11 Creatives on Working Through Imposter Syndrome
Nada Alic / WNW Member
At any given moment, I can scroll through Instagram and witness a parade of achievements as if everyone I follow is doing something Very Important and Exciting Right Now. No one seems sad, or bored, or worried that their work isn’t good enough to share. Everyone just looks confident and well-lit. Whenever I see this, I’m usually in bed thinking, “REALLY!?!” in my best Seth Meyers voice. I know it’s mostly performance art; that it’s an edited highlight reel of someone’s life, but it still feels real. As technology becomes more sophisticated, our ability to curate a perfect self becomes easier and with it, the pressure to live up to that self. The era of the personal brand is especially dangerous for creatives because it imposes an impossible standard for us to live up to, and that gap between what we project and how we actually feel is enormous.
The truth is, just being a person in the world is hard. The internet, every advertisement we’ve ever seen, our parents and that one kid who told us we smelled bad in fourth grade—all of them have formed a choir of voices inside our head to confirm what we already know to be true: we suck. We’re total losers and we’ll never be good and it’s a waste of time to even try. People who enjoy our work are fools, and it’s only a matter of time before we disappoint them. This type of thinking is a psychological pattern known as Imposter Syndrome and it disproportionately affects creative types. Because of this internalized thinking, extraordinarily talented people with radical ideas, skills, and creativity are wading through a minefield of a flawed system feeling like imposters. They doubt themselves despite their achievements, they feel undeserving of success, and they cling to anything that reinforces their perceived inherent badness.
Aside from listening to Kendrick Lamar while holding my childhood soccer trophy, I’ve found that the best way to combat Imposter Syndrome is by talking about it with other creatives. It’s important to realize that feeling like a fraud is not some secret defect but a universal symptom of being alive and having an internet connection. I talked to eleven creatives from various disciplines to speak to their experiences with Imposter Syndrome and find out how they cope. In a way, Imposter Syndrome is a great unifier, not something to hide but something to wrestle with, unpack and work through together. If we come to realize we all think we suck, then maybe none of us do.
How does Imposter Syndrome affect you?
It holds me back:
“I think impostor syndrome has held me back from doing some work I'd otherwise do, and from making social connections I'd otherwise make, had I the confidence. I've refrained from pitching editors; I've delayed filing pieces that an editor accepted or assigned to me, because I was convinced it wasn't ready or good enough. I've stayed home when I could've connected with others. I've stayed hidden when I could have been seen for my own benefit. My dad's always said I have a ‘fear of success,’ and I haven't yet figured out whether that's the same thing as impostor syndrome.” - Natasha, Writer
“It affects the type of work I pitch/go after. I realized, looking to a male friend who aims high and lands high (pitching for print, feature length, big name mags), that my imposter syndrome is likely highly gendered. I'm worried I don't know how to emulate that type of confidence enough to get to where he's gotten so quickly and (what looks like) effortlessly.” - Angella, Writer
“Constantly asking myself if I'm good enough as the person who is already doing the thing I want to do. I also fear being mediocre, I'd rather someone say something I make is shit than be like ‘meh’ about it. These thoughts play a big roll in my procrastination. What’s the point of putting in the work if it's just gonna be perceived as ¯\_(ツ)_/¯?” - Hyla, Director/Producer/Host
“It sometimes robs me of the joy or satisfaction of finishing something or achieving something I'm proud of. Even before I sit down to work, it can feel like a weight slowing me down from otherwise diving into a project excitedly and confidently. Ironically, that self-defeating voice says stuff like: ‘A better writer would be able to push through this self-doubt’” - Ryan, Songwriter/Musician
It makes me question everything:
“Often as a nice bout of existential crisis and feelings of never measuring up that inspire a lack of confidence in your whole premise of life!” - Landon, Photographer
“When the tide is low, I call my mom, manager, close friends and cry on the phone about how everything I'll ever do is just a regurgitation of what someone else has done before, and I'll wallow in the fact that originality is a myth and uniqueness is an illusion. I reinvent myself constantly and question my authenticity compulsively. I enviously look at successful artists and wonder how in the world they could believe that what they're doing matters. The joke’s on me, because the truth is every artist questions their work, and underneath the facade of an artist's self-confidence is a small child with a pretty picture just wanting someone to give them a gold star.” - Grace, Songwriter/Musician/Creative
It makes me needy for approval:
“Two things: 1) I crave affirmation. It's burdensome to those I work with and are in community with. It's almost as if I require affirmation from my superiors - for big and small tasks. 2) Avoidance.” - Anna, Non-profit Director
How do you manage feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy?
