This week, we will stray a bit from the direct photography conversation and talk a bit more about something that affects many creatives—Imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. For photographers, this can start presenting itself when you start taking on jobs, selling prints, working with clients, getting a show, or even just posting work on Instagram.
Now, I’m sure most of us have heard that little voice in our heads at some point. Why are you doing this? You have no right to do this. Who wants to see your work? You’re a fraud. Etc.
These are thoughts that creep up on nearly everybody at some point in their creative work. But what can you do about it to help overcome these feelings? Well, that’s what we are going to talk about today.
So, to start, though. So we’re all working from the same page; the Harvard Business Review has a fantastic description for Imposter Syndrome:
“‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence. They seem unable to internalize their accomplishments, however successful they are in their field. High achieving, highly successful people often suffer, so imposter syndrome doesn’t equate with low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence.”
Anyone can feel like an imposter at any point in their lives. And typically, the more successful you get, the more people begin to feel like an imposter. Especially if they don’t deal with the emotions when they first start to crop up. At the start, the feelings of being an imposter can be little things that don’t seem to make an impact on your day-to-day. But the more often these feelings come up, the more they can start to affect your mental health and your creativity. I’ve dealt with imposter syndrome a lot regarding pretty much every aspect of my creative life. It’s a running theme in my head, and that’s why I think it is so vital to talk about it on here.
Let’s start with some of the ways that imposter syndrome can present itself in your life.
The most obvious one, and the easiest to identify, is when you feel like a fake. This is the apparent form of imposter syndrome. You feel like you don’t deserve success and that you have somehow faked your way into something. There’s a consistent feeling that you will be found out. But, even though this is the most common way that imposter syndrome presents itself, it’s not the only way.
There are plenty of others, unfortunately.
One of the most complex is feeling like you cannot fail. Otherwise, you will be found out. Most people understand that a single failure isn’t the end of the road. They learn from it and keep going. However, those who suffer from imposter syndrome feel one slip up, one mistake, and it will cost them everything. They will be discovered as an imposter and cast aside. So, they must succeed. However, and this is the tricky bit, success can quickly become an issue as well - as being successful brings visibility and responsibility and more eyes, which means even smaller margins for failure.
A third way you may recognize imposter syndrome is an inability to recognize and celebrate your success. This frequently comes in hand with the one we just talked about, as imposters tend to downplay any of their successes. They attribute their success to anything except their skills. To luck, tasks being accessible, the people around them, pretty much anything except themselves. They also tend to be the hardest on their success, using unrealistic measurements to quantify what success means and - as such - never hitting those goals. So, they will never be successful.
Finally, a fourth way you may encounter imposter syndrome is to feel like everything you have or do is down to luck. Imposters won’t recognize their owns skill but instead attribute any success they have to luck or other outside influences.
So, those are ways that imposter syndrome can present itself in your life. But what does that mean for you? Well, most people will feel a crisis of confidence at some point in their life. But, imposter syndrome goes beyond that. It can completely derail your work, cause panic problems, question your creative choices, and completely derail creative projects (trust me, I know). It’s one of the biggest reasons that I see for why so many amazing creatives never get their work out in front of people. And get the recognition for it that they deserve. They let their feelings of being an imposter derail their fantastic work.
And, even once you get going on projects, you have to fight feelings of being an imposter continually. It’s not a one-and-done conversation. It’s something that will continue to rear up and bite you, so you need to be ready for it and have strategies in place to cope with it. Otherwise, a lot of creative projects are going to go straight off the rails.
So, whether your inner imposter is constantly bitting you, or whether it only rears up every once in a while now, what can you do about it?
Firstly, I’m not a psychologist, I have no training here, and I’m only going to tell you what some of the research says and what I find works for me. The first thing I”d fully suggest you do, if imposter syndrome is a problem for you, is to seek out proper therapy. This is the only way to find the tools that will work for you.
That being said, there are a few things that are mentioned by most researchers and a few things that work for me to help combat imposter syndrome.
Firstly, you need to recognize when you are having these feelings. You need to identify and put words to the imposter syndrome when it arises. Say to yourself, ‘that’s my imposter, and I’m not going to listen.’ Or, use a trick from meditation and just note the feeling rather than addressing it. Just say, ‘imposter’ and continue on. This isn’t a fix-all by any means, but it is a first step to recognize these feelings when they arise. Awareness is the first step to making a change.
Next, you need to consider the context of your feelings. When these imposter thoughts appear, look at them in context. Are they rationally justified? Where did they come from? There are moments when you won’t feel 100% confident; that’s life, so is this feeling the imposter or is it a lack of confidence (or are they the same thing?)
Thirdly, rewrite the way you think. This is one of the most critical steps in dealing with imposter syndrome. You need to re-wire how you think about yourself. This is a long and challenging process that involves carefully watching how you think about yourself and altering your internal monologue when it starts going down imposter holes. If you catch yourself thinking something like, ‘they’re going to find me out!’ Switch your thinking to, ‘it’s normal not to know everything. No one does.”
Also, be kind to yourself. This is a difficult process. Analyzing your internal dialogue can be exhausting and painful. You will slip up. And that’s ok. Just keep moving forwards and progressing little by little. But you need to do so with kindness towards yourself.
And lastly, speak up and seek out others. Talking about your feelings with friends, colleagues, mentors, and professionals can be a daunting task. Very few people like talking honestly about their feelings. But it is essential in this process. There may be others who feel the same way, and it’s better to have an open dialogue rather than harbour negative thoughts.
Imposter syndrome can drastically alter your life. It can prevent opportunities, stop creative flows, and it generally just sucks. And a lot of creatives suffer from it. If you are one of those, I feel you. It’s a rough situation. But it’s one you can help make better by using some of those tips we just talked about.
And, reach out to friends or other people and talk to them about how you are doing. This is one of the most powerful things you can do.
You can follow along with Robert’s adventures on Instagram @RobertMasseyPhotography.