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Self-Doubt – Tips for Proofreaders and Editors

Posted on 2nd June 2018

In a private forum thread (accessible only to members of the Society for Proofreaders and Editors), someone raised a question about self-doubt and how to deal with it. There were some fantastic responses but Stephen Pigney's reply was so great that I asked him if he wanted to turn it into a blog post for me. Thankfully he said yes, and I hope the below eight points will help any freelancers but especially editors and proofreaders to deal with that little niggle, that seed of doubt, that feeling of imposter syndrome.

1. Some self-doubt is good. Doubt is the foundation for questions and reflection. Much of the finest philosophy has resulted from doubt (Socrates, Descartes, Hume, Kant). Handled in the right way, doubt leads to self-knowledge and advancement. If we never doubt our abilities, then we would never have cause to develop our skills and knowledge—and then we would never enjoy the benefits of self-development. So, self-doubt can be treated as a worthwhile but difficult friend who can potentially enrich one's life if treated carefully. Healthy (not crippling) self-doubt is better than overconfidence. It's not about eradicating self-doubt; it's about finding the right balance of confidence and doubt.

2. Although it can often be helpful to discuss one's feelings of self-doubt with others, this is not always productive. Sympathy from a friend or colleague, for example, is nice and may be a temporary salve, but it's rarely going to help much with the deeper problem. Far better is to develop one's own resources and techniques to combat self-doubt and increase confidence.

3. Confidence is not only an inner state; it can also stem from one's outer world. A good environment—the space around us, and the objects within it—helps us become healthy and confident. Build a good structure, in which confidence is embedded, around oneself. For example, when I set up my business, I invested as much as I could afford in all the necessary computer hardware and software, reference books and office equipment. No matter the problem, I am confident that I have to hand the resources and tools to solve it. Many projects throw up things that I have never encountered before, forcing me to learn along the way. My confidence that I can learn new things is enhanced by having the resources that enable me to do so.

4. Keep busy, mindful and focused on the task at hand. Doubt often thrives when we are unfocused—perhaps at the beginning of a project when we are unsure how and where to begin. Breaking a big task down into various small tasks is a sound way of proceeding. It helps, therefore, to work out reliable systems for dealing with a range of projects. Systems and checklists make projects seem manageable. Once one has started checking items off the list, one is in the thick of working—and then there is rarely any time for doubt. Good systems also help address any issues of prevarication—and prevarication can be a fertile breeding ground for doubt.

5. If self-doubt is so intense that it is getting in the way of working, then step away from the task and do something else instead. Try meditating or listening to inspiring music or going for a walk. Practise breathing. Do something—anything—that is energizing and makes one feel good about oneself. Detaching oneself from the situation and being occupied in some other positive task will often lead to the doubt disappearing of its own accord.

6. Stepping outside the situation also allows for the situation to be rationalized. Imagine holding a conversation with a highly rational, sensible, good friend who believes in your abilities—what would she say? Such a friend is likely to explain that intense self-doubt is almost always irrational and unproductive: self-doubt tends to ignore evidence (one's experience of successful projects, one's qualifications, the fact that the client has confidence in you), and it's not going to help much with getting on with the task at hand. Or imagine that you have a friend in a similar situation to yours and who comes to you seeking rational, practical advice. What would you advise? Either of these imaginary dialogues should lead to rational insights about self-doubt.

7. Fight perfectionism—a lot of self-doubt comes from unrealistic expectations of perfection. Impossibly high standards are a way of setting oneself up to fail, and hence to doubt one's abilities. Aim to be good, rather than perfect, at what you do. It's okay to make mistakes—we all do—so don't be frightened of them. Mistakes are crucial to learning and improving, and they're almost never the end of the world. Rarely is a mistake impossible to correct. Most clients do not expect perfection; those who do have their own perfectionist issues and are best avoided—the problem is theirs, not yours.

8. Remember that much of life is an act. Years ago, when I first had to give lectures to large groups of students, I felt intense self-doubt. But good lecturers are confident lecturers. So, even though I didn't feel confident, I resolved to act confident—I carried out a performance of a confident lecturer. With each lecture, my performance became better, and gradually, without my even realizing it, it became second nature—I was no longer performing the role of the confident lecturer, for I had actually become, through the performances, a confident lecturer. Act a role often enough, and one eventually becomes that role. Imagine your ideal of a professional, competent, confident editor and think about how she is likely to behave—think about what she may say, how she may think, how she goes about her work—and then try to imitate (act) that behaviour. Initially, performing the role of the confident editor may merely mask feelings of self-doubt; but by practising the role of a confident editor enough times, your performance will eventually become so honed that you will feel like a confident editor—you will, in other words, have become a confident editor.