Living with Impostor Syndrome

Conquer your fears and keep on creating: a creative’s guide to silencing your inner critic.

It took me two days to say yes, I would write this article.

Even now, with the blessing of an editor and the support of my peers, I wrestle with a cacophony of doubts. Who am I to comment? I’m not an authority. I’m not even creative. I do not belong here.

Impostor syndrome — that nagging fear you’ll be “found out” for not being as talented, capable or smart as people think — is, sadly, and old song. Officially recognised by the field of psychology in 1978, it was first observed by researchers Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in high-achieving female students and professionals.

But more recent research suggests that 70 per cent of all people, regardless of gender, experience feeling like a fraud at some point in their lives.

Today, there is no shortage of feature articles, op-eds, blog posts, tweets, chat dialogues and counselling services centred around this widespread self-belief of not deserving the credit you get, despite what your achievements say. The benefits of our hyper-connected world are certainly not to be sniffed at, but it’s difficult to deny the silent pressure of being constantly surrounded by impressive work done by impressive people. Our social media feeds are saturated daily with news of the best, brightest, most exciting, and the most beautiful.

Imes, a psychologist, says impostor syndrome seems to be more common among people embarking on new endeavours. So, then, it should come as no surprise that creative types with an entrepreneurial spirit are susceptible.

You may find comfort in the fact that you experience impostor syndrome because you are a high achiever — you just haven’t accepted that ambition as part of your identity. But even knowing this won’t stop you from feeling disproportionately stressed about that simple thing you have to do, or avoiding that awesome opportunity because you decided you weren’t ‘good enough’.

The old ‘fake it til you make it’ approach to overcoming impostor syndrome only gets us so far. Applied en masse, it traps us in a feedback loop of façades and bravado as everyone continues to hide their shame in an effort to silence it.

But on the other hand, there’s argument over whether impostor syndrome is inherently a bad thing after all. Among the good advice given to sufferers is the idea of using those insecurities as a tool for understanding our human limitations and cultivating empathy within our creative communities.

If we could all just share our fears, we could work together to make them go away.

For me, addressing my own impostor syndrome started with talking to other people like me. I observed how they dealt with their insecurities. Realising I wasn’t alone made me feel safer about stepping back and considering my circumstances from outside my subjective experience. So far, it’s only a possibility, a fear, that I’m not good enough for what I’m trying to do.

But if I let that fear consume me, and stop me from even trying, that possibility eventually becomes reality.

It’s helped to think of impostor syndrome as the bratty lovechild of two very positive traits: ambition and humility. Left unchecked, those feelings of inadequacy wreak havoc on your self-esteem and drive you to procrastination, or worse, stagnation and depression.

But tempered and softened, what was once paranoia can become the motivation you need to keep doing your best and improving on your craft. This approach won’t cure you of your self-determined fakery, but then, maybe you won’t want it to.


Make your impostor syndrome work for you

Connect with other creatives

In all likelihood, they feel the same way you do, so don’t be afraid to reach out and learn about their creative process. Learning how they see their own work could offer insights on how you relate to yours. Plus, they’ll probably get a confidence boost from answering your questions!

Keep a folio you love

Your folio isn’t just for other people — it can serve as a handy reminder of your own accomplishments when you need it most. Fill yours with both personal and professional projects you feel proud of or enjoyed working on.

Experiment with mistakes and changes

This breaks you out of your routine, and forces you to look at problems in new ways. The variety in perspective and experience can help you feel more able to rise to the next challenge.

Talk to a professional

A mentor or qualified coach can help you adjust the thinking that holds you back. Where impostor syndrome is a symptom of a larger issue, a psychologist or counsellor may help you tackle the root of the problem.

“You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.” — Desiderata

This article was originally published in Side Project magazine (Issue #5). Re-published with permission.