Knowing that everybody goes through it:
“Remembering that someone as respected, talented & powerful as Maya Angelou even expressed dealing with that feeling even after writing eleven books.” - Landon, photographer
“I just remind myself that any great work has a mystery period, during concept stages, that every single creator fucking goes through. Everybody. I've talked to so many people about it. Then that becomes the expectation: I think ‘what's the mystery wall I'll have to climb this time.’ That sets me up to make that part of my process. Even when mentoring, I tell people to look forward to this part. The pain is part of the fun of it all.” - Justin, Artist/Painter/Creative Director
“Cognitive behavioral therapy helps. Even though I'm not currently in therapy, I try to use what I've learned in the past, and have an internal dialogue or journal, in which I reason with myself to try to put those irrational fears at ease. This might include taking inventory of the times I've been successful or praised for the very thing I'm afraid of doing. I've done Lacy Phillips' Free+Native workshops, which I swear actually help, even though much of her rhetoric is annoyingly woo-woo.” - Natasha, Writer
Overcompensate with Confidence:
“I try to shake it off and view the next shoot day to be an opportunity to be proud of myself and own my space.” - Rosanna, Filmmaker
“I tell myself that I know what I'm doing even when I don't. A lot of times it comes off as combative or overconfident (maybe not? I can't tell how much internalized sexism has rotted my ego)! Deep down, I know I can do it, but as I get up to swing so to say, I feel like I don't have what it takes to convince others.” - Angella, Writer
“I’ve learned to let it be something that hangs out with me but doesn’t drive the car. The fear and self doubt are there but they don’t impact my decision making process. (At least that’s what I strive for).” - Hyla, Director/Producer/Host
“I don't think there's a cure-all for it. It seems like everyday you gotta try to outsmart those feelings. Daily rituals like going for a run, making coffee, listening to other artists you love, reading, etc are good temporary remedies for distracting yourself from yourself. The one thing I've found to be helpful is to just acknowledge that you're probably going to feel like that when you sit down to work. It's like turbulence when you're flying. If you'd never flown before it could be terrifying. But once you've flown enough you know that most of the time there are a few bumps on each flight and you can just ignore it and not let it affect you.” - Ryan, Songwriter/Musician
“I have several mantras to stave off thoughts of unworthiness. One of them is: ‘Forget about being unique.’ Anything you've ever thought of has been done before, and everything that influences you, hundreds of others have been impacted by. The only way to be truly unique is to not care about being an extra-special-shiny-diamond, and just do what you like. Don't do what other people like, or what is trendy at the time. Only do what you like.” - Grace, Songwriter/Musician/Creative
What would it take for you to be able to receive recognition?
