The Great Impostor:
Beauty is in the pockets of the donor
It’s 3am and you’ve woken with a fresh spark of inspiration. You will paint, draw, write, sing, design or what have you. And you will spend the next three weeks doing this. Yes. This is your 3am plan.
Your vision and hopes are clear for your project and you are determined – no: resolute in your attempts to breathe your project to life.
But now, its 3:05am and the vision is interrupted by a silent and persistent voice: “it’s not good enough” or “you’re not good enough”. And as quickly as the spark arrived, your resolve to create something incredible dissipates and you are sound asleep, once more, by 3:10am.
If you’re smart, you’ll let the inspiration pass by. If you’re more aware, you’ll interrogate that thought. And if you’ve spent enough time on self-help social media platforms, you’ll recognise that this may be a case not just of self-doubt, but impostor syndrome.
According to Healthline, “true imposter feelings involve self-doubt, uncertainty about your talents and abilities, and a sense of unworthiness that doesn’t align with what others think about you.”
For artists however, impostor syndrome can present itself in a heightened way.
There is no true external measurement that will encourage you. You do not have the comfort of seeing your students get distinctions; or having a record of ten successful surgeries to prove your skill and value. It all depends on your donors and the interest that you can drum up in your work. In other words, you ask yourself whether “they” like your work and you question whether you can live off of “their” appreciation for your work.
The Copy Blogger, Stefanie Flaxman puts it this way:
“the quality that separates a recreational artist from a professional artist is that the professional feels worthy of getting paid for subjective work.”
Ultimately, as an artist, your vision is valued through social capital which is as fickle and as tricky as your very own saboteur. Even your external validation is open to intense criticism. So, your impostor is not just in your head – it’s in your profession.
If you spend two minutes on Google, you may find random tips on thinking positively and affirming yourself. As noble (and admittedly, effective) as those methods are, they are often incomplete tools or impossible targets when you are within trenches of fear and self-doubt.
Responses to impostor syndrome often take the form of:
“An inability to realistically assess your competence and skills; berating your performance; attributing your success to external factors; setting challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short; over-achieving; sabotaging your own success and self-doubt”.
For artists in particular, the propensity to sabotage your creativity by over-committing and under-delivering is an easy thing to do. And if the product of this is bad work (viewed objectively and subjectively) it feeds the saboteur in your mind. It confirms your deeply held belief that you do not deserve to create a successful professional artistic career.
On the flip-side, you have the lucky ones who, for all intents and purposes, get their work (bad or good) endorsed and still do not believe that they deserve to operate as a successful professional creative. And those people either over-achieve or self-sabotage their much-deserved success. At any rate, burn-out, unhappiness and self-doubt are your constant companions on either side of the creative imposter syndrome spectrum.
“stop thinking like an impostor”.
But not all artists want to live in a space of complete mental collapse where all of their fears concerning their artistic pursuits are realised. The reason that inspiring spark flew out of your mind was because you had a gift that you wanted to share with the world (or maybe even a smaller group of people). So the question then becomes:
“how do you overcome this feeling of being an impostor who doubts your very presence in a world that you are itching to live in?”
Unfortunately, most of the answers provided for combating impostor syndrome relate to self-awareness, improved self-talk and self-confidence. But this isn’t always possible in the immediate moment. When it’s 3am and you shouldn’t be awake at all and you somehow need to harness your creative inspiration, what you really need to do is summon all of your sleepy confidence to drive some kind of performance. So, how will you do this?
Valerie Young’s article titled “10 Steps You Can Use To Overcome Impostor Syndrome” recommends ways to “stop thinking like an impostor”. You can: “break the silence; separate feelings from fact; recognize when you should feel fraudulent; accentuate the positive; develop a healthy response to failure and mistake making; right the rules; develop a new script; and visualize success.”
I’m not sure how you feel, but this is honestly a lot to do when you’re down in the dumps or over-achieving to convince people of your worth.
But I’ve found that there is almost a way to do everything she suggest to overcome feeling like a fraud, by systematically addressing your feeling and thoughts of self-doubt.
Instead of falling into self-sabotaging procrastination or going into over-drive achievement mode, maybe try to watch your thoughts objectively before acting on them instinctively through a fight or flight response. Watch the thoughts that play in your head first and then write down what those thoughts look like.
Artistic impostor syndrome often feels and sounds like an inspiration/self-doubt loop where your mind runs from high, positive feelings to low feelings of fear that stop you in your creative tracks. Now, these positive feelings are easy to accept – in fact, they push your confidence levels up and inspire discipline within you. But the low feelings are difficult to overcome; and you therefore need to apply reality to those feelings and meet them at their point of power.
For example, I can go from feeling inspired by an idea to questioning it’s value in the market-place, which leads me to feeling unworthy, and so I either abandon my idea or set unrealistic goals to make my idea happen, which often leads to shoddy work that I’m not proud of. Then … the idea strikes again with all of its joy. But with it comes the same loop of self-doubt.
Honestly, some of the reasons for self-doubt may be valid in certain circumstances. It could be that your work has been denied or denounced several times over. You could be told that there is no space for you in an over-saturated market-place. Or your self-doubt may stem from deeply held fears of ending up as a “starving artist”. Whatever, it is, you need to be honest about those limitations before you can truly correct them.
It could be through consistent affirmations like: “my work is valuable” or “there is a place for me in this industry”.
It could also take a more tangible form, like engaging appraisers or curators and receiving honest feedback on your work to improve it.
One thing I do when I fall into this loop is address my biggest concern, which is the market-place. I know that there are thousands of writers – better writers – who can produce the highest quality of work and be paid accordingly for it. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t love to write or want to make a living off of it. So, I stagger my inspiration. I do what I know is profitable to gain confidence in what I do and to build a steady client base. Through that, I gain experience and honest feed-back through meaningful engagement, which helps me to “break the silence” on the quality of work I produce. And when I don’t deliver my best work, I can truly introspect and create a new plan for success: whether it’s better time-management or communication to make me more comfortable with a new client; or possibly studying new writing techniques to improve upon and develop my skills.
As a writer, I like to journal and plan how to tackle my loop. I write down my affirmations (daily); I constantly assess my goals and productivity levels, and I always express my desire to do more work with people who care about me and my success. And it works.
Remember, what you are doing is valuable, but birthing it can be hard. So, figure out what your loop is and tackle it with a heavy dose of realism (and an even heavier dose of compassion). But just remember to do this when it’s not 3am.