“I know what the problem is,” she said, “I have imposter syndrome. I know what I need to do but I keep stopping myself.”
Many creative people experience Imposter Syndrome and it can be devastating to their creative practice, productivity and self-esteem. The typical ‘fake it til you make it’ philosophy only makes matters worse. So what do we do about it?
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter Syndrome is the symptom, but it is not the problem. The problem is the deeper layer of fear caused by judgement and comparison. When we address the cause, the symptom vanishes.
Employ the right kind of judgement in your creative work.
At some point in the creative process, we need a bit of judgement. Not all ideas are winners.
The right kind of judgement helps us choose the viable ideas to pursue and which parts of those ideas to keep, expand, refine or remove. It sounds like this:
“This idea has legs”
“While this monologue reads really strongly on its own, I’m not sure it really advances the overall plot”
It’s all about the work, it’s constructive and we can learn from it.
Evaluation of the work, is very useful in small doses at the right time in your creative process. But it is only 10-20% of the creative process.
The wrong kind of judgement is judgement of yourself, your worth and your identity instead of the work. It sounds like this:
“I can’t believe I was so stupid for thinking of this idea. I’ll never have great ideas.”
“I’m so pedestrian, a child could paint better than this.”
It’s focussed on you and what the work says about you and your ability. It’s destructive.
When employing judgement in the creative process, it’s really important to develop objectivity.
This means being objective about other people’s work too. Admire their work, be inspired to keep working at your craft as you move toward mastery, learn from their technique and their story. Acknowledge the small tinge of jealousy that may spark but don’t attach to it. Don’t make their work, their skill or talent, their progress, their age or opportunity mean anything about you and your ability.
As I mentioned above, Imposter Syndrome starts with an internal judgement about your identity and capability. If we’re being objective, the criticism says nothing about us as creatives or us as individuals, it only says something about the work that we can choose to alter or develop if we want to.
By the way, you are a work in progress. Your skills (including creative thinking skills) and abilities are always improving and developing. To choose a creative path is to choose a path toward mastery, a challenging yet rewarding journey. Be kind to yourself, invest in your skills, abilities and mindset and allow the inevitable criticism to serve as a valuable learning tool.
Show gratitude to your fear.
First, let me reassure you. The fear of external judgement and being found out is real and valid.
Maybe your teacher criticised you publicly in primary school. You felt so embarrassed, your cheeks flushed and you wanted to crawl under your desk.
Maybe when you were little, you rushed through a chore because you wanted to meet your friend to play. Your parent yelled at you saying, “You can do better than that!”
These external, public judgements hurt. You attached those painful emotions to the memory and stored them in your brain as a blueprint called Fear to avoid these experiences in the future. Fear does a really good job. He reminds you of the risk after even the slightest trigger.
When you were little, you needed fear. He helped you learn these lesson quickly so that you could belong in the tribe of the classroom or the tribe of the family. Not belonging was of high consequence – how could you look after yourself on your own?
Now that you’re older though, the circumstances are different and the risk is lower. Being rejected may still sting, but it’s not life or death anymore. You can find new friendships and networks, you can develop your skills and abilities and learn from the feedback. Sometimes, the sting is the motivation you need to commit to the necessary evolution.
So, you say, “Thank you Fear for keeping me safe. I understand my skills are not yet at mastery level and so some people may criticise them. But I need to put my work out there and receive that criticism to help me learn the next steps to take. It’s ok though. Even if the criticism is really bad right now, it will get better over time. In the meantime, we are fed, clothed, loved and safe.”
Build evidence for confidence
Imposter Syndrome says: “I don’t belong here.” It lacks confidence.
When we have learned objective judgement and we have befriended our fear, we’re able to start developing confidence for the stage that we are in.
Our brain has a negativity bias. That means a negative event stands out significantly more than its positive equivalent.
Imagine you won $100 in a lucky door prize. That would be exciting, right? But imagine if you got a speeding ticket on the way home and were fined $100. That would feel so bad. By the time you got home, you’d probably be feeling worse than when you left even though you are in the exact same financial position.
That is the power of the negativity bias.
In relation to Imposter Syndrome, this means we naturally collect evidence that proves why we’re not good enough, why we don’t belong. So when Fear speaks up it also has examples to prove its point.
To combat it, we need to be intentional about recognising the positive wins. Here’s some suggestions about how you can do this in your own creative practice:
- Use a gratitude journal to record little breakthroughs and big triumphs regularly. When you’re feeling a bit conspicuous, review it and remember all the positive progress you have made.
- Pause to celebrate after taking even the smallest brave action. You might even want to develop a catch phrase that you think to yourself like, “You got this!”
- Create a list of little things that give you energy and make you feel great like listening to your favourite music, taking a walk in the forest or eating ice-cream. Each time you evaluate your work or receive criticism, treat yourself to something on your list and celebrate developing your objectivity skills.
- Draw your Fear in a way that depicts it as the over-protective butler or the watchful bull-dog that it is. Not malicious, just careful. You can even give it a name.
Are you being held back in your creative practice? You know it could be stronger and more successful. You want consistent and amazing clients and new-found confidence to handle it but you don’t know how to bridge the gap. Reach out and let me know your biggest struggle. I’d love to write a blog post about your issue or set up a call to help.
Be brave and curious,