Impostor Syndrome: The unwelcome guest at the party

Impostor Syndrome: The unwelcome guest at the party

February 8, 2022 By Erin Roll Resources

Tell me if any of these thoughts sound familiar to you:

Do any of those thoughts go through your head on a semi-regular basis? Then you are most certainly not alone. 

I speak of the I-word: impostor syndrome. Or as I like to jokingly call it when I’m talking to my editing friends, “our esteemed mutual friend.” Because a lot of us in the business seem to be all too acquainted with impostor syndrome. 

What is impostor syndrome, exactly? And is it spelled with an e or an o? (For the record, Merriam-Webster has O on first reference, but E is an acceptable variant, FYI.)  

The exact definition tends to vary among sources, but the main focus of impostor syndrome is someone feeling like they don’t belong in their chosen field of work or study; that they’re not good enough. 

It seems to me that the more skills and talent you have, and the more capable you are at your job, the more likely you are to feel like you’re less than capable. 

It can be argued that a little self-doubt is good for you, in that it keeps you on your toes. But when it takes over most of your thought processes, then it can be a problem. 

To me, as a freelance editor, impostor syndrome mostly involves feeling like you somehow weaseled your way into the editing business, never mind your impressive skills and credentials. It’s feeling like you landed some really good assignments purely as a fluke, and not because the project managers were impressed by your skills. 

In other words, you’re just waiting for someone to look at you and blurt out, “Wait a minute, you’re not a real editor/writer/proofreader/freelancer! What are you doing here? Get out of here!” Or to put it another way, you feel like you’ve slipped into the party with a mask on, and you’re waiting for someone to storm over, rip off your mask, and give you the old heave-ho.

I’m new to the world of freelance book editing, having made the jump into the business from journalism. And believe me, that nagging little voice of doom inside my head gets really loud most of the time. Even now as I write this, my first contribution for the ACES blogs, I’ve got that nagging voice in my head saying, “What are you doing? You don’t have anything constructive to add to this discussion.”

That being said, I’ve learned that, in speaking to friends and colleagues, the nagging little voice of doom whispers loudly in the ears of editors with decades of experience as well. 

A few months ago, I went to an informal editors’ get-together over Zoom: a friendly monthly chat where we all get together and talk about work, life, and other stuff. At one point, and I don’t quite remember how the topic came up, the question came around of how many people deal with impostor syndrome. Virtually every hand on the call went up: about thirty people in total. 

On one hand, I was relieved to see that I’m not the only one who has to deal with all of those feelings of self-doubt. But on the other hand, it got me wondering: Here is a room full of people who are all skilled with words in their own way. Some of them have years of experience and some really impressive projects in their portfolio. And yet virtually all of us have to deal with feelings of self-doubt. Why could that be?

It goes well beyond the editing world: I’ve seen it even in people I’ve interviewed, or famous actors or musicians whose work I really like. 

Many editors, particularly those of us who do freelance work, tend to work in teams of one during the average workday. That means we have a lot of time alone with our thoughts. This can be both a blessing and a curse: We’re able to take time to think things over, without people coming in to distract us, but it’s easy for insecurity and self-doubt to slip in uninvited and take over your train of thought. 

For some of us, impostor syndrome may be related to social anxiety and performance anxiety. However, for many people, impostor syndrome is a very real effect of working with people who don’t value your work, treat you fairly, or otherwise make you feel like you don’t belong, for whatever reason. (And this leads into the larger conversation on equity and ethics in the workplace and the editing world, which is a topic for a column—or many columns—of its own.) 

So what can you do about impostor syndrome?

At the very least, you can try to do what you can to care for yourself. It certainly helps if you’re able to talk to other people about it, whether it’s a trusted friend or a colleague, or a therapist if you are able to do so. Seek out professional organizations like ACES and the EFA; the message boards are a good place for members to talk about assorted stresses and challenges facing them, and both groups hold monthly Twitter chats about different topics useful to editors.

One very good piece of advice I’ve gotten is to keep a “fret journal” on hand: somewhere where you can write down all your feelings of self-doubt or other negative feelings. And for each thought, you write down some kind of rebuttal. “Is that true?” “Here’s why that is false.” Somehow seeing your worries written down on paper takes the sting out of them a little bit, I’ve found. 

Whoever you are, wherever you are in your editing career, or whatever kind of editing you do, always remember that you are important, that you can do good work, and that there are people out there who recognize you do good work. 

And remember, you’re welcome at the party, but impostor syndrome should not be on the guest list

Header photo by Catherine Heath on Unsplash. 

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