There it was: my latest piece on the screen in front of me illuminated by the ever-present blue-light of an iMac 27 inch monitor; my eyes straining from the past 4 hours of exposure. Finally, it was done. I had toiled over this piece for days, working after work hours to get it done in a frenzy of creative inspiration.
Now, I could show the world my art! Excitedly, I took to Instagram and posted of my new piece. I used all the right hashtags and captioned it with a little excerpt to encapsulate my excitement for the improvement I had seen in my own work.
Then, I clicked post.
Then, my feed updated.
Then, I saw other artists' work.
Then, I hated my own.
Then, that familiar little voice started whispering in my ear:
"Look how much better than yours that person's lettering is ", "Wow, yours looks like a 10-year old did it", "You thought you were progressing? Look how far you still have to go", "You'll never get into that industry publication with work like that", "Your art sucks", "You suck".
That voice belongs to Impostor Syndrome, and he is no stranger to creatives, entrepreneurs, and just about every human being that is trying to create something for themselves. So, why don't we talk more about him?
Wait, Impostor Syndrome? What's that?
First, lets define Impostor Syndrome, and then break down that definition shall we?
According to Wikipedia, "Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which one doubts one's accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud". Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve all they have achieved."
So basically, despite what you have achieved you think you're not worthy of it because you're not really that talented/good/smart/etc. Not only that, that you certainly don't deserve to call yourself the same title as the others you admire and look up to, because you're not nearly as talented as they are.
In other words, it's a self-esteem issue uniquely attached to your professional work.
Mission Impossible Level of Infiltration
I've dealt with Impostor Syndrome for as long as I can remember both in my career and in my every day life, and believe me when I tell you, it makes creating work difficult. I would create work, hate it, feel embarrassed to share it, but do it anyway all the while worrying that others would think I was bad and I had no business being a designer, because well, if I thought that others would too right? Yet, I never voiced this to anybody publicly, I kept these concerns to a very private few close friends, afraid of the agreement I would get if I said, "Hey, I think I suck".
It felt like I was a spy infiltrating an organization in which I had nothing more than a surface level understanding of from reading a dossier given to me by my well-intentioned, but quirky, scientist colleague along with a few tools of the trade to use in order to solidify my perceived legitimacy amongst those I was spying on.
The worst part is I believed the voice. Why? Because I didn't realize other people felt this way too! I thought this was a me issue, not a more general problem amongst human beings. Because nobody was talking bout it, I believed I was alone in this experience, and because I believed I was alone in this experience, I believed the voice that was telling me it was methat was the problem! When you're not hearing otherwise, what else are you to do?
A Wide Spread Problem
I wish I could tell you the exact moment I started to catch on to what Impostor Syndrome was, but honestly, I can't. I'm not sure what the catalyst to start this discussion really was, but all of a sudden I began seeing people talking about it online. Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, and various news outlets were all starting to mention this weird phenomena here and there; nothing overwhelming of course, it was only a post here, or an article there, but the gears were turning.
Suddenly, I began to realize that perhaps even the greatest artists suffered from this? So, I looked into it. Sure enough, I found some convincing anecdotal evidence:
“The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania, and a complete feeling of: 'I'm a fraud! Oh god, they're on to me! I'm a fraud!' So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.” Tina Fey
"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
"No matter what we've done, there comes a point where you think, 'How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?'” Tom Hanks
Now, if people of that calibre feel the same way as me, obviously that doesn't mean I'm the same level as them, but it does mean that this is something that anyone who creates anything feels. Or at least, that was my hypothesis, so I sought out more data to see if it would confirm my idea.
Like any millennial worth their salt, I took to social media and asked people I knew, people who followed me, and anyone who stumbled upon my profile to answer the simple question:
"What is your experience with Impostor Syndrome and how has it affected you?"
Not surprisingly, I got a fair few responses:
"It made me feel like I wasn't meant to be sitting at a table that was full of people with whom I just held a long conversation, in which I contributed a good amount to, but as we sat and ate I felt like I was too inexperienced and untalented to be sitting with them"
"My therapist asked me 'What are 3 positive things about yourself?'. I had to spend the whole following weekend thinking about it. Every time I would come up with a 'positive' adjective I would immediately tear it down and talk myself out of it. Every adjective felt like I didn't deserve it, because of that one time I wasn't that. Even on the subject of my work, can I describe myself as a great hair colorist? What about that one time you got a bad review? You must be a terrible hair colorist, and therefore a liar if you even consider telling yourself otherwise. Double whammy. Feeling like an impostor, is feeling undeserving. It's the feeling of you didn't work hard enough to be worthy of this adjective to describe you. It's a story that I repeat to myself regularly to keep myself smaller than the person doing the same things as me. So I try to change the narrative of the story I tell myself. I try to remind myself, that the only person who feels like I'm a fraud...is me. And I should be nicer to me."
