Imposter syndrome: A creative's struggle
You know the feeling—over 80% of people do—that comes at the start of a new job, project, performance, etc. It says you don’t belong and forces you to over-analyze the skills that make you who you are.
But for those sharing this experience, the simple act of giving this feeling a name may help diminish its power. And guess what—it already has one. Meet imposter syndrome.
What is imposter syndrome & why are creatives suffering?
“I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’” — Maya Angelou
Imposter syndrome was coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes to describe the feeling of inferiority among high-achieving women due to sexism, disproportionate opportunities, and lacking representation. You can imagine how imposter syndrome can affect people from all walks of life at varying levels due to poor representation of a particular background, class status, race, orientation, gender identity, etc.
The phenomenon has grown to define a universal human experience as more people have begun expressing feelings of self-doubt—despite qualifications, skills, or experience.
People who experience imposter syndrome in a professional setting may feel the space was not created for them, often comparing their experiences with some ideal that doesn’t actually exist. In today’s creative industries and gig economy, especially, professionals are constantly chiselling their own paths, and their experiences aren’t well represented. And, that’s a lot of pressure.
You know how they say “comparison is the thief of joy” or “comparison kills creativity”? Well, it’s true. Imposter syndrome makes you compare your success to that of other people, without factoring in individual flaws and behind-the-scenes context.
Imposter syndrome is more than a lack of confidence. It’s a symptom of perfectionism that doesn’t allow one to tolerate error. A moment of confusion can replace pride and inspiration with feelings of doubt and shame.
Imposter syndrome can affect mental health and potential since, by definition, imposter syndrome is “persistent”. It can lead to burnout, decreased productivity, and even resignation. And while there’s nothing wrong with change, that defeated feeling can linger.
Imposter syndrome in the real world
The good news is you’re not alone. There are plenty of sayings that show that the feeling is universal:
- The diva advice: “Fake it till you make it.”
- The Devil Wears Prada-esque wisdom: “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.”
- It goes back as far as Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
These words of wisdom can help to reduce the anxiety of imposter syndrome. At the same time, it’s important to give yourself some credit. You’ve been tediously building, learning, practicing, and improving—all things necessary for creating. After all, we’re all just doing our best. If you’re doing the work, you’re really not “faking” at all.
Aside from sayings, we have some advice.
How to deal with imposter syndrome
As imposter syndrome has begun frequenting conversations, people (especially in startup and corporate culture) are coming together to share their experiences. Here are some steps to keep in mind next time you’re in imposter paralysis.
Step 1: Reflect
Acknowledge imposter syndrome for what it is (see above).
Try to identify the cause. Your body has a big influence on your mental state. Drink water. Go for a walk. Vent. Make sure you’re not just hangry. People who experience perfectionism and attention disorders often struggle to break up their time efficiently.
Is there another underlying reason you feel this way? For the perfectionists out there, you’re likely highly competitive and critical of others. When you project those same expectations onto yourself, there’s no defence or mystery behind the work because you’ve done it. Go easy on others as well as yourself.
Step 2: Vent & connect
Talking about your imposter syndrome helps you remember that you’re not alone in your experience.
Your mentors, co-workers, friends, and family will assure you that you’re doing much better than you think. While confidence is key, everyone needs a confidant to pump their tires once in a while.
Keep a collection of useful feedback and constructive criticism handy for special occasions. It can be as minor as a time someone complimented your style or as specific as a performance review. Constructive criticism can trigger the ol’ imposter panic, but at the same time, it can remind you how far you’ve come as a professional. Remember that such feedback is often only given if you’re on the right track in the first place.
Step 3: Move on with realistic goals
With your state of mind refreshed, start creating healthier habits and setting realistic goals. People constantly plagued by imposter syndrome are said to make unachievably ambitious goals and then become disappointed when they fail.
Set yourself up to win.
Step 4: Fuel your development
With any kind of suffering, the worst part is not knowing if or when it will end. Will I ever feel better? The truth is, you may not want to. Without it, would you be as productive? Would you strive for anything? If it were gone suddenly, then what? Whether they realize it or not, people who experience imposter syndrome often use the feeling to fuel their development.
Reframe your association with imposter syndrome. If you can identify when it starts, you may be able to lean into it and use it to empower your drive, curiosity, and professional growth.
It’s generally not illegal to learn and try new things (unless you’re impersonating a police officer or committing fraud — those are definitely illegal). Use your best judgment.
Note that change is almost always good and your mental health is important. If you have to make a change because you feel out of place, do it! But, don’t let the imposter syndrome take away your passion.
So, imposters, don’t shy away from an opportunity to grow.
Don’t settle for comfort.
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