If you’re a creative of any sort — a painter, sculptor, musician, author, poet, dancer, etc. — you’ve probably struggled with feelings of inadequacy and fraudulence, low self-esteem, and brutal self-criticism.
These feelings are incredibly common, especially among creatives, and there’s a name for it — imposter syndrome.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is when a person suffers from persistent feelings of self-doubt and failure despite their success that shows otherwise.
In other words, they feel like a fraud who doesn’t deserve credit for their achievements.
Common feelings someone with imposter syndrome might say:
- “I made it this far by dumb luck.” The belief that talent and hard work had little effect on success.
- “I’m a fake.” One of the greatest fears is the possibility of being labeled as a fraud.
- “My work isn’t original; I stole this idea from another artist.” Identifying other works in a similar genre, style, or theme tends to leave creatives feeling like copycats, even if they didn’t see the other piece until after creating theirs.
- “I’m not really concerned with success; it’s no big deal.” Creatives suffering from imposter syndrome have a tendency to downplay success. For some, they even sabotage themselves because success comes with too much pressure and responsibility to maintain it.
- “I have experience, but I still feel like a novice.” It’s common for even highly experienced professionals to doubt their level of expertise.
- “I’m good, but I’ll never be great.” People with imposter syndrome are often incapable of realistically assessing their competence and skills. They often remain humble to a fault, unable to count themselves among the greats in their industry.
Why Do Many Creatives Struggle to See Their Own Self-Worth?
Imposter syndrome can happen to anyone, but people who are expected to create new content on a regular basis are especially susceptible.
Author and imposter syndrome expert Dr. Valerie Young explains, “The nature of creative work makes everyone more vulnerable to feeling inadequate, and even more so if you are not classically trained.”
Creators usually do what they do not because it makes them rich (it usually doesn’t), but because they’re passionate. They pour their hearts and souls into their work.
It’s painfully difficult to then put that work under the world’s spotlight to be criticized from every angle.
Subjective criticism is a key factor when it comes to imposter syndrome. There is no “right way” or “wrong way” to create art in any form. It’s not like solving a math problem that has only one correct answer. Critics can’t always pinpoint why they don’t like art — they simply don’t like it. And some of the reasons they do give can be ridiculous and impossible for the artist to “fix.”
The deeper creatives dive into their careers, the more likely they are to question their success.
“Did that person actually like my music, or were they just being polite?”
“What if the guy who bought my book ends up hating it?”
“Did I get that state grant because the committee was impressed with my application, or was it just good timing and I was the best of a bad crop?”
“What if the woman who bought my painting notices the few brushstrokes I messed up in the bottom corner when she gets it home? Will I need to give her a refund and apologize?”
“I don’t know why I’m bothering to perform at this event. Nobody is going to show up.”
“My book is about vampires and werewolves. I just know people are saying it’s a Twilight rip-off.”
I want to scream, “STOP! You’re amazing, so be confident in yourself!”
But… I’d be a hypocrite, because I’m guilty of suffering from imposter syndrome as well. In fact, I’ve written about imposter syndrome here on this blog without realizing it.
From my very first post, Authentication: The Moment We Choose to Define Ourselves:
This is my second beginning, or perhaps more of an awakening. It’s time to let the effort and dedication define who I am, not the authentication. I am a writer. If I don’t believe that, nobody else ever will. I’m taking a step forward. Let’s see where the journey takes us from here.
From an article I wrote in 2016, You Have to Jump if You Want to Succeed:
First, I realized, I had to sell myself. First, I had to prove that I could write.
What exactly did that mean? For me, it meant swallowing my insecurities and exposing myself to writing communities so I could begin the process of networking. I had to jump.
From a post I wrote in 2017, Why is Depression So Prominent Among Artists?:
I started to give some serious thought to the connection between depression and artists. What if art was not just a means of coping with existing depression? What if art in some way contributed to or even magnified the affliction?
From my 2018 article, I Am a Writer:
Although I applauded myself for finally being brave enough to say “I’m a writer,” I silently reprimanded myself afterward. I should have owned the writing part of my life—the most important part of my professional life. I should have done exactly what I’d practiced beforehand and stared my professor in the eye, held my head high, proudly proclaimed, “I am a writer,” and left it at that.
You get the idea. Long story short, I’m in no position to tell other creatives not to doubt themselves. I’ve been doing it for years.
Heck, even after becoming an award-winning author with artwork on public display, I’m still doing it.
(Seriously, why are you even reading this?)
Causes of Imposter Syndrome
The answer to “what causes imposter syndrome” isn’t cut and dry.
Too bad, right? That would make it SO much easier to overcome!
But imposter syndrome can take root for a variety of reasons, including both internal and external factors such as:
- Personality traits
- Social anxiety
- Family values that prize success above everything else
- Abusive behavior from friends, family, and even strangers delivering harsh criticism
- Cultural and societal pressures
- Uncontrollable circumstances around your accomplishments
- Setting unachievable goals and then inevitably falling short
Chances are, there are multiple factors on this list that have probably contributed to your current feelings of inadequacy, even if on a subconscious level.
That makes it difficult (but not impossible) to overcome imposter syndrome, especially if you’re trying to rewire your natural traits.
13 Tips to Overcoming Imposter Syndrome for Creatives
Here’s the hard pill to swallow — overcoming imposter syndrome isn’t as simple as a 1-2-3 process.
It’s a personal affliction, which means you’ll need to take an individualized approach that is tailored to your specific needs.
1. Recognize the negative thoughts and stop the self-destructive cycle.
This is a CRITICAL first step. Negativity inevitably compounds upon itself if we allow it to continue building and building. Before we know it, we’ve gone down the rabbit hole into despair.