“I feel like imposter syndrome is always chasing the next. There is no point at which you are satiated or edified to resolve never feeling that again.” - Landon, Photographer
“You know what, I don't know if my work would be as good. I'm painfully aware of my shortcomings, which makes me work even harder. On the other hand, I have certainly held myself back from pursuing even bigger opportunities because I don't feel worthy. Double-edged sword, man.” Anna, Non-profit Director
“Not sure that's achievable. I think with every level of success you reach there is another goal to work towards, a new group of contemporaries to compare yourself to, and a new list of things to stress about. That's why I try to find the joy in the process and let everything else fall where they will.” - Hyla, Director/Producer/Host
“Unfortunately, I don't think there's any one thing that would stop all those doubts. I think the real victory would be being able to keep creating and progressing and growing over many years without losing your love and passion for what you do.” - Ryan, Songwriter/Musician
“I realized that this exact notion is the root of all creative demise. Looking to the future to find solace sets the artistic mind up for failure, and the fruits never taste as sweet when you get to the place you wanted to be. It's very important to have goals and to never give up, but once you start telling yourself that the goals will validate you and bring you happiness is when you're cutting yourself short of finding happiness. You only ever realize in retrospect how far you have come from where you started and what you learned along the way.” - Grace, Songwriter/Musician/Creative
“I've noticed that validation and affirmation really changes my mindset. Mostly I'm handling multiple facets of a creative job alone and not always getting the benefit of someone else’s objective opinion. Getting that is great, good, or bad, but validation on the things I'm succeeding at (even if I already know what’s working) establishes anchors for me to build on throughout the thing.” - Justin, Artist/Painter/Creative Director
“I think I would need to be surviving on my illustration work alone before I could stop feeling somewhat inept.” - Gabriella, Illustrator
“From what I've learned on the subject, this isn't really how it works! If Maya Angelou can be a Nobel Laureate and still doubt herself, I don't have very high hopes for "fixing" my self-doubt problem entirely. But I think if I was positively reviewed by a highly-esteemed publication like The New Yorker or The New York Times or something, or if I won a prestigious award, I'd be at least able to fully accept that it really IS just all self-doubt, in my own mind.” - Natasha, Writer
“Once I receive an Academy Award for a film I've worked on, then I will feel validated.” Rosanna, Filmmaker
“If I have a book and it's critically acclaimed, at least once and by one critic I care about lol.” - Angella, Writer
How would your life and work be different if you never doubted yourself?
Free to make a lot more work:
“Would take more risks, would fear failure less & push myself more.” - Landon, photographer
“I would be way more aggressive about reaching out for work and would probably stop accepting insufficient pay.” - Gabriella, Illustrator
“Never thought of this. I definitely would have more work and would likely create a lot more.” - Kenny, Filmmaker
“I'd probably be more prolific and more well-known, because I wouldn't shy away from all the opportunities to socially network within my industry, as I often have in the past. Social networking really is so important, and I think that social anxiety related to impostor syndrome has probably held me back more than anything.” - Natasha, Writer
“I think I'd be happy with myself and my progress. I wouldn't shy away from potential failures, either socially or professionally.” - Rosanna, Filmmaker
“I'd be unstoppable. I'd also be a lot less stressed out and probably funnier.” - Angella, Writer
“I'd probably take more risks and get in more trouble but also find more success.” - Hyla, Director/Producer/Host
But it won’t necessarily solve everything:
“I don’t know, I don't really like playing ‘what if.’ Maybe I'd be more prolific but maybe my work wouldn't be as good. Maybe it's a quality control thing. There's something about everyone's own doubts that makes their work unique to them. Who knows.” - Ryan, Songwriter/Musician
“If something I make is fantastic, I needn't care so much what critiques I get from others. If you know you made something really good, opinions are just white noise. If I make something mediocre or straight garbage I just throw it away. Sometimes you can spend hours on something but it turns out awful. That's okay because you learned. My self-doubt is a bully; sometimes bullies make you tough, sometimes they break you down. Self-doubt will always be there but it's also what saves you from putting garbage into the universe.” - Grace, Songwriter/Musician/Creative
Nada Alic is an LA-based editor, writer and content strategist with 9 years of professional experience. Currently, she's working on a collection of fiction. Previously, Nada was the Editorial Director for e-comm arts platform Society6. Before that, she was agency-side, managing editorial for Gap Inc. properties. She also built Etsy's first Canadian HQ, and has had work featured in VICE, Nasty Gal, Ephemera Mag, Time Out LA, Cool Hunting, and People of Print.
Header image by Steven Quinn