Who do you think you are?

Part of my Summer Writing Reset has involved blog clean-up and sorting through posts for topics that I need to revisit. The following is updated from 2012. Also see my post on this topic at Psychology Today. Header photo credit: Ned Potter via CC BY 2.0

Who do you think you are? It seems a simple question, but what if we add some emphasis and a couple of words at the beginning and end: Just who do you think you are, anyway?

“Just this morning I could feel that old ‘imposter syndrome’ lurking. There are so many brilliant people … doing such wonderful things that at times I feel totally overwhelmed by my lack of ability to contribute and feelings that what I can do is not good enough and will never measure up.” ~ Sue Luus

Having had the delight of meeting and spending some time with Sue, I am (but should not be) surprised at her self-doubts. Such fears cannot be glimpsed from the outside. In fact, my experience has been that often the very people who seem to others to be the most self-confident struggle mightily with fears of not measuring up and having “fooled” everyone. When they do admit to their inner demons, friends and co-workers might react with disbelief or even thinly concealed joy that “even she has problems, too.”

What is the Impostor Syndrome? According to Dr. Lee Anne Bell, those experiencing Impostor Syndrome “doubt their competence, downplay or dismiss their abilities, and subscribe to the disabling belief that they are impostors or fakes or frauds” (Lee Anne Bell, “The Gifted Woman as Impostor,” Advanced Development Journal 2, Jan., 1990, p. 55-64).

Here are some further readings for anyone who wants to learn more:

It’s easy to see what is bad about the Impostor Syndrome. At its most tragic, it can lead to unmitigated despair, even suicide. But is there another aspect to this common problem that might be more positive or even offer potential for growth?

In her article “The Gifted Woman as Impostor,” Bell suggests that the Impostor Syndrome may serve as a “critique and alternative vision” of traditional views of solitary success. She writes, “I now see a very positive impulse that underlies women’s discomfort with achievement.” Rather than a call to tattoo our awesomeness on our foreheads for all the world to see, our discomfort might be a nudge to redefine “the meanings of competence, success, and failure as terms that are embedded in connection and mutual support” (p. 63). In other words, the Impostor Syndrome is a symptom telling us that something needs to change. We can ask ourselves not just who we think we are, but who we want to be. Not just whether we want to succeed, but how we want to succeed in a way that is authentic, that has integrity, and that we can live with comfortably.

In a Forbes article from earlier this year, “The Upside of the Impostor Syndrome: Lessons from Women in Tech,” Tara-Nicholle Nelson writes of how feeling like an impostor may be a sign that we are finally aiming high enough, a growing pain that we can embrace rather than resist:

“Know that it’s coming, anticipate it, feel it – even lean into it and sit with it for awhile, instead of fighting it –  it will go away faster that way. But approach your new frontier with a clear plan of action, and then absolutely refuse to be moved, deterred, slowed down or stopped by any Imposter Syndrome symptoms that come.

In fact, do the opposite – build a note into your roadmap that reminds you that Imposter Syndrome symptoms are a signpost that you’re moving in the right direction: into a new, expansive realm of possibility.”

My own experience is informed by all of these views. I definitely can benefit from viewing myself and my work with more objectivity and compassion and placing less emphasis on others’ reactions and opinions (perceived or real). At the same time, I know that I feel the Impostor Syndrome when I engage in social media and other self-promotion strategies that leave me feeling unauthentic. Do I plow ahead anyway in an attempt to crush those self-doubts once and forever? Or do I use the discomfort as a guide to change my approach, to play by my own rules that allow me to feel more “me” and less “not me”? It’s a continual work in progress.

  • What is your experience with feeling an impostor?
  • How do you keep from being paralyzed by self-doubts?
  • Is the Impostor Syndrome ever a sign that you are on the right track or a call for personal change?

This post is part of the Summer Writing Reset blog series, with daily posts Monday through Friday. Subscribe to receive full-length new posts in your inbox or catch them on my Facebook page.

