Impostor Syndrome

Making the Sausage is Never Pretty

Hello people! Here's a guest post by Michelle Dionne Thompson on her writing process! It's great! :)

As an alt-ac who still does academic writing, I find myself staring at my screen with stunning regularity. I am working on publishing academic articles and converting my dissertation into a monograph.

When I earned my PhD, I walked away from everything academia but adjuncting for two years (I had to pay bills). Then I decided that if any historian was going to be say something about Jamaican Maroons in 19th century Jamaica, I had to say it. I had to publish.

This year, I have had limited success when a journal gave me a Revise and Resubmit. I am awaiting their decision as I write this blog post! Because I’ve taken feedback from journals multiple times, this actually feels comfortable.

But now, I am shifting my attention to writing my book proposal(s).

I have never done this before.

I don’t know what to do.

I own From Dissertation to Book, and it wasn’t quite as helpful to me as I hoped. Like a good researcher, I have looked at all manner of blog posts on how to write a book proposal. I am still overcome with feelings of “I don’t know what to do.”

I sit down to write, and I am desperate to clean. My son’s entire room. NOW.

Once that urge passes, I wonder if I could sneak in a little bit of social media. Just a quick peek . . .  40 minutes later . . .

I’m dying to answer the onslaught of email, for the first time ever.

Why is this happening? Impostor syndrome has reared its ugly head. When I ask myself what’s really going on, it’s that I don’t think I have the credentials to write anything. I’ve never been published (not true . . . my work has been incorporated in anthologies). I’m not a tenure track professor (who cares). No one wants to recommend my work (not true). I’ve never really been a success at anything (OK, I just won’t even address that one).

It’s amazing what the gremlins in the peanut gallery have to say when you want to up your game.

And I thought I had this imposter syndrome stuff handled, under control.

It turns out that every time you try to do something bigger, it rears its ugly head.

So now I know this every time I sit down and write. As a result, I turn on so I’m not distracted by social media. I slowly clean up around me when I’m not on the clock writing (I set this time in my calendar). I set timers so that I know I can clean to my heart’s content after I finish writing.

Making the sausage is still an ugly business!

Michelle Dionne Thompson coaches women writers, academics, and lawyers to implement their biggest visions for their lives and society. You can find out more about her at


Who the Hell Are You? Fears of Success

I’m obsessed with setting and achieving new personal and professional goals right now. After thinking about what I want to do now in life, I’ve figured out some new goals, created a structure to get things done, and enlisted the help of my network. Much to my delight, I found myself taking little steps forward towards my big goals every day. I felt pretty good about my progress. My progress, however, also made me begin to feel suspicious. I wondered when all of the ugly emotional stuff was going to show up again. Fear. Shame. Guilt. Perfectionism. Impostor Syndrome. The usual suspects.

They did appear eventually. Success, it turns out, freaks out a lot of people, including me. I suspect that sometimes we’re not used to feeling like successful people, so when we achieve some success as a result of our own actions, it feels a little weird and unfamiliar. We might be so used to things *not* working out for us (*cough academic job market cough*), that we’re not sure that we can trust the feeling of success. For some of us, failure almost feels more comfortable than success (”Well, I didn’t think I really be able to do X anyways…”) How weird and uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking is it to think about succeeding at something because of your own efforts and then taking all the credit and feeling awesome about it? Yikes.

Fear of success shows up in a lot of different ways. You might feel so enthusiastic and thrilled your new life goals one day and then totally uninterested the next. You might find yourself feeling just bored. Or tired. Or (Hi me!) you find yourself going in a million different directions but you can’t seem to stick with one idea long enough to make it happen. You have 137 projects but can’t finish any of them.

Fear and impostor syndrome sometimes start leading us down the road to self-sabotage. Impostor syndrome makes us fear being exposed as frauds when we try to achieve our goals. If we fail, everyone will know that we’re really just playing at being a competent adult. If you’re making progress on your life goals, impostor syndrome will try to convince you to quit before you’re successful in case someone finds out that you really have no idea what you’re doing. You start making excuses not to stick to your plan. You’re tired. You don’t know how to solve some problems. You’ve had it. You quit. Life feels safer without the risk of being exposed as a failure or a fraud. Misery is unpleasant, but familiar and comfortable.

Maybe, for example, you find yourself trying to start a business after your PhD. You’ve never started a business before. It seems hard. There’s math involved and maybe lawyers. You’re intimidated by other people who casually toss around awful-sounding business jargon (”drill down,”) like they know what they’re talking about. You’ve never started a business before and it seems so mysterious and difficult that you think you should probably just not even bother.

Here is a secret: Most of the time, any actual problem that you face has been solved by someone else in the past. Like, someone’s already figured it out. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. In fact, the solution to your problem might be as simple as asking someone you know. And if they don’t know the answer, they probably know somebody who does.

