone you can talk to about this. It’s a common problem, but if feels lonely when you have it.

Editors suffering from impostor syndrome should engage with continuing professional development to keep your skills up to date. Also, remember it is okay to ask for help. My feed is full of editors asking questions about grammar—you aren’t expected to always have the answer; you are expected to know how to find the answer. Often that means asking someone else.

Until next time, happy writing.
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GSU: Seminars

In the humanities, the main forms of instruction are (usually) seminars and lectures. To get the most out of these students need to be active participants. I’ll discuss what this means for lectures in a later post. For seminars, you need to prepare, listen to other students (not just your tutor), and join the conversation.

Why should you prepare for and participate in seminars?

Successful seminars are those in which everyone gets a chance to speak. This is important for your education because seminar is the place for you to try out your ideas and get feedback from your lecturer and your peers before you complete your next assessment.

If you turn up to seminar unprepared and just listen, are you really hurting anyone other than yourself? Yes, you are. First, it’s rude to expect everyone else to carry the conversation. Second, if you just sit and listen you are taking from everyone who’s speaking without giving anything back. Seminar discussions, like good dinner party discussions, require give and take from all participants.

Do you need to prepare for seminar beyond just doing the assigned reading and briefly looking at any suggested topics or preparation questions? Yes!

How do you go beyond basic preparation?

Seminar tutors often open with questions like the following:

  • What did you think of the text?
  • What did you find most interesting?
  • What did you find challenging or confusing?
  • If you didn’t like the text, why not?
  • If you liked the text, why?

If you’re worried you won’t be able to answer such questions spontaneously, jot down short answers while you’re preparing for seminar. Also, make note of your tutors’ favourite opening questions.

I’ve led seminars in which ‘What did you think of the text?’ was the only question I had to ask. The students had varied and strong opinions and we spent the seminar unpacking them.

Seminar participation isn’t all about answering questions, though. It’s also important to ask questions. While you’re reading make note of any questions you have or topics you’d like to investigate further. Then, you’ll have a response when your tutor asks if you have any questions.

What if you really, really don’t want to speak in class—ever?

As you’ve hopefully gathered by now, seminar participation will require you to speak in class. I know the terror the prospect of speaking in class strikes in the hearts of some students—I was one such student.

I completed degrees in music and English (at the same time—in British terms, I did two single-honours courses simultaneously; yes, it was insane, and I also worked part-time). I had no trouble standing on stage by myself playing my flute for the length of a recital—that was all well-rehearsed and I had my flute between me and the audience. What I worried about was thanking the audience and inviting them to the reception after the recital. As for speaking in seminars, that didn’t come up very often—the American system is different than the British system, and it was very different twenty years ago.

I did, however, get over my shyness. I can now lead seminars, give lectures, give presentations at conferences, and so on without giving a thought to nerves. How does one overcome this level of shyness? Preparation, planning, and support.

If you’re shy about speaking in seminar, remember that you are not alone. Sometimes, the most insecure students are also the most talkative; so, don’t fall into the trap of thinking ‘everyone’ else is comfortable with this.

To make seminar participation easier, write out answers to set questions and anticipated questions. This way you can read out your answers—this is less scary because you don’t have to worry you’ll forget what you wanted to say. Also, if there are any words giving you trouble (synecdoche and metonymy always trip students up) you can either choose a different word or learn how to say it. Collins Dictionary online is brilliant for this—just look up the word and click the little red speaker symbol next to it to hear the correct pronunciation!

If you’re shy, you need to plan to speak in seminar. Challenge yourself to speak once in each of your seminars for the first few weeks of term. Then, increase the challenge to twice per seminar for a few weeks. It’s highly likely that after five or six weeks, you’ll be comfortable with frequent, spontaneous participation.

If you suffer from severe anxiety, please don’t try to tackle it on your own. Discuss your anxiety with your personal tutor, and if you’re comfortable doing so, with your seminar tutors. You may also need to enlist the help of a therapist at your university’s counselling services centre and have a chat with your GP.

Most seminars involve some sort of small group work before the groups feed back to the whole class. If the prospect of speaking to the whole class makes you feel ill, start by becoming an active participant in small-group discussions. Once you’re comfortable with that, set bigger challenges like volunteering to feed back to the whole class for your group. With the right plan and support, you can overcome shyness.

What if I’m not shy?

If you’re always eager to speak in seminar, don’t lose your enthusiasm—seminars need people like you. However, if you notice you’re always the first to respond to questions, try holding back occasionally; sometimes seemingly shy students just need time to compose their thoughts.

When seminar’s over, I’m done, right?

Not quite. You’ll find exam preparation and coursework essays easier if you take a little time while seminar discussions are still fresh in your mind to make connections to previous seminar discussions. This needn’t take more than ten or fifteen minutes; I’ll discuss how to organise these post-seminar reflections in a later post on preparing for assessments.

Until next time.
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