I don’t belong here, I thought as I looked at the people around me in the fusty university basement.
The Director of Carleton’s Master of Journalism program rattled off bios of each participant. My colleagues had founded magazines. They’d written for national newspapers. They were professionals.
I’d written a few articles for the UBC student paper. That was it.
Initially, the program had rejected me. I’d squeaked in because one of their preferred candidates had bailed.
Never once, not even when I published my own articles in national newspapers, did I ever feel like a “real” journalist.
Hey there, faker.
If you’re like 70% of humanity, you’ve probably found yourself in a similar position at some point. You’ve thought, “I’m not good enough to do this. I’m not a real [musician, writer, dancer, comedian, marketing expert, etc.].”
Welcome to the ranks of the Impostors.
Psychologists first studied “the impostor phenomenon” in the 1970’s. They initially figured it was mostly a problem for women, but, as it turns out, men deal with it just as much.
It’s ridiculously common among artists.
These days, most people call it “Impostor Syndrome” (which is ironic, since it’s not a genuine psychological disorder; it’s just a destructive pattern of thought and behaviour).
It involves living in constant anxiety that people will discover you’re stupid, you’re incompetent, and you don’t belong where you are.
Even if none of that’s true. In fact, the only people who never suffer from Impostor Syndrome are the ones who probably should. Studies have suggested “low-ability individuals” often “suffer from illusory superiority,” whereas competent people usually underestimate themselves.
Since art very often exposes parts of ourselves – how we think, how we feel, and how we see the world – Impostor Syndrome can be a huge barrier to creating and sharing it.
When people see our art, we think, they see us.
And if we’re secretly convinced that, underneath our shiny social masks, we’re basically insufficient, we’ll be terrified to share our creativity with the world.
I speak from experience.
In fact, I had a giant spasm of Impostor Syndrome while writing this very article.
This is Impostor Syndrome
In the arts district of Athens, Greece, in a café decorated with plaques bearing motivational quotes, I thought, I can’t write about impostor syndrome. I’m not qualified.
A gazillion people have already written about it. What am I going to say? ‘I used to feel like an impostor, but now look at me! I’m the real deal!’
I’m not the real deal.
I’m not a published author, unless you count the articles I published in The Globe and Mail, The Canadian Medical Association Journal, Metro (but you can’t count those because I was an Intern for most of them), this blog (but you can’t count that because I’m publishing myself), my Master’s Research Project (but you can’t count that because I’m pretty sure no one has read it since the review committee) and the Terry Writing Challenge (but you can’t count that either, because I was only competing against other UBC students).
I can’t write about not being an impostor, because I am one.
Or am I?
In her book Your Inner Critic is a Big Jerk, collage artist Danielle Krysa writes, “Any time you push yourself to do something new, something out of your comfort zone, you run the risk of feeling like a fraud or an impostor.”
As we practice a skill, over time, our confidence increases and the feeling lessens.
But here’s the thing: as artists, if we want to constantly expand our creativity, time and again, we’ll step outside the zone of the familiar, which means that, unless we mitigate the problem, we’re in danger of feeling like impostors all the damn time.
Comedian Lucie Guest confesses, “I will assume everyone has graduated Harvard comedy school or whatever and I am the janitor.”
What’s different about successful artists
Successful artists aren’t necessarily more certain than anyone else about the value of their work or their ability to do it.
If they suffer from Impostor Syndrome (and, of course, not all of them do), they make art in spite of it because they want to give of themselves in a particular way, and they want it badly enough to risk looking dumb.
4 ways to deal with feeling like a fraud
If you Google “Impostor Syndrome”, you’ll find 236,000 articles.
I’m not gonna pretend I’m saying anything new here.
What I can tell you is what lets me keep creating, in spite of sometimes worrying that, in doing so, I’ll expose myself once and for all as what I’m most afraid of being.
Acknowledge the problem.
Now that I’ve diagnosed Impostor Syndrome in myself, I can (usually) see its symptoms for what they are: disordered thoughts rather than expressions of the truth. I’m then free to do the opposite of what they suggest. They told me not to write this article. I wrote it anyhow.
Keep a journal.
You know how Ice Cube said, “Check yo self before you wreck yo self?” Journaling is how I do that. Writing about my feelings of inadequacy often reveals how irrational they are.
These days, I probably feel like an impostor 25% of the time. That’s better than 100% of the time, which was how it was until about a year ago. That was when I started calling myself a writer. I still wasn’t sure I was one, but you know what? The more I said it, the more I believed it, and the more I believed it, the more I wrote.
Do the thing.
Just do it. Stop thinking about whether you’re good enough or you have the expertise or the credentials or whatever. Just do it. You might feel like an impostor, but you’ll also feel alive, brave, and passionate, and you’ll know you gave what you could.
What about you, Reader? Have you ever felt like a fraud? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments.
PS: I’ve recently been seized by an idea for a novel about Albanian mobsters. I want to make more time to work on it while continuing to edit my current manuscript and writing my Practical Creativity eBook, so, starting next week, I’ll be reducing my blogging schedule to once per week. Subscribe for free, and when my creativity eBook is done, I’ll send you the first chapter.