Recently, I decided that I wanted to publish a short book based on my blog. (EEEEEEEEEE!) I fretted about it. How would I find a publisher? Surely finding an interested publisher was beyond my capabilities. Finding someone who knew about publishing might even involve talking to strangers. I wondered aloud on the internet if anyone had ever published a short book like what I had in mind. Et voila! A friend of mine responded that she could put me in touch with some publishing people.

Oh. Well, that was simple.

You just have to keep taking the next tiny steps forward and mitigate fear and anxiety where you can. Maybe your next step forward involves calling someone you don’t know on the phone to ask some questions. (Let’s up the stakes: maybe its a well-known person? A famous person?) You’re freaking out at the very idea of talking to them. So maybe you prepare a little bit. Maybe you start by following them on Twitter or find them on LinkedIn. Maybe you make a list of questions to ask that person. Maybe you rehearse what you’re going to say. Maybe you know someone who knows someone who knows that person and you get an introduction on Facebook. Maybe you send an email first to say hi and let the person know why you want to talk to them. Once you’ve done those things, maybe you feel a lot more ready to make that phone call. And then maybe you dial them up and say hi. And then you find yourself having a conversation with a nice person like the competent, courageous person you are. Problem solved.

Shame shows up when you start taking steps towards what you want. Shame helpfully talks you into asking yourself who the hell you think you are to even dare pursue your dreams. Planning goals is fun (you get to buy office supplies!), but once you get to the actual doing and going for the thing that you really want, shame make you start wondering if you even deserve to have nice things. You’re pretty sure that success is meant for other people. If you do achieve anything great, you feel like the accolades are going to the wrong person. Me? Who am I to have what I really want? You’re this imperfect person and your flaws seem so egregious that you convince yourself that you probably don’t deserve kind words, acclaim, or even a modicum of success. In fact, you probably don’t deserve anything above a miserable desk job in which you make spreadsheets all day about things you don’t care about. Who the hell are you to be trying to do something interesting with your life? Why can’t you just be happy with what you have and keep your head down and stop causing problems with all of this nonsense about dreams and goals which are clearly meant for other people.

And on and on.

Shame is emotional problem, not an actual roadblock that needs solving. Shame doesn’t have a solid solution, but instead requires empathy and connection. When you’ve got an emotional problem, you mostly just need people to listen to you talk about it for a little bit. You need some self-compassion, and your community. You need all of those great people in your life who will listen, sigh, and say, “Me too.” Connect with people you love who love you because you’re a person worthy of love and even success.

So here’s the point. Yes, achieving goals is really hard sometimes. Success does often feel uncomfortable and make us wonder if we deserve it. Most people never try to chase their dreams because they’re scared. You’re scared too and its totally okay and normal to be scared. But being scared doesn’t mean that you have to be paralyzed or have to jettison your dreams for the safe and miserable comfort of your day job. The emotional crap in our lives remains and shows up periodically. It’s presence doesn’t have to stop you from being the person you want to be or doing what you want. Solve the problems that can be solved, acknowledge the emotions that show up, and keep moving forward. That’s success.

Photo: Daniels and Fisher Tower, Denver.


In a State of Permanent Transition

As some readers might have noticed, I’m posting erratically these days. Two months ago, I started a new non-academic job as a crime victim advocate at a non-profit organization. The jump has been daunting. I don’t feel like I’ve landed or have my two feet under me. I am, yet again, in transition (or perhaps the transition never stopped?). My writing practice is suffering, but I’m working to get it back on track. In the meantime, here’s how things are going:

I’m hoping my new job combines big ideas about the world with a commitment to social justice and helping people. As a historian, I’m still focused on helping people tell their stories in their own words. Much of my new job involves listening to people tell me about their lives. Many are sad stories about people living ordinary lives until some extraordinarily terrible thing happened to them. People are often crying when I meet with them. I’m learning to sit with people in their moments of greatest pain and trauma.

I continue to suffer from impostor syndrome, which I wrote about here. I now tell people that I’m a victim advocate, but what I really mean is that I’m an academic historian with no training in human services masquerading as a victim advocate. I’m still not quite sure how to talk about my PhD. When I do talk about my former life as an academic, I’m careful to say something about how I have a background in historical research or that I’m a “recovering academic.” People seem understand my Peace Corps and non-academic experiences more than my academic credentials. I sold myself to this particular organization as a person interested in solving social problems, rather than someone with expertise and experience in this particular field.

