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ServiceScape Incorporated

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome in Your Writing


Imposter syndrome is a sense of doubt associated with an area of expertise – in our case, writing. Those who are accomplished in a particular field sometimes feel as though their accomplishments are unearned, or that they do not understand their field as well as they might think. An electrician who has been working in houses for years might claim they "don't know much more than the basics" or might feel as though they don't understand the fundamentals of their practice. The insidious nature of imposter syndrome is that it is sometimes true: there are electricians (welders, writers, teachers, philosophers, etc…) in the world who wire up houses incorrectly, and who don't understand their trade as well as they believe. So, how can we recognize anxiety caused by imposter syndrome, and differentiate that anxiety from the possibility that we really don't know what we're doing?

Dunning-Kruger effect

It helps if we first understand the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is the idea that a very incompetent person may consider themselves competent because they are ignorant of the ways in which they have failed or been mistaken. This effect is the reason idioms like "fools speak loudest" are so common. Individuals suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect are incompetent but believe themselves competent, and individuals suffering from imposter syndrome often question themselves based on this common trope. They ask "am I just a loud-mouthed fool?" This leads to them doubting themselves because of the possibility that they really are incompetent.

To alleviate anxiety associated with imposter syndrome, and to wrestle with the possibility of whether or not we are frauds in our fields, we can use some of the tools offered below to escape the sense that we don't know what we're doing (even though we do!). Once this is overcome, we can get back to writing.

Past success

Looking toward past success is an excellent way to predict future success. The electrician who has wired hundreds of houses which didn't burn down, can reassure themselves that this job will be no different. The writer who has completed hundreds of stories, can reassure themselves that their current work is likely to be well received. This can be problematic because we make mistakes during our progress toward mastery. For instance, imagine the number of mistakes that the ten-year veteran electrician has made, or almost made? If they reflect back on their failures, then those may distort the successes. To that end…

Eliminate outliers

Instead of considering the worst possible scenario: to escape imposter syndrome imagine the most likely scenario. To do this, take past experiences and eliminate obvious outliers. A student who has written hundreds of essays should consider their body of work as a whole, eliminating examples which don't fit the average. If an electrician made one wiring mistake in their ten-year career, that mistake obviously doesn't represent their competency. Further, it is wise to eliminate outdated data points: writing mistakes made in elementary school stories do not represent competency in high school and beyond, for instance. Don't consider these when evaluating competence.

Dealing with new experiences

Sometimes imposter syndrome is a product of applying established skills in a new context. When this occurs, some of the above strategies are invalidated. Take for example the Ph.D. student presenting at their first-ever conference (or the poet writing their first-ever novel). They have a vast theoretical knowledge of the subject, have obtained a Master's degree, and studied for years; but they have never encountered this application of their knowledge. This is a common case, and it is problematic because there are no identical past experiences to look back on to gauge competence.

There are two ways forward: compare the new experience with related past experiences; and project confidence and consider the costs of failure. The first is a simple reapplication of the strategies described above. When giving a lecture at a conference the sufferer of imposter syndrome might not have past conferences to look back on, but they do have related materials: essays written on the subject, commendations from professors in related fields, and other related experiences.

The second strategy "consider the costs of failure" sounds like a threat given by Darth Vader. Instead of thinking of the life-ending consequences of failure, however, it is best to think of the worst-case scenario in terms of "moving on" after that failure. Consider the best possible outcome to failure. This may not help alleviate the sensation of imposter syndrome, but it will alleviate the symptoms long enough to face the new task. Once the new task has been faced, then the strategy of looking back becomes once again viable: after that first novel is "under your belt" it becomes much easier to anticipate success in the future.

Ask "what is more likely?"

Sometimes imposter syndrome manifests without a specific goal to be addressed. A sense of generalized anxiety rather than anxiety associated with a particular event or challenge is much more difficult to overcome. If, rather than doubting their ability to write a certain paper, a writer doubts their entire understanding of their subject, then it is difficult to point to a past event which proves they are competent. In situations of generalized anxiety, it is often useful to ask "what is more likely." Is it more likely that a Ph.D. student has managed to fool each of their professors, their Master's degree committee, and each of their tutorial leaders; or that they are qualified in their subject area? Is it more likely that an electrician was able to bluff their way through their certifications, find work and remain employed because of their employer's and instructor's oversight; or that they are competent? The answer to this question often reveals the truth to the asker, but this need not be a question only asked of one's self.

Ask for an outside opinion

One of the best ways to face any anxiety problem is by leaning on others for help. It cannot be overstated how often a conversation with a family member, friend, or supervisor can serve to reassure and alleviate not only imposter syndrome, but a host of other tangential fears and concerns. The opinion of a close friend can give the encouragement required to face an upcoming task, or might reassure a sufferer of imposter syndrome that their fears are unwarranted. This is especially useful for temporary or short-term feelings of imposter syndrome because it is often the little bit of support, or the small nudge required to face a new obstacle, or to complete an assignment or task despite imposter syndrome. However, the opinion of a friend or family member rarely serves to alleviate doubt entirely. It is often counteracted by the thought "they are reassuring me because they are my friend, not because I am competent." For this reason, the final piece of advice offered here, it to consult a neutral third party.

Ask for an unbiased opinion

Returning to the Dunning-Kruger effect, we can easily see that a self-evaluation of competence is difficult and may even be impossible. Those with very low competence often believe themselves to be extremely competent; those with high competencies are aware of the many things about their subject that they still do not know. This is the difference between "yes of course cut the red wire" and "I am unsure which wire to cut because I don't know which is the ground and which might be live, we had better turn off power." The second may seem like a failure to the entirely incompetent because it wastes time, but we know that despite the confidence of the first claim that it is the more dangerous and less informed of the two. We know that because we are a neutral third party.

Individuals are much more capable of evaluating others' competence than they are of evaluating their own. For this reason it can be very helpful for those suffering from imposter syndrome to seek out a respected individual in their field (or the voices of a writing group!), and speak with them about their perceived and real competencies. It is especially useful to choose an individual who in the mind of the sufferer is undeniably competent: a writer who they enjoy, or an electrician at another company. This neutral third party is likely to evaluate competency based only on observable facts, because they don't have any emotional connection to the individual who doubts their competency. The answer received from these neutral third parties is a valuable tool in facing imposter syndrome both in that precise moment, and moving forward.

Finally, remember that most of us have received these types of neutral third-party analyses at past points in our life, and in situations that relate to our fields of expertise. PhD students have written any number of tests to prove their knowledge, and our electrician friend has been evaluated by a certifying body in order to receive their qualifications. In short: we should look at measurable and observable evidence in order to judge our competency, and we should be aware that part of feeling incompetent is understanding what we don't know due to our expertise. Confidence and competence are related, but neither is an indicator of the other.

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