College Students, Depression, and Social Media

“[T]he world I believe in is one where embracing your light doesn’t mean ignoring your dark. The world I believe in is one where we’re measured by our ability to overcome adversities, not avoid them. The world I believe in is one where I can look someone in the eye and say, ‘I’m going through hell,’ and they can look back at me and go, ‘Me too,’ and that’s okay.” ~ Kevin Breel

iStock_000055360022SmallMy post this week at Psychology Today, “Facebook 101: Smart Social Media for College Students,” addresses what role, if any, social media may play in depression among college students and, more important, what we can do about it. I began to think about the topic after reading Alan Schwarz’s New York Times piece “More College Freshmen Report Having Felt Depressed,” especially these paragraphs:

“Suzanne Ciechalski, a freshman at St. John’s University in Queens, said technology that might appear social in nature could in fact lead to stress and feelings of depression.

‘I feel like people spend a lot of time on social networks trying to create this picture of who they want to be,’ Ms. Ciechalski said. ‘Maintaining that takes a lot of effort. I feel like being a teenager or young adult, the pressure to try and make people see you’re the best is really high.'”

I see this pressure and anxiety every week in the college students I teach and am reminded of the poignant and powerful TED Talk by then 19-year-old Kevin Breel, which I have shared here before but is worth sharing again (and again):

“Would you rather make your next Facebook status say you’re having a tough time getting out of bed because you hurt your back or you’re having a tough time getting out of bed every morning because you’re depressed? That’s the stigma, because unfortunately, we live in a world where if you break your arm, everyone runs over to sign your cast, but if you tell people you’re depressed, everyone runs the other way.” ~ Kevin Breel

You can follow Kevin Breel on Twitter and Facebook.

read my blog on psychology today

Writers, the Internet, and Information Overload

Information Bias, or TMI (Too Much Information)

I wish I could say that the following screenshot of my own laptop is an anomaly, but it happens more often than it should:

Information Overload screenshotOur online world is a wealth of resources and information! Perhaps only those of us who remember being dependent on physical libraries (which I still love and frequent) truly appreciate what we can now find and read anywhere, anytime, and often all at once. I continue to be awed by the sheer volume of what is available, especially for writers. And the thing is, a lot of it is really good. This morning alone I was drawn in by Brain Pickings’ article on Hemingway’s advice to writers, Salon’s list of literary hashtags, and, tweets found using #amwriting.

My own writing—hidden away in the upper left corner of the screen—soon gets lost in the ever changing shuffle.

We can easily fool ourselves into thinking that all of this browsing and research and reading counts toward our writing, or that we need to gather more advice and information in order to write, something that psychologists call “information bias”:

INFORMATION BIAS: The tendency to seek information when it does not affect action. More information is not always better. (57 Cognitive Biases That Screw Up How We Think, emphasis added)

Overcoming Information Bias

Here’s how information bias messes with our heads: Instead of writing, we read about writing (yes, I’m aware of the irony), thinking that one more list of tips or one more inspirational quotation will make all the difference.

But in a world where this kind of information is nearly limitless, where and when do we stop? And don’t even get me started on digital hoarding.

The answer is simple yet not always easy: Just write. Do rather than think.

If you worry about missing out on all of those interesting articles and blog posts, it helps to have a way quickly to clip or bookmark links for later reading, during our not-writing time. Evernote works for many people, as does simply marking interesting tweets as favorites or using a “read later” app such as Pocket.

  • Do you ever experience information bias?
  • How do you manage the tsunami of information for writers?

Writers and Negativity Bias

We want to write more (or better or more successfully). Being a writer is and perhaps has always been a crucial part of our self-identity. We are as smart as the average bear and competent (enough, anyway).

In other words, we know what we want.

Therefore, we will make good choices that are in our own best interest.


The Irrational Writer

Depressed in Paris, by Toni Birrer
Depressed in Paris,” by Toni Birrer (CC BY 2.0)

Something I am very excited to explore in this series of posts (and the corresponding ebook) is how psychological research applies to our writing or any kind of sustained creative work. In particular, cognitive and behavioral psychology seeks to understand why we think, develop, and behave the way we do in order “to promote meaningful change in maladaptive human behavior and thinking” (APA, emphasis added).

