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Your own worst critic: How to come to grips with imposter syndrome

An illustration of a woman looking happy among others looking sad

Tips & tricks by Claire McGowan

A fear of being exposed as a fraud, imposter syndrome affects even the most accomplished of us. But despite its persistence, there are ways we can cope with it. Claire McGowan offers her tips.

Ever heard of the phrase ‘we become our own worst critic?’ We all do it. We all look back at things we have done and think about what we could have done better or differently if we had the chance to do it all over again.

Imposter syndrome is very closely related to this, except it’s more to do with our own self-doubt. It is a sense of intense anxiety and doubt that clouds feelings of success or achievement; an intrusive feeling that we haven’t really accomplished something through hard work, determination, or talent, and instead have done so through chance or luck. It is a harsh critic that prevents us from accepting praise or compliments because we are so used to telling ourselves the exact opposite.

Won a race? You only won because the person who most likely would have didn’t race or you got lucky with the weather conditions. Made something you want to be proud of? Great, but somebody else made something even better.

What causes imposter syndrome?

There are many potential causes of imposter syndrome. It could be comparing ourselves to others, low confidence, fear of failure, being a high achiever, or simply the environment we are in.

I think, at some point in our lives, we fear the idea that we aren't good enough. Maybe that's why you didn't submit your CV to your dream job, or enter yourself for that competition – because you were worried about failing. You'd think once we have accomplished something we set out to do that that sense of anxiety would go away. But for those who suffer with imposter syndrome, feelings of success are either non-existent or don't last very long.

How has imposter syndrome impacted me?

Imposter Syndrome is a feeling I know myself all too well. Every time I felt I achieved a good or decent grade at school or university, there was this nagging feeling in the back of my head that I got lucky, or that I was some sort of fraud. That the next time I did an assignment I would do badly, and everyone would see that I wasn't good at anything. When I applied to universities and got accepted, I had this uncomfortable feeling that maybe I got accepted as a last resort or that when I got to university, they'd change their mind and wonder why they chose me.

Even when I am doing something I love, like writing, open-mic, or cooking, I am always thinking about the small things I did wrong rather than the bigger picture. It’s frustrating because I don’t want to compare myself to others constantly – instead I want to be proud without worrying about something that could have been done better, or my brain telling me I haven’t done as well as I really want to. I also don’t want to worry about whether I achieved something through sheer luck or because I am actually good enough to do so.

What can you do?

Imposter syndrome isn’t something you can easily rid yourself of. For me, it is a viscous cycle that is part of who I am; that, despite knowing failing is a part of life and is something to learn from, fills me with a fear of failure and prevents me from fully accepting praise.

Even so, there are some things that do help me, even if only a little bit:

  1. Surround yourself with people who love you, and who encourage you. You may still find it difficult to accept any praise, compliments, or reassurances, but to me, knowing they care has helped my anxiety.

  2. Listen to others and understand that you are not alone. I love writing and knowing that I am not the only one who struggles with imposter syndrome has really helped.

  3. Exercise can help. Often when I am stuck on a writing idea or feel I have procrastinated or become frustrated, going on a walk or a run, or going to the gym has really helped me.

  4. There are several podcasts that help me tackle my imposter syndrome, and one that particularly rang true to me is ‘How to Fail with Elizabeth Day.’ I found it incredibly inspiring to listen to authors, actors, actresses, artists and so on talking about how they started, the failures they’ve experienced, and how they keep going.

You are not alone

Imposter syndrome is tricky, but it is always helpful to remember you are not alone. Many people throughout many professions struggle with it and even those who have had amazing careers and achievements have too.

About a month ago, my friends and I went to the National Writers' Conference 2023 in Birmingham. The keynote speaker was Maeve Clarke, a writer for the 2022 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony. Her talk was fascinating, perhaps most notably because, despite her amazing achievements, she still battles with imposter syndrome. She has achieved so much and yet still struggles to believe in herself because of self-doubt. And while she spoke about how imposter syndrome has, and continues to, impact her every day, every head in the room seemed to nod in agreement. Including mine.

I will always try to remember something Maeve Clarke said during her keynote talk. Often imposter syndrome occurs because ‘your brain [is] exceeding expectation.’ Knowing that I have achieved a BA degree, and an MA in writing, I will always try to remember that I have come a long way, and that thought might help a little more in the future.


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