Battling Impostor Syndrome

A student came up to me after class and asked about impostor syndrome. I had mentioned in class that one of the main causes of things like plagiarism or bloated writing is insecurity: People are afraid that their writing will be found lacking, and that they will seem lesser because of it.

And this student wanted to know what they should do to fight back.

Impostor Syndrome comes from the idea that people will see you as a fraud. That you are less than what you claim to be. But it’s also the feeling that we don’t measure up to our own projection of who we are, or who we should be.

You don’t need an audience to feel like a fraud.

But somebody was looking to me for an answer, so I warned them that this feeling never really goes away. The insecurity and uncertainty just become more manageable over time, given the right effort.

This is not a life hack. This will not cure you. This isn’t even a tactic that works 100% of the time. But you can try it, and it might help.

Focus on the work, not what you think the work means.

If you’re writing something, focus on the story beat. If you’re revising something, focus on the sentence in front of you. Then the next one. If you’re offering advice to another writer, don’t worry about what they’re going to think about you based on your advice. Just do your best to tell them what you see in their work, and help them realize their goals.

And if you feel yourself thinking about what you’re going to say in your awards acceptance speeches, or how you’re going to spend all that money you’re destined to be making, or how you’re going to get to start name-dropping all your fancy new friends… If you find yourself dreaming about the rewards for work you haven’t done yet, that’s the other side of the Impostor Syndrome coin.

It’s ego, flowing in more than one direction. It can build you up or pull you down, but when you let that untamed sense of self take the wheel, you’re not doing the work.

And if you can only focus on one thing at a time, it’s better to train yourself to focus on the work, and not worry about shame, praise, or imagined distant futures. Like Andy Warhol said:

”Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide whether it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they’re deciding, make even more art.”

The same can be said about yourself. Focus on whether or not you enjoy the work that you’re doing, and whether you can joyfully give your attention to the work. Spend your effort on making the work the best it can be.

You’re a person who has value outside of your work. To the people who care about you, you can never be an impostor. Try your best not to confuse your assessment of your work with a measurement of your worth.