By Lisa de Caux
The Manchester CIEP local group meets every three months, and chooses a discussion topic in advance. ‘How to deal with self-doubt, lack of confidence and imposter syndrome’ was a very popular topic with those who attended the January 2020 meeting.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines imposter syndrome as ‘The persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills’. Meanwhile, googling ‘imposter syndrome’ brings up more than three million search results. And a quick survey of the CIEP’s forums reveals that it’s a problem familiar to many editors.
I posted on LinkedIn ahead of the meeting to elicit thoughts on #ImposterSyndrome. I had a fantastic response, and people were so willing to share their experiences, just as they were later in person. We had a lively and engaged meeting – we all had stories to share, from the newbies among us to more experienced members.
This post covers what came out of that meeting, focusing on imposter syndrome and editorial professionals. I’ve included a list of helpful resources at the end.
What is imposter syndrome?
I’ve shared the dictionary definition, but let’s talk about it in a less formal way. It’s the feeling that ‘I’m not good/qualified enough’. It’s about self-doubt and lack of confidence. We set ourselves exacting standards as we work on clients’ projects, and this tends to carry through into the standards we set for ourselves and our businesses. You don’t want to feel as though you haven’t met your own expectations.
Most of the people at our meeting were freelancers, so we concentrated on this area. As a freelancer, especially working from home on your own, you can experience feelings of isolation. While one of the benefits of being a freelancer is a lack of structure, which allows self-direction and taking control of your business, the flip side of this is there is no one to automatically check in with you. When you’re an employee, you have appraisals and regular meetings with your manager to provide validation, and you have conversations with colleagues about questions and minor hiccups while making a cup of tea. As a freelancer, there is no built-in interaction with people – you must build it yourself. It’s one of the reasons the CIEP’s forums are so popular – they provide a chance to talk to others who understand where you are coming from.
The CIEP has a newbies forum, where I posted about imposter syndrome after our meeting. It struck a chord with a lot of members. While imposter syndrome may be more common for newbies, it can come back in waves for more experienced professionals. As we moved through our meeting, we talked about how imposter syndrome might be triggered by changing your business’s direction (for example, moving from non-fiction to fiction) or by taking the next step professionally (for example, upgrading to a higher level of CIEP membership). Instead of taking pride in your achievement, you may feel anxiety in case people think that standards must have dropped for you to have succeeded. When something new and unexpected happens, you may feel that you *should* have known. Then imposter syndrome builds up and you discount your experience.
Whether you’re a newbie or an experienced editor, imposter syndrome reflects the level of stretch you’re going through and how far out of your comfort zone you are. We all agreed that it’s particularly important to acknowledge this feeling if it starts to take over more of your thoughts. It can impact your mental health, and then you need to take action. We talked about the practical impact of imposter syndrome too – for example, the knock-on effect on the way you quote for work. Imposter syndrome can encourage you to be apologetic about raising rates, especially for existing clients. Whether you’re thinking about your mental health or the practical impact, a strategy to cope with imposter syndrome needs to be found.
Overcoming imposter syndrome
The group suggested lots of ideas. Some come from external support (for instance, talking to people) and some are internal support mechanisms (like creating a win jar). What suits one person won’t necessarily suit another. Call it what you will – this is an individual demon/monster/battle to face.
We recognised that, as a newbie, you have less experience and less chance of positive feedback to turn to. At this stage, talking to people is so important. Then, as you complete more projects, you will, hopefully, receive good feedback. An even better weapon against imposter syndrome is repeat work. It’s a real vote of confidence in your service. Although experience brings great benefits, we spent a lot of time talking about coping strategies that are useful to all.
You can record positive feedback in a notebook, a ‘sunshine file’ or a ‘win jar’. You could have a gratitude journal. It’s so useful to have tools that you can constantly keep updated. A ‘win jar’ is a jar you keep on your desk, where you leave positive feedback (for instance, a complimentary email). If you feel like you need it, reach in and pull out a win to read. A sunshine file is a similar concept. Since our meeting, I’ve created a Word document where I save screen shots of positive feedback.
Another way to cope is to understand the value that you provide – not everyone can do what you do. How do you track improvements over time? What experience and training do you have? When you’ve found a typo or factual error, what impact would it have had on the document if you hadn’t found it? Keep track of these achievements!
At the meeting, we were keen to embrace talking to friends and colleagues – CIEP local groups and forums really come into their own here. Attending face-to-face courses or professional development days can provide reassurance about what you do know.
Finally, our conversation moved gently into the positive side of self-doubt. A little (in moderation) will keep you learning and trying harder. It will improve your business. It may lead to a particular type of training. I was surprised to discover that a long course (like the PTC proofreading course) is not completed by everyone who signs up for it. Completing training acts as a confidence boost!
There’s such a lot to think about – at the end of the discussion, we were all ready for our mid-meeting comfort break.
You are not alone
I’ve focused on the editorial profession, but imposter syndrome does not have industry boundaries and it does not respect your level of experience. I recently caught up with a friend who’s an oncology consultant. I explained about writing this blog and asked if she’d come across imposter syndrome. She smiled in recognition – yes, she often feels it and often talks about it with her medical colleagues.
Every conversation gives me the clear message: you are not alone.
A lot of us are going through it, including the people you assume are absolutely fine. You can find a coping strategy that suits you. My own battle with imposter syndrome will continue, I’m sure. If you’re battling too, I wish you the very best!
Helpful articles and blogs
Mental Health Today: Imposter syndrome
Northern Editorial: Time to kill the monster
KT Editing: Imposter syndrome and editing
The Avid Doer: Imposter syndrome: Intuition in disguise?
Harvard Business Review: Overcoming imposter syndrome
Louise Harnby: I’m a newbie proofreader – should I charge a lower fee?
Lisa de Caux is a CIEP Intermediate Member and coordinator of the Manchester CIEP local group. She specialises in editing and proofreading for business. Lisa is a career changer, and spent many years as a chartered accountant before becoming a proofreader.
Face-to-face interaction with peers can help with imposter syndrome and provide a great boost to confidence and motivation. A recent blog post covered upcoming in-person CPD, and the CIEP’s local groups meet regularly. (And don’t forget that booking for the first CIEP conference opens later this month!)
Proofread by Joanne Heath, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.
Hi Lisa, this article has been incredibly enlightening to me and I’m so glad I found it.
I recently moved over to the UK from South Africa and have been struggling enormously with ‘starting over’ in a new country. I have been a copyeditor and proofreader since 2015 and have always loved being in the industry, loved my regular clients and the work I’ve done for them. Everything in this article resonated with me and I can’t thank you enough for writing it and sharing it. So helpful, and now I know I can actively get my ‘mojo’ back, knowing that it’s not me, it’s ‘imposter syndrome’.
Thank you for a wonderful blog on ‘Imposter Syndrome’. I immediately felt better and more confident after reading it. I am an intermediate member proofreader, completed the PTC proofreading course (which was much tougher than I imagined!) and have some happy clients. However, my severe case of imposter syndrome took hold after I had been through a big operation and subsequent recovery period. I found my ‘mojo’ had completely disappeared but with the help of your blog and the two networking groups I am attached to I am slowly believing in myself again. Thank you.