Maybe Your Imposter Syndrome is Right

“Your bladder is lying to you!” I hiss to myself, between iron-clamped teeth. “You do not need to pee again.”

And yet, I’m gonna go and try to squeeze out another drop anyway because what if it’s not lying, and I pee myself right there on the stage?

It is not that kind of show.

I’m about to go onstage and perform the trapeze routine I’ve created to Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night, tiny goblins are having a rave with whisky sours in my stomach, and I fear I may vomit, which is a nice addition to the worry that I may pee my pants.

And yet, I welcome all these annoying bodily sensations because I know if they weren’t there, something would be wrong. I’d have stopped caring.

I like my nerves. I hate them and like them. Because it means I care, and it means I’m constantly trying to learn more, and become more skilled, and question myself. It means I’m not blundering through the world assuming I know best and leaving devastation in my wake.

Self-doubt is my friend, when it’s at sensible levels.

For all the reasons I’ve just mentioned and sometimes because those feelings are telling me I don’t know enough yet to write that particular book or teach that particular subject or create that particular course.

Listening to Our Fears

If my Imposter Syndrome rears its bowler-hatted head when I’m thinking about teaching a poetry class or creating a course on how to juggle or writing a book about the mechanics of helicopters, I should listen to it: I do not know enough about those topics to charge people money to teach it to them.

We’ve been sold an idea that to be an expert in our fields, we must be unassailable. Untouchable in our ivory towers. Perfect in our supreme knowledge and confident that we are right.

But these goals, to be seen this way and to be this way, are unrealistic and unhelpful. So imposter syndrome pops up and derails us.

Imposter Syndrome, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “is commonly understood as a false and sometimes crippling belief that one’s successes are the product of luck or fraud rather than skill.” The term was first coined in the 1970s by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes... but, like many other clinical terms, it’s thrown around and misused a lot.

I know I use it sometimes when the term self-doubt would do perfectly well instead.

According to research published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, 70% of the population feels like a fraud. It affects all genders and all occupations. And it doesn’t seem to go away, no matter how many qualifications we get and evidence to the contrary we find.

Which got me thinking: if it’s that universal—if 70% of the population suffer from this—maybe it isn’t a “syndrome” at all. Maybe it’s just a human trait. Like brown eyes. Or an aversion to eating things that taste awful.

In all the millennia of human evolution, imposter syndrome has never left us—which suggests it performs some kind of useful function, or at least doesn’t harm us.

So I decided, instead of fighting my feelings of self-doubt, I’d embrace them—and use my imposter syndrome as a tool to figure out what it’s trying to tell me. Do I need to learn more, become more skilled, before I publish this book? In which case, I’ll do more work before I hit “send”.

Or is it just my overprotective and ridiculously anxious brain trying to protect me from possible failure and ridicule? In which case I can safely ignore it because failure and ridicule aren’t sabre-tooth bears; they won’t eat my face.

Asking Uncomfortable Questions

The question I ask myself all the time is: what if your imposter syndrome is right? Maybe I don’t know enough to write that book or publish that course. Maybe I am—if not an outright fraud—at least perhaps a little overconfident. Maybe I am very excited about this idea and am trying to ski-jump before I can crawl, and it’s not that I’m deliberately trying to mislead people, but I just need to learn a little more before I put my stuff out there.

Maybe, before I write that book on juggling, I should learn how to juggle more than three balls at a time.

I’ve read books and taken courses and listened to talks before by people who probably should have listened to their imposter syndrome and waited a while before airing their ideas in public. Maybe you have, too.

I definitely don’t want to be the one at the front of the room talking shit about something she doesn’t know enough about... but I also don’t want that fear to stop me moving forward.

Maybe your imposter syndrome is right; maybe it’s simply trying to protect you.

Either way, don’t let it stop you doing your thing. Use these feelings and figure it out: learn what you need to know and develop the skills you need before you write the book or do the course. Or accept that you do, in fact, know enough and face your fear and do the thing.

Don’t let your self-doubt—your “imposter syndrome”—stop you.

You can start writing your book before you’re ready because the act of writing the book, the process itself, will teach you a lot about yourself and your subject.

I didn’t know everything about writing a book when I wrote my book—not even close. Still don’t. But I knew enough to write a good book that people love and find valuable. I filled in the gaps in my knowledge and skillset as I wrote it—and my next book will be more valuable, different, and will push me to learn new things again.

And the more I learn, the more skilled I get, the more my bladder will continue to lie to me and the goblins will continue to make me want to puke. And I will continue to care deeply.

Because that’s how humans roll.

Notes in the Margin

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About the Author Vicky Fraser