What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is this irrational, nagging anxiety that likes to tell you that you are not good enough. That you are a fraud and that you don’t deserve to be where you are. Have you ever thought ‘Uh, oh, they are going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and now they’re going to find me out’? Even though you have been praised repeatedly, and you have all the evidence to back you up, you still feel inadequate. Yep, that is imposter syndrome.
It happens to all of us, from CEO’s, to entrepreneurs, to creatives. It is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. It happens mainly in the working environment but you can also experience it at home - with a hobby that requires skill, for example.
The irony of it is that the more you achieve and the more success you have to back up your skill and professionalism, the more you doubt yourself. Did you sell that piece because you earned it, or did you sell it because you got lucky? Did you land your dream job because you are qualified or because you tricked everyone into thinking you are good enough?
Imposter syndrome and creative work
What truly fascinates me is the way the subjective nature of creative work impacts those feelings of inadequacy and insecurity that come with imposter syndrome.
Because it is a lot easier for an accountant to feel like they know what they are doing when their work is fairly objective. We know that 2+2=4 and there is no doubt about it. That is the objective truth, you can’t be wrong about it.
What happens with self-confidence once your work is exposed to full subjectivity though? When one person can look at it and think it is absolutely atrocious, and the next might think it is ground-breaking?
The very nature of creative work means that you will inevitably be ‘wrong’ in someone’s eyes. Which in turn, makes you feel more vulnerable to those feelings of inadequacy. Making art professionally means you have to be comfortable with the thought that you are getting paid for work people might inevitably dislike.
Are creative people more susceptible to imposter syndrome?
The short answer is yes.
Think about it. For one, your work is highly public. Not only that, but oftentimes art almost ends up defining you to a certain degree because of how much of yourself you put into it. There is a lot of decision making and critical thinking involved throughout the entire process of finalising a piece of art. Whether it is music, a painting, a novel etc.
So when you inevitably get criticised for it, it can hurt a lot more because it can come across as being criticised for who you are. It is not true, but it can definitely feel like it, and it can feed into insecurity and into the imposter syndrome. Learning to detach from your work and view it objectively is a very important skill to have.
It is also a challenge to be expected to maintain consistency with your work, especially when it can feel like you’re only as good as your last painting, your last movie, your last book; success requires you to prove yourself over and over again which adds pressure, especially if you’ve reached a certain level of fame. People expect consistent greatness. No wonder thoughts like ‘they will find out I’m a fraud’ start running through your mind.
Putting yourself through that cycle over and over every time you start something new can be terrifying. It takes a blind leap of faith, every time.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
I just found out about this recently and I find it incredibly interesting. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a theory that basically states that the amount of confidence you have in something is related to the amount of experience you have in it.
At the start, you have a high level of confidence because you are a beginner and you are not aware of how much you don’t know. Ignorance can feel just like expertise, which leaves you thinking you are better than you actually are.
As you gain more experience though, the opposite happens. You start losing confidence in your abilities because you become aware of how much you don’t know. And you might even enter this state where your knowledge and taste exceeds your skill. So you might know what looks good, what works, where you want to be, but your skill has to catch up with your mind. This creates a gap that can leave you feeling inadequate. The only way to narrow that gap is to push yourself to keep creating despite the discomfort that comes with disliking your creations.
Finally, as you keep building up your skill, your confidence slowly grows with it. The closer you come to expertise, the higher your confidence meter will reach. The interesting thing is that despite getting better at your craft, your confidence will never be at the same level as it was in the ‘beginner’ state.
The key is to push through the middle section of your journey where your confidence is at its lowest and the imposter syndrome can be the loudest.
So what’s a creative with imposter syndrome to do?
The best thing to do is to acknowledge that so many of us feel this way. In truth, nobody knows what they are doing. Take a well-deserved sigh of relief, knowing that you share the same human insecurity as some of the most talented and successful people of all time.
Imposter syndrome isn’t based on reality. It’s just your mind running wild with fear, feeding off negative thoughts and self-doubt. The best thing to do is to acknowledge those thoughts, and then reframe them the way a non-impostor would. Just because you feel inadequate does not mean you are inadequate. You will be amazed at how differently you feel simply by changing your response from, ‘I am so stupid!’ to ‘Boy did I feel stupid.’
The most important thing is, though, to keep going. Keep going regardless of how you feel. Remember that you are the expert of your art! No one knows your work, motives and passion better than you do.
Give yourself permission to be the expert.
Who wrote this?
She/her. Iulia is Rusty Monkey’s animation expert. She usually spends most of her time in some random corner of the house with a drawing tablet and a pen, scribbling away. Cat obsessed. Professional house plant killer. Autumn lover. Maker of things.