All writers experience moments of self-doubt at some point in their careers. The very activities of writing, proofreading and rewriting facilitate reflection and can induce overthinking, even just as a form of perfectionism.
If you’ve ever found yourself, however, questioning the adequacy of your writing skills despite evidence to the contrary, or telling yourself you do not deserve your career achievements, you might be suffering from impostor syndrome.
First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s, the “impostor phenomenon” or “impostor syndrome” happens when individuals doubt their achievements and ability, and fear that they might be a fraud. The study originally showed the effects of the phenomenon on women. Later reports, however, found that impostor syndrome affects men, too.
The number of people experiencing impostor syndrome varies widely. A 2020 review found that figures go from nine percent to 82% of study participants, being particularly high among ethnic minority groups and often comorbid with depression and anxiety.
We asked a few writers to share their advice on how to cope with impostor syndrome. Here’s what they said:
Get out of your own head
Whenever you start feeling like you are not enough, “get out of your head and be kinder to yourself,” said Ruby Deevoy. A health and wellbeing journalist, she is a CBD columnist for Top Sante magazine and the founder of thecbdconsultancy.com.
She finds affirmations in the shower or during exercise to work quite well. “If I’m feeling unworthy, I’ll reach right to the other end of the scale and say (over and over again) something like ‘I am powerful, I am amazing, I am recognized and appreciated for my exceptional contribution to the world’.”
Anna McAree, a journalism student from Northern Ireland, agrees. “My advice would be to believe in yourself and the feedback you get from others,” she said. “If people tell you that you are doing good or producing good work then believe them!”
Stop comparing yourself to others
Being a freelance journalist can be especially overwhelming when it comes to impostor syndrome. In fact, regular pitching often consists of not hearing back from a lot of editors and getting your ideas rejected. In addition, working independently means not receiving a lot of feedback, which would be reassuring when we’re lacking confidence.
“Focus on yourself,” said Adam England, a freelance journalist who has worked with several publications, including The Guardian, The Independent, Metro and Euronews.
Coming from a working class background, he said: "Coming from a working class background, England felt slightly uncomfortable entering journalism, due to the industry being disproportionately represented by people from privileged backgrounds."
His advice is, therefore, not to “compare yourself to your peers or any established journos that you really admire — concentrate on your own journey.”
Everybody's path into journalism is different, be it in terms of age, success, specialties or anything else.
You don’t have to be perfect
As journalists Emma Wilkinson and Lily Canter explain in their podcast, Freelancing for Journalists, impostor syndrome can also kick in when journalists cover topics they don’t feel knowledgeable about.
It’s important to remember, however, that reporters are not required to be experts or be perfect, but to make knowledge accessible to their audience. For expertise, we can always rely on industry specialists.
Get a mentor
As Wilkinson and Canter suggest in the podcast, a mentor’s assistance can be of great value for aspiring and budding journalists.
When starting out, they say, an experienced and trusted adviser can not only give you a boost of confidence but also help improve your work with constructive feedback. On top of that, a mentor can be a great source to get contacts and, most of all, understand how the media industry works.
Shift the perspective
As feelings of self-doubt and insecurities take over, it’s also important to acknowledge the wider context journalists are working in.
Tomiwa Folorunso, a Brussels-based writer and editor from Edinburgh, said: “When we talk about impostor syndrome within women, underrepresented groups, or marginalized communities in particular, we're talking about something that I have and that I am in control of.”
However, by focusing on what the individual can do, “we are not acknowledging that a lot of us are operating, working and living within systems — organizations, companies and society — that don't actually want us to succeed.”
“These were designed for white cis heterosexual men to succeed. So we almost need to change our language when we talk about impostor syndrome,” Folorunso added. “Why is the onus on us to work harder and not on making spaces more accommodating to our needs?”
Remove yourself from toxic workplaces
Systemic barriers are not the only obstacles employees have to face. Toxic working environments, in fact, can significantly affect one’s mental health.
“Go to or look for the places where your voice and what you have to say is appreciated and cared for because they do exist,” said Tomiwa. “There are editors out there, editors and publications who do want to nurture you, they look after you, are supportive and not toxic.”
Be it due to societal pressure or our own insecurities, impostor syndrome can feel like an insurmountable wall. Where possible, try to keep pushing against your self-doubt and you’ll achieve great things.
Deevoy, for example, initially felt like she was making up things for a quantum biology article of hers. After pushing through, however, it was published and it has even recently been picked up by a quantum biology organization that is now talking about funding a study to explore her theory. Who knows where self confidence could lead you?
Iris Pase is a freelance journalist based in Glasgow.