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the future of work for everyone, by everyone

Written by Rachel Meltzer
July 30, 2020

Overcoming impostor syndrome

Image Credit: Rosie - Sean Mosher-Smith
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(This piece was originally written in Rachel Meltzer’s blog, Trail Name Here.)

I don’t know why or how this happened, but I think I’ve felt like an imposter for most of my life.

(this next part is my personal story and the way that I’ve tried to convince myself that I’m not an imposter in the past. Feel free to skip it if you just want to learn how to get over it. Read it if you want someone to relate to.)


Music was the first time

13+ years playing the flute, 5 years playing the saxophone, 7 years as an alto choir singer, and 4 playing the guitar, I practiced between 1 and 6 hours a day depending on the season for all 13 of those years and I still hesitate to call myself a musician.

Writing was the second

I was the poet laureate of Maine for my grade when I was in third grade. I wrote poetry nonstop well into middle school. I wrote short stories, filled countless journals, and even contributed to a white paper in college. I’ve written over 100 articles about cannabis legalization in the past 10 months, 98 blog posts about backpacking, and a literature review that I was hired to create but I still don’t feel like I can call myself a writer. When I created my portfolio, I carefully chose just 4 pieces that I felt were ‘good enough’ to be seen by prospective clients.

There are writers who are so much better at the craft. Technically, there is no right way to write. Sure, there’s grammar, spelling, and style guides. But each genre and each niche has its own style and exceptions to the rule. Each writer has their own style within the rules and guides. It’s a creative process. Just like music and art there is no one way to be a writer.

I began to feel like an imposter in writing when I decided to start freelancing. Before that, I had never officially called myself a writer. Setting my rates (a.k.a. choosing what you’re worth in money but somehow being expected not to equate your self-worth to your income), pitching potential clients who don’t respond, and the general feeling of not having any *fucking* idea what I was doing.

As I delved into job boards, blogs by freelancers, and youtube videos about how to become a freelance writer I froze. I had no idea where to begin. The information overload was real, and I gave into the overwhelm like a paper kite blowing in the wind. The job boards made me feel like I knew nothing. As if I had never written a single good sentence.

Then came time to set my rates. Forget it, I thought. How am I supposed to know what I’m worth?  I’m not even a real writer! I later learned how to set my rates, but I wasn’t confident in them. It wasn’t until I began working with a life coach who gave me confirmation of my worth that I felt it okay to charge what I was worth. Honestly, even with a life coach, I’ve been undercharging. That’s low self-esteem, that’s imposter syndrome, that’s fear of failure.

Podcasting was the third wave

It was so stupidly easy to create a podcast that I don’t feel like I can call myself a podcaster. I must be missing something. It can’t be this easy, right? I’ve created 28 episodes but I’m still not confident in calling myself a podcaster. Because there are hundreds of more talented, hardworking, better edited, and better sounding podcasters out there. Because I only get 250 listens per episode. I’m an imposter right?!

Climbing was my fourth (and the last example I’ll give you)

I’ve climbed on and off for almost five years. Somehow, mostly out of fear I think, I’ve never climbed anything harder than a v4 or 5.10. Still, I spent nearly every day in May, June, and July 2019 training at a bouldering gym. I own my own shoes, chalk bag, belay device, harness. My hands, arms, and back show my strength and commitment. Still, I wouldn’t call myself a climber…

The only realm I don’t feel like an imposter in is backpacking.

Perhaps it’s the intensive, immersive experience that thru-hiking is? The circumstance leaves no choice. You believe you are and that you belong because you are backpacking on such a high level even when you’re slow or doing small miles. Your progress is palpable both mentally and physically (but isn’t 28 episodes or 98 articles just as palpable?). The community I found myself in, despite its occasional flaws, rarely made me feel unwelcome in the capacity of a backpacker. Now I’m attributing everything to circumstances despite the fact that the circumstance actually has very little pull in my success. I could have done it without the support and without the specific gear I had, and the miles I did. But mentally? I’m still not sure that I could have.


What is Imposter Syndrome?

“A psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments.”

Nearly 70% of people experience Imposter Syndrome at some point in their life.

Apparently, Imposter Syndrome occurs so common among women that it was originally thought that only women experienced it. Many women list it as the culprit of their lack of self-confidence. Imposter Syndrome typically manifests as a persistent, internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud and doubting accomplishments.

 In a 1978 study which named the phenomenon, psychologists found that despite having adequate external evidence of accomplishments, participants with Imposter Syndrome were still convinced that they didn’t deserve the success they had. They will dismiss their success as good luck, timing, someone else falsely believing in them.

Common Feelings

Valerie Young outlines some common feelings in her book. These include:

  • Perfectionism Sets extremely high expectations for themselves and even if they meet almost all of their goals they feel like failures. Any small mistake makes them question their competence.

  • Experts Feels like they need to know everything they could possibly know about a project or skill before they can start doing it. Often they look for ways to continue learning about the skill or project (like certifications, training, or books) to the point that they research their entire lives without ever trying it. They feel like they must meet every single qualification for a job description before they can apply for it and they shouldn’t bother applying if they don’t have all of them.

  • Struggle The “natural genius” has to struggle, work hard, or feel discomfort to accomplish something and it makes them think they are not good enough. They use it as proof that they are an imposter.

  • Superhuman They push themselves to work harder than anyone around them to prove that they’re not imposters. They need to succeed on a high level in every aspect of life (work, family, relationships, at the gym) and feel stressed when they are not accomplished on a high level.

