Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome. It’s defined (according to wikipedia, which in this case is on target) as:

Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome) is a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes referring to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

Now, I’ve felt like an imposter forever. It started in my PhD program and has only increased over time. The imposter in me says–high-achieving? Really? Am not. Not even close. And yet, I have a BA, an MA, and a PhD. I’ve published 15 books. I’ve been married 26 years, had a couple pretty awesome children, and have owned several houses, and published stories and articles, and won awards. By most reasonable definitions, that’s fairly high achievement (I, obviously, am unreasonable).

I have never overcome the syndrome. It seems to run rampant in the writing community. Maybe creative types are extra-susceptible to it. Who knows? But the reason I’m talking about it again, is because of this article that popped up on my radar the other day. It was published on an entrepreneurial website and was titled: Imposter Syndrome Will Kill Your Business. It describes the syndrome and then, for the first time I’ve ever seen written about (and no, I haven’t really done a lot of searching on the subject), it offers solutions.

I found two particularly compelling. The first: write down achievements. You know them. Write them down. Come up with categories–writing, life, business, exercise . . . Whatever categories make best sense to you. And then ruthlessly write down your accomplishments. If it helps, imagine that you’re writing somebody else’s. Don’t skimp. Be thorough. Be tough on yourself and make yourself write them ALL. If your forget some, go back and add them. I suggest putting them somewhere where you can read them regularly. In fact, read them several times a day, every day, and take time to acknowledge that these are big deals. BIG DEALS. You did amazing things.

The second suggestion: keep a file of complimentary . . . well, everything. Emails, written notes, telephone conversations, award nominations . . . All of it. Get in the habit of writing down the compliments that are verbal. Make a point of it. And then read them over, particularly when you’re feeling particularly imposterish. Remind yourself that this isn’t just an ego thing–other people admire and respect you. It’s important.

Go do both of these things now.

Writers often keep a brag shelf of books/stories/articles they’ve published. It helps us remember that we are pretty good at this job. I never look at mine. Never think about just sitting there and paying attention to it. I should. I should spend a few minutes every day just considering the amount of work I’ve done, the hurdles I’ve jumped, and how much I’ve really done.

I’m going to do these things. I’m going to make a priority of them.

What about you?

(Originally Published on Magical Words, 2016)


About Diana Pharaoh Francis

A recovering academic, Diana Pharaoh Francis writes books of a fantastical, adventurous, and often romantic nature. She's owned by two corgis, spends much of her time herding children, and likes rocks, geocaching, knotting up yarn, and has a thing for 1800s England, especially the Victorians. Check out samples of just about everything on her website:


Imposter Syndrome — 12 Comments

  1. Thank You! This is for all the high school students that are shunned because they are too smart. This is for all the children of control freak families who control you by making you feel inferior, unworthy, stupid, etc. This is for the victims of critique partners who can only make their own work look good by making yours look worse.

    When I’m at cons or high school reunions I tend to hang out with the smart people. They make me feel stupid in comparison. Gradually I have learned that they too are suffering from the same syndrom and dominating the conversation to make themselves feel better. I have to poke my nose into the conversation and make a statement every now an again so I’m not forgotten. These people may be smarter than me, have greater experience in the world, louder mouths than me, but I have double the publishing credits and that is an accomplishment to be proud of.

  2. See Saturday’s post–I think there is a very strong correlation. (Judging by how many women I know struggle with imposter syndrome, and how few men.)

      • I read that. I’m contemplating a post that deals more directly with that in relation to my life. Need to think deep thoughts first, though. What’s interesting is that I see the PTSD from childhood in my husband. Not from physical stuff, but from emotional. All “acceptable” in those days, but nothing I’d want to put my kids through. Right now, I’m raising a daughter and trying to let her have her voice and not curtail her in the traditional ways, but at the same time, teach her civility, kindness, generosity, and how not to be a bully. The greatest focus for me is to teach her to stand her ground with steady confidence and to value herself and believe in herself.

  3. Sexism is a component of this, no mistake. I’ve become obsessed with the importance of understanding that humans are embodied — that is, our learning is with our whole body, not just our brain. Much of the learning we do with our body is unconscious or subconscious, and since our culture doesn’t take it seriously (except possibly in competitive athletics), we don’t talk about it or even understand that we’ve incorporated learning into ourselves. Women are taught physical limitation of their bodies from infancy, often not intentionally, but just because it’s inherent in the culture of how to be a girl. I think those physical limitations affect us and that imposter syndrome is one of the results.

    Which is to say: I’d argue that finding some kind of satisfying physical activity might help, too, because when you change the way you move, you change your mind and self. Of course, when you start a new physical activity, you’re going to be awkward and clumsy and do everything wrong, so it needs to be something you like to do enough to get past that stage. And then you need to recognize that you’re getting good at it, so you don’t fall into imposter syndrome there, too!

    • Here, here about the physical activity. Strengthening the body core=improved posture=an aura of confidence. For me it will always be dancing, but fencing came a close second. Martial arts. Walking, biking. Whatever feels good in body and mind.

  4. The most important thing I discovered is that -everybody- feels this way. Everybody feels like they are improvising. Everybody was in the ‘out’ group in high school. There was no in group! All that time, in junior high school, everyone was full of angst and insecurity and felt like a stranger in a strange land!
    So welcome to the crowd!

  5. I didn’t know there was an actual, named pathology that went with this disorder. I’ve just always called it “Pretender Syndrome”. It rears its ugly head whenever I’m in a bookstore and about four days before every book-related convention I attend. I want to cancel our plans and stay home and hide. Sometimes it lasts into the convention itself to the point that after every one I tell myself, “This is the last one. No more conventions.”

    Sometimes I articulate it out loud and my husband reminds me to look at my “brag shelf” and remember that I can actually put “New York Times Bestselling Author” in front of my byline. (Well, except that I cheated and wrote a Star Wars novel with Michael Reaves, who has an Emmy, for-god-sake.)

    And so it goes.

    Thanks for writing this, Diana. It reminded me of something I read early in my career as a writer. I think Lawrence Block is the source. He said that we should paper our walls with reject slips to remind us that we have accomplished three things: we have written, we have finished writing, and we sent the result to an agent or editor. And, he added, we should celebrate every sale, every publication, every award nomination because if we do not celebrate our successes, they will not feel like successes and we may well come to believe we’ve done nothing.

    I bought a silver bracelet when THE MERI debuted in 1992, with the title on the up side and the ISBN number on the underside. I admit, I have not been very good at following Block’s advice since. I tend, now, to downplay my publications except on social media, and some people I’ve known for years don’t know I’m a published author.

  6. Ray Bradbury was at the 1968 Worldcon in Berkeley. He was out on a balcony and folks started congregating around him in concentric circles. He sat down and told us some stories, including the one about papering his bathroom wall with rejection slips.

    I kinda wanted to ask him about another story I’d heard about his published work but I was afraid of finding out it might be apocryphal, and I like it too much to want to know if it was apocryphal.

    The story was that he had sent a story to REDBOOK, a slick magazine that published a couple of short stories in each issue. It paid wildly well — a couple thousand dollars at a time when a couple thousand dollars would allow you to live frugally for six months or so. (My graduate student stipend in 1970 was $3500, for example.)

    Here’s what he (possibly apocryphally) heard back: “Dear Mr. Bradbury, Your story doesn’t fit our fiction guidelines. Therefore, we’re changing our fiction guidelines so we can publish your story.”