"I have a not an insignificant case of ADHD it's not so outrageous that I can't dress myself and function, however, I could not read until I was in the 12th grade in school. I could read, but I couldn't comprehend what I read. So, anything that I was able to accomplish was always "oh you did such a wonderful job" And I would feel like "oh yeah, it was all a sleight of hand, I can't do anything like ordinary people can do" So, academics were always very difficult for me, and then when I went to pilot training I didn't feel like I was measuring up, I was just getting by. It was just the kindness of strangers that allowed me to get by. So, having the idea of feeling like an impostor, when people tell me what I've accomplished, I go "it's not anything its just a bunch of hogwash because really I'm just a fake". You just had to try to get to one check ride to the next, one flight to the next, without the ADHD opening and swallowing you up, depending a lot on someone saying "Don't do that" and I will escape some disaster with someones aid."
"For the last few days my husband was trying to push me hard to start recording my drawings. So when I was trying to record for Youtube I had a huge imposter syndrome attack which blocked me for 2 days. 'How can I teach someone when my drawings are so messy, the process is messy? I don't even know the software side out. I started today, I feel better about it, but the imposter syndrome is still upon me. I just hit 1000 followers, a little bit over a month after setting up this Instagram and I still feel like I'm a mess, don't know my style, so how can I reach, teach, or say anything to anyone? You might have 100k fans, and still feel anxiety about what you're doing. Maybe even more because now you know they are observing you. High pressure. Can I repeat my best art? How can I say anything to anyone when there are clearly thousands of other better artists? How can I be among them and be equal? That's a picture of fear, anxiety, and imposter syndrome of course, but I think it cannot exist without The other. If you have depression that's a perfect "Close myself in the room" effect where you disappear for a month or so. That's what I end up doing. What I do right now is: I have to post something, however bad, however good, you never know. You might take a break once in a while but consistency is important. Quantity over quality. "
So, what do we do about it?
This is a question I'm still trying to answer myself, and I don't think there is one single answer. What I've noticed as a core theme of impostor syndrome is feeling unworthy, and where does worthiness come from? Self-esteem. At its core, Impostor Syndrome is very similar to a self-esteem issue in my opinion, and that brings what Spencer said to focus:
"I should be nicer to me."
Ask yourself: If I finally got as good as X person, would I still be satisfied? Would I still feel like an impostor? Would someone better still come along and make me feel like an impostor? When is "Good enough" really good enough? Just who am I trying to impress? Will the goal post keep moving?
I found that when I personally tried to answer those questions, I realized something important about the tricky nature of Impostor Syndrome, follow with my internal dialogue and see if you can notice what I saw happening:
Would I be satisfied if I became as good a letterer as Jessica Hische? Probably not.
Would I still feel like an impostor? Yeah probably.
Would someone better still come along and make me feel like an impostor? Most definitely.
When is "Good enough" really Good enough? I have no idea.
Just who am I trying to impress? I don't know. Me maybe?
Will the goal post keep moving? . . .
So, did you see it? Did you notice the big glaring problem that comes with trying to 'solve' or 'fix' impostor syndrome? That's right, it's not something that will ever go away because the goal post for 'good enough' will always keep moving and changing! Rather than focusing on becoming good enough to make impostor syndrome go away, we should look at why we feel like an impostor in the first place, because chances are the impostor syndrome is going to keep telling you that you suck no matter how good you get.
So, what do I do about it? What are some actionable steps I take to deal with this whirlwind of competitiveness mixed with self doubt?
Action Steps to Fight Impostor Syndrome
Look at your progress
One of the things I like to do when I feel especially down on my artwork is take my most recent finished piece then place it next to my older pieces to see the progress I've made. We often can't see the small changes in our work over time because we see it every day. Much like when one tries to build muscle it's hard to see progress because you see yourself in the mirror everyday, but go to lunch with a friend you haven't seen in 3 months and they're likely to comment on your progress because to them it's a starker difference.
The same concept applies here, give it a try! See what you find.
Reach out to those you admire
Chances are the very people you're comparing yourself to have been where you're at before. Try to connect with them on a human level! You'll likely find you have more in common than you think you do.
Connect with the community
In the age of social media the art world can feel a lot like throwing your pieces into the void and shouting at others to notice it, we often forget to involve ourselves with others doing the same. If you engage with other artists you'll find that, much like reaching out to those you admire, the shared experience is a great equalizer. You're all creating not to compete with each other, but because you love to create! Involving yourself in the community makes it seem less like a competition and more like a group activity.
Take a break
Sometimes you just need a break from creating for a while, and that's okay! We all do at times. When you find that creating becomes more stressful than enjoyable that's a big indicator that it's time to step away and recharge yourself. Do things you enjoy to reset! Bake a cake, go for a walk, play some games, focus on a project you've been putting off around the house, play with your pets. However long a break you need is up to you, you'll know when you're ready to create again when you feel that inspiration hit!
The age of social media has made impostor syndrome a very difficult thing to manage, why? because it's so easy to go through Instagram or Twitter and see tons of artists' works to compare yourself to! If you find you're experiencing more impostor syndrome than usual, take a look at your social media habits, have you been scrolling through more than usual? It might be time to take a break from the platforms.
How do you deal with Impostor Syndrome?