I relate to all of these strongly, especially the first one. Once someone outlined these for me, it was so clear what I was experiencing. But I had no idea I was reacting in this way until someone else showed me. Sometimes you need a human mirror.

The feeling of being an imposter has led me to fear failure so badly that I often won’t even try to accomplish my goals, dreams, and ideas. All despite my yearning for them constantly and the jealousy I felt toward those accomplishing my dreams and displaying it on social media.

For months I was too afraid to pitch someone (anyone) via email. A client I’d never land if I didn’t try (easier said than done…). I made a list of 200 potential clients I wanted to pitch, and it sat with an excel spreadsheet on my desktop for 6 months staring me in my fearful face every time I minimized a window. I only ever exited it when I had to send my computer out to get fixed.

Yesterday, I pitched 5 potential clients from that list for the first time. I’m sure I messed it up in some way. I might not get them, or maybe I will! But the point is that I tried and I’ll learn from it and that’s all I can really do. I made more progress in my business in that one hour than I did for the three months that I left Excel running in the background of my computer.

Is Imposter Syndrome really just a lack of confidence?

Imposter Syndrome is noted as a reaction to circumstances or situations. Perfectionism, comparison, fear of failure, and self-sabotage are widely known as the main fuel for the syndrome fire. It is believed that Imposter Syndrome is a self-perpetuating cycle.

Those feeling the effects of Imposter Syndrome may experience debilitating stress, anxiety, low self-confidence, shame, and even depression.

No one knows why so many of us feel Imposter Syndrome. Some psychologists believe that Imposter Syndrome stems from anxiety or neuroticism others wonder if it stems from family, institutionalized discrimination, teachers, or some other part of their upbringing. Some psychologists will ask, “Was there someone in your life whose opinion you felt was important that you felt you could never do well enough for?” Some examples

  • your grades were never good enough

  • your tuning or rhythm was never quite right

  • your writing was always heavily critiqued

  • your sibling outshone you.

Remember, these are feelings. They may not be true and they don’t have to be for you to feel like an imposter.

The root of this Imposter: comparison and perfectionism

The root of my Imposter Syndrome usually lies in comparison (or blaming of circumstance in a sense). Sure, perfectionism and fear of failure are HUGE players too. But would I feel like an imposter if I wasn’t on social media seeing everyone else accomplishing what they are? Comparing myself and letting jealousy seep in?

Furthermore… why am I comparing myself to these incredible people in my community? Some of whom have done the triple crown or achieved some other goal of mine. Women (and any other person sharing their lives on insta and youtube) who are incredible writers, content creators, role models. People who were where I am now at some point in their lives. No one starts as an expert and certainly no one is perfect.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” – Teddy Roosevelt

I wanted to be an expert before I had experience. I wanted to learn everything I could about pitching and writing before my first pitch, without practicing. I read six (yes 6) books about pitching before writing (just writing, not sending) my first pitch because I didn’t feel competent enough to even try.

Wouldn’t it be better, I asked myself as many real-life humans echoed the thought, to at least try and receive a no than not try at all and never move past where you are now (not making enough money and feeling like you’re not experienced enough while giving yourself no chance of gaining more experience)?

Advice from an Imposter

Okay, I’m never calling myself an imposter again!! My advice is to adjust your thinking. It’s hard, uncomfortable, and it’s going to take a lot of mental effort. You have to want it. Heck, I haven’t even accomplished any of this yet. But these are the things that I’m working on. Also, keep this quote in mind:

 “People who don’t feel like impostors are no more intelligent or competent or capable than the rest of us,” Valerie Young says. “It’s good news, because it means we just have to learn to think like non-impostors.”

It is possible to not feel like an imposter forever, but it will take time and effort.

Try these exercises

I’m not a licensed professional. I’m not your therapist. This is not professional advice. These are simply a few things that have helped me recently.

  • Reframe Observe the feelings of Imposter Syndrome and put them in perspective. Try not to engage the thought. Ask, “Does this thought help or hinder me?” “Is this thought true?” “Is there a way to get around it?” Often the easiest way to get over feelings of being an imposter is by taking action. I know, that’s SO SCARY but it truly is the best way that I’ve found. Don’t get me wrong, 80% of the time I’m too afraid to do this. But when I do, I feel phenomenal and competent and I hope to get that down to 30%. If you’re not ready for this, try one of the exercises below. They’re a softer introduction to overcoming your thoughts.

  • Give yourself credit: Write down a list of things you’re good at, things you’ve accomplished, things that make you unique, things that you love to do, things that argue your feelings of being an imposter. Don’t feel like you have to be the best to write something down! If you can’t think of anything, ask someone you know! My roommate made me feel so seen and valid when I asked her, and she told me things I never would’ve given myself credit for.

  • Talk to yourself: I know this sounds awkward and uncomfortable and silly. Trust me, though, it works. Just try it. Tell yourself the things you want to hear. Look yourself in the eye. Say them with confidence. Here are some of my favorites.

                     > “You can do anything you put your mind to, get out of your head and just do it.”

                     >  “You are capable.”

                    >   “You are not an imposter.”

                   >    “You are a ______” [rock climber] [good freelance writer] [musician] <- whatever you’re feeling like an imposter in.

  • Talk to someone else: Talking to a coach, therapist, peers who are experiencing the same thing, and even my friends who are not has helped immensely. It also helped me learn that people in other industries (aside from music and freelance writing) experience this too. I’ve met computer programmers, photographers, and even corporate businesspeople who struggle with this! For me, knowing that I’m not alone and that it is possible to overcome these feelings.

 

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Written by Rachel Meltzer
Freelance Writer | Host of “The Guidebook” Podcast