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How do you eradicate chronic self-doubt?
This past week I took part in my first residency at a low-res MFA program in which I recently began teaching. It went really well.
That shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. In the weeks leading up to it, I was overcome with crushing self-doubt, to the tune of: What makes me think I know how to teach? What ever gave me the impression I had anything to offer students of memoir and essays? Who the hell do I think I am?
This is nothing new. I do this to myself pretty reliably every time I’m about to teach—even classes I’ve led enough times to know the course work like the back of my hand—or do any writing or editing work I’m assigned. Obviously I have a stubborn case of impostor syndrome.
I suppose I contracted this malady, at least in part, by having traveled along an unconventional career path—one on which I’ve been striving in more than one competitive creative field, wherein impostor syndrome is a common occupational hazard (because it’s nearly impossible not to compare yourself to more successful colleagues). Always doing a little of this and a little of that is not the best recipe for feeling solid in your abilities with regard to one or the other. But I haven’t felt as if I’ve had a choice; as a freelancer, I’ve had to grab or create work wherever possible, sometimes to stay afloat financially, other times to make sure too much time doesn’t pass between gigs so that I don’t run the risk of losing clout, or of key people forgetting me.
At 56, though, I’ve been around long enough in all the areas I work in to have accumulated significant experience, most of it positive. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest I know what the hell I’m doing in all of them. Yet I keep needing to draw myself a diagram—to remind myself that:
I’ve successfully ghostwritten several memoirs including one New York Times bestseller; that for literally decades I’ve been working as a journalist and essay writer, now and then for top tier publications; that I’ve been a popular teacher in a few different places, often receiving a many as four and five times more applications than there are spots in the class; that I’m a proven editor of personal essays and essay anthologies, with a great track record for leading writers toward greater recognition, and in many cases book deals, too.
It’s a litany I know by heart, yet somehow block out in crucial moments—usually right before I’m about to start a new class or assignment. Next week I’ll begin teaching in two programs at once, and I’ll also start reporting work on two new pieces for two different outlets that have given me assignments. I should be excited, and I am a bit. I’m also grateful that the institutions doing the hiring believe in me enough to offer me these opportunities. But more than that, I’m paralyzed with that same old self-doubt.
I wish I knew how to be done with this routine. I can’t think of any way in which it’s serving me, other than to keep me humble, and my expectations low. I know I enjoy surprising the hell out of those who underestimate me. Maybe that’s a factor.
And maybe I like surprising myself, too, and my brain is convinced that perpetual self-doubt is required to make that possible.