Just as the positive psychology movement has concerned itself with improving the lives of everyone, not just those with mental illness, cognitive and behavioral psychology has in recent years developed applications for those who don’t feel particularly “maladaptive” but who just want to understand themselves better and make better choices (see Angela Duckworth’s playlist of TED Talks on human behavior)

Related to cognitive and behavioral psychology is behavioral economics, much of which focuses on helping us to see our glaring and persistent irrationality as a species. We might assume that our human default is rational thought, and that we behave irrationally only when something is wrong with us. However, as Dan Ariely explains, when it comes to decision-making, “We are more like Homer Simpson than Superman.”

Negativity Bias

How does this relate to writing? Over the next few weeks we will look at several examples, but I want to start with something called the Negativity Bias.

The Negativity Bias is a psychological phenomenon that causes us to remember, be affected by, and act upon negative experiences more readily than positive experiences. Or, in the words of one article on the topic, “Bad is Stronger than Good.” Evolutionarily speaking, this tendency is a good thing, helping us to avoid danger by being cautious and conservative in our actions.

The problem is that writing, like baseball, is an endeavor in which we often strike out more often than we hit home runs. When I first began freelancing almost twenty years ago, I remember reading that even writers who made a living with their writing could expect twelve rejections for every acceptance (or that a given article would be rejected as many as twelve times before it was rejected).

We writers cannot bank on a single home run with no missed swings. In fact, we will often strike out in the most awkward and embarrassing ways. That’s part of the deal. And even if we get that win-the-game home run, we will forget it far sooner than the failed attempts.

If we are serious about our writing, we will have a lot of negative experiences, whether in the forms of rejection letters, negative reviews, or just re-reading our own bits of embarrassing writing. Unless we have a strategy in place, we can easily begin to avoid future negative experiences, become risk averse, and stop writing or submitting altogether, all without our conscious selves even being aware of what is happening.

The Kudos List

How do we counteract the Negativity Bias? New York Times writer Alina Tugend shares an excellent suggestion in her article “Praise Is Fleeting, but Brickbats We Recall“:

“I have a ‘kudos’ file in which I put all the praise I’ve received, along with e-mails from friends or family that make me feel particularly good.” Read More

Why not keep a Kudos List to counteract all of those unfairly weighted negative memories? Make a list of everything good you can think of about your writing. Include awards and outside praise as well as more intangible moments or work that only you know about. List that time you won your grade school poetry prize, the high school journalism awards, and even the rejection letter that ended with the handwritten, encouraging “Please try us again!”(yes, those are from my list). When you can think of nothing else, make yourself include five more items. Then read and add to the list on a regular basis.

  • Does the Negativity Bias affect your writing?
  • What are some items in your Kudos List?

See Also

Master Your Life with Dungeons & Dragons

I was delighted to read a Psychology Today piece by Ethan Gilsdorf yesterday titled “Dungeons & Dragons, 40 Years Old, Makes You A Better Person“:

“D&D has always appealed to contradictory minds. On the one hand, the ‘left-brained’ folk –those logical, number-crunching, outcomes and probability-obsessed –love D&D’s charts and dice. But the ‘right-brained’ creative types love the game’s open-ended dreaminess and escapism. The game really hit the sweet spot between these two styles of nerdery.” Read More

My very first Psychology Today post was on Dungeons & Dragons. After watching the role the adventures played in our son’s life, I was interested to learn that the benefits of D&D and similar games extend well beyond a few hours of fun and can even help with anxiety:

“The powerful intensity of some adolescents’ emotions, intellect, and imagination can be disconcerting if not frightening to parents and teachers. However, rather than shy from what they may not understand, adults can engage adolescents in conversations about game mechanics and storytelling. Harrison and Van Haneghan suggest that young people be encouraged to use rather than curb their strong imaginations as one way to build valuable emotional skills and resources for facing real life fears.” Read More

When I wrote that article, little did I know of the even greater rewards that role-playing games would bring to our lives: Our son met the enchanting young woman who is now his wife at a college D&D group (he’s not alone). Need I say more?

See also

Everything I need to know about management I learned from playing Dungeons and Dragons

D&D: Helping Celebrate 40 Years” (from Wizards of the Coast)

D&D Yoga (video below)


Photo credit: Guillaume Riesen