Learn to recognize the signs of imposter syndrome when you’re first starting to fall into that downward spiral and there’s still time to climb back out. Mentally stop yourself from entertaining those thoughts so you can break the cycle.
2. Own your title. Practice saying “I am a(n) title” with authority.
This was my struggle for a long time, although it did become easier after I published my first book and felt like I had some authority behind the statement “I am a writer.”
But creatives who are trying to be serious about their work often still hold onto the bad habit of listing their “day job” (aka the one that pays the bills) first and disregarding their art as a side hobby.
Practice saying what you are over and over so you can feel confident when someone asks, “So, what do you do?”
“I am a [insert title here].”
Don’t contradict the statement by immediately diverting with “But my real job is…”
Focus on the title that is more important to you.
3. Force yourself to become a risk taker.
It’s natural to want to stay in your safe zone where there’s less risk of failing or dealing with criticism.
Fear has its place in our lives, and you shouldn’t completely tune it out. But don’t let it control every action you make.
Examine your fear and weigh the risks involved. What is holding you back? Is there a risk of losing money or harming yourself, or are you afraid of failing?
The latter shouldn’t be enough to stop your dreams in their tracks.
Push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Yes, you run the risk of failing, but failure isn’t the end of the world. You can get back up, brush yourself off, and move forward again.
4. Have a personal “brag box” of your accomplishments.
When imposter syndrome has you down, it can be difficult to focus on the good instead of the bad. Sometimes, it helps to reminisce on tangible positives instead of trying to list them mentally.
Entrepreneurs don’t have a boss to hand out employee of the month certificates or promotions for doing a great job. That’s on you!
Keep mementos and proof of your stepping stones and successes so you can revisit them when you need a boost. Awards, reviews, newspaper clippings, photos, samples of your early work… it can be a digital archive if that’s what works best for you.
But sometimes memory lane is best experienced when you can hold the proof of your achievements in your hands.
5. Discuss your feelings with someone who won’t cut you down.
Keeping all of the negative thoughts bottled up inside isn’t healthy, and it’s certainly not going to help you heal while they’re festering in your mind.
Talking can help. Really. Venting your frustration is often therapeutic, as long as you’re venting to the right person and not someone who will accuse you of being whiny or ungrateful for your success.
Friends and family can sometimes fill this role, but you should strongly consider expanding farther from your usual inner circle.
Why? Well, consider how vindictive imposter syndrome is. How long do you think it will take for that voice in the back of your head to start saying, “Their opinions don’t count. Of course they’re going to say I’m great. They have to. That doesn’t make it true.”
Reach out to your teachers and mentors, as well as other creative entrepreneurs who have been in your position. Seek out less biased opinions to put your mind at ease about your abilities.
6. Take a break.
It can be difficult to step away, but sometimes it’s necessary.
If stress and anxiety are taking a toll on your mental health, give yourself a break. Take a few personal days and focus on relaxing, pleasurable activities that don’t come with the added weight of perfection or the need to accomplish specific goals.
Hopefully, you’ll feel refreshed and recharged when you’re ready to return.
7. Join a creative community.
Being within a group of likeminded people with similar energy, goals, and challenges is a major source of motivation.
Try to connect with creatives outside of your usual niche. It can be easier to talk freely with people who think you like but aren’t direct competitors. Chances are, most of them are all too familiar with imposter syndrome and may have some personal tips to share.
8. Refocus on your goals and how you plan to achieve them.
Visualize your success. What drives you? What is the end goal? The dream job?
When the present tasks and challenges send waves of anxiety through your whole body, focus on your destination and keep your eye on the final outcome.
Doing this can help you calm down and set your sights on the next goal instead of worrying about right now and the mistake you made (or think you made) in the past.
9. Silence your inner critic.
A surprisingly effect method is as simple as saying “Shut up” when the voice in the back of your head whispers that you’re an imposter.
Personify that voice. Then tell it that enough is enough, and it needs to be quiet so you can focus on what’s important.
It may feel silly to talk to yourself, but you need to reinforce the positive affirmations to counter the negative ones.
10. Set smaller goals.
Imposter syndrome can be caused by being overly ambitious and then failing to meet your own expectations.
Before you set your sights on the New York Times bestseller list, you need to focus on getting published first. Remember, your journey is a marathon, not a sprint.
Take a moment to reassess your goals and decide if you need to scale them back so you have more intermediate steps to your ultimate goal.
11. Stop comparing yourself to others.
This is easier said than done, especially because we as human beings are naturally inspired by others while subconsciously comparing ourselves.
Train yourself to find inspiration without comparison. When you catch yourself thinking about how you’ll never be able to measure up, counter those dark thoughts with a list of what you are good at.
Think about how much time it took your source of inspiration to reach that level, how much practice and hard work must have taken place, and how you can someday reach that same level while offering your own unique style.
12. Ask yourself, “Am I being rational right now?”
When you catch yourself spiraling into a dark place, stop and ask yourself if your concerns and negative thoughts are rational.
Can you provide facts to prove the case? Or is it all in your head with no logical basis in the real word?
Sometimes, stepping back and realizing how irrational we’re being is enough to jolt us back to reality instead of our perceived alternate reality.
13. Read positive reviews about your work.
Be cautious about this tip, because it’s easy to skim through reviews and zero in on the negative ones, which is counterproductive to our goal.
I recently was having a bad day and feeling hopeless about my writing, although even if I fail miserably, I still plan to see my series through to the end. I ended up on Amazon, where I looked up my book on a depressed whim and noticed some new reviews had bumped up its star rating.
As I read through the new reviews, the positivity from complete strangers who had enjoyed my book gave me a burst of confidence. They gave me the validity I needed that day.
Are you someone who also suffers from imposter syndrome? How do you overcome it on your worst days? Please share in the comments so we can all help each other find our self-worth and be the amazing people we were destined to be!
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