I’m struggling to learn the criminal justice system. It is every bit as complicated as anything that I studied or wrote about in graduate school. I haven’t explored it too much, but there’s a whole new body of literature on victimology that I never knew existed. I’ve tried reading some of it, but social science literature often feels over my head and I don’t understand it. I desperately wish that I could take a victimology class. Or classes. I’m trying to read as many books about victimology as possible, but often times don’t have any idea of where to start. I’m reminded of my first few semesters in graduate school when everyone around me seemed to be discussing abstract theories in jargon-laden language. I often felt like I was simply too dumb to be in graduate school. I didn’t realize until much later that my fellow students weren’t smarter than me, but rather that they’d just read more books and internalized specialized academic lingo. I’m hoping that learning the ropes of my new job is a similar process. However, I’ve also learned that reading twenty books about X is not a universal problem solving strategy.

I’ve discovered that victim service providers are firm believers in maintaining personal boundaries, 40 hour work weeks, and self care practices. After years of working too many hours a day on academic projects and having my work turn into my life, I find the idea of maintaining firm work and life boundaries and devoting time to self-care almost subversive. I took Friday afternoon off and felt supremely guilty about it.

Despite all of the newness, some parts of my job feel familiar and draw on transferable PhD skills. For example, searching databases for police records with clunky database software is not unlike searching a historical archive with clunky database software. Each police department has its own rules about documents, whether or not it will release certain records, and particular classification systems. After I locate the records, I spend a good chunk of my day reading them. Reading police records reminds me of reading archival records, although I’m reading them for factual information rather than analyzing them in any kind of critical way.  There’s also less witchcraft and more texting in contemporary, versus historical, crime reports. The reading skills I learned in graduate school come in handy. I’m able to read quickly and efficiently and pick out the most important pieces of information about the cases I work on. Entering data into a database to organize and tracking it for future reference seems much to me like using bibliographic software to track sources.

I thought that I’d miss teaching, but I’ve found lots of opportunities to teach in informal settings. On crime scenes with victims of domestic violence, for example, I educate them about issues of power, control, gender, and feminism. I encourage people to challenge and question their own understandings of their situations and look at their works in new ways. I explain the complexities of the criminal justice system to people, breaking it down into manageable chunks.  Particularly challenging is explaining the U.S. criminal justice system to monolingual Spanish speakers. They often have had absolutely no experience with the system and need help understanding it. I’m teaching in other ways, too. For example, I’m putting together a training for volunteer victim advocates on how to be good allies to the LBGTQ community when its members suffer crime and violence. I fully intend to discuss concepts of race, class, gender, intersectionality, and heteronormativity, as well as offer practical solutions to be better allies.

Some things about my job are utterly foreign and new, such as getting called to crime scenes and working with law enforcement. I’m trying to figure out how all kinds of new hierarchies are structured and how they’re affected by structural racism, classism, and sexism. I’m also adjusting to the idea of being an activist and advocate rather than hiding behind scholarly objectivity. Other things I find totally incomprehensible. For example, I don’t think I will ever adjust to the idea of using adjectives as nouns. (”The female continued northbound…”) Police writing is sometimes just as unlovely as academic writing in its own ways.

I miss my research, but I’m hopeful that I may be able to make use of it in new ways. I recently found myself discussing my experiences and research in Guatemala with a fellow victim advocate coordinator. I told her about war, genocide, political violence, land issues, and discrimination against native peoples. I used the opportunity to link the 2014 surge in child migrants to the unresolved structural problems of the civil conflict. When I was done, she told me that she thought that what I’d told her about Guatemala was a fascinating example of intergenerational trauma. I was a little bit shocked, because I’d never considered my work on Guatemala in those terms. (I always thought it was about race.) Was it possible that there were other ways to think about my research outside of academia? It seemed that there were. She suggested that I speak about Guatemala at a state-wide conference for victim advocates next year. I’m excited to think that I may be talking about Guatemala again soon.

I’m not writing as much as I want to yet. Now that I’m moving further and further away from academia, I’m struggling to stay motivated to write.  As my current job doesn’t hinge on intellectual output, I often don’t see much point in pursuing academic writing. I’d like to think that I don’t need the promise of tenure to motivate me to work on my academic writing, but my motivations have changed. Do I really need to have a monograph published on a first tier academic press? Or do I want to shift my writing more towards popular audiences?

Emotionally, I’m all over the place. Some days I feel awesome about my new job. It feels meaningful and like I’m taking academic knowledge to the streets. And then I get huge pangs of rejection and sadness when I remember how much time I invested in being a scholar and how hard its been to walk away. And then I’m jealous of academic colleagues. I’m jealous of people’s new jobs, new publications, and overseas research trips. I miss my academic friends. I miss me as a scholar. I complete this emotional cycle approximately twenty times a day.

Still in transition, but the only way out is through.

Photo: Green plants a-growin' at the Denver Botanic Gardens, July 2016.