A rich life involves learning new skills, slowly mastering difficult things, and sharing our work. Deep down, we all want to contribute.
But once we find even modest success, many of us struggle with a feeling that we’re secretly frauds, that we’ve somehow managed to fool everyone, and that the charade could end at any moment.
There’s a name for this nagging doubt: imposter syndrome (or imposter phenomenon, as it was first named by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in a 1978 paper).
I experience imposter syndrome as a musician, as a writer, and in my day job as a higher ed professional. I feel a twinge of it when I sit down at the keyboard to play a gig, when I draft a blog post, and when I unlock my office door at work each morning. It’s not debilitating, but it’s there.
You’ve probably felt it, too. If your work is on public display, if you’ve attained a high level of career success, or if you’re working in a field for which you haven’t been formally trained, it might even be crippling.
Imposter syndrome can be a major problem. It can cause us to inhibit our own creative success, to hold back for no good reason. So what do we do about it? Here are four tips.
1. Use the awesome power of rational thought
Here’s a question to ask yourself when you’re wracked with self-doubt: “What would I tell someone else in this position?”
If a friend came to you and told you she felt like a total fraud despite her hard work, success, and positive feedback from others, what would you tell her?
Now tell yourself that.
2. Keep lists of successes and compliments
I keep an inspiration portfolio: a Google Doc of especially kind things people have said about me or my work. I also try to keep my CV/resume up to date. It’s hard to keep believing I’m a hack while I’m looking at a list of genuine compliments or all my career accomplishments in one place.
3. Realize that most people hide their failures
It’s been said that many of our insecurities stem from us “comparing our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” Most people do not publicly share their failures (although I think you should), so an aspiring author might see Seth Godin’s list of 18 bestsellers and think “I’m no Seth Godin. I don’t have a prayer.”
But before Seth Godin had 18 bestsellers, he had 900 rejection letters from publishers.
Chin up, lad (or lass). Failure is a part of the process.
4. Learn to work with it (and even see it as a badge of honor)
I don’t think imposter syndrome ever completely goes away, but you can learn to ship anyway. And the more you ship, the more you believe you can ship. I can tell you this much: publishing your 123rd blog post is a lot easier than publishing your first. I imagine number 1,000 is easier still.
To combat imposter syndrome, I often call to mind this passage from Steven Pressfield’s masterpiece The War of Art:
If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.