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The Challenges of Overcoming Creative Imposter Syndrome

When you work a creative job, imposter syndrome can be especially hard to avoid. We asked established professionals for their tips on overcoming it.

Whether you’re an artist, a photographer, a web designer, a filmmaker, a musician, or a writer, you’ve likely had a nagging little voice in your head at some point (or at many points) telling you to question everything you’ve worked for, because you haven’t earned it, don’t deserve it, or have somehow duped your way to this point. That nagging little voice tends to be an unfortunate side effect of success, and its name is imposter syndrome.

The feeling that you are not as skilled or qualified as people think you are is not an uncommon one. In a general sense, this fraudulent feeling is called imposter syndrome, but as it pertains to creative professionals, it can be classified further as creative imposter syndrome.

Veronica Kirin, a self-professed “serial entrepreneur” and certified entrepreneur coach, founded her first company in 2010 and will be celebrating the release of her first book, Stories of Elders, later this month. Her work, driven by a desire to help people, has allowed her to see the multifaceted nature of imposter syndrome through both a personal and professional lens.

“I define imposter syndrome as a misalignment in understanding who you are and what your value is,” says Kirin. “You feel like you either don’t deserve the money, you don’t deserve the recognition, you don’t deserve XYZ. It’s a duality issue, and you need to align something within yourself.”

Kirin speaks from experience. She faced imposter syndrome for the first time when she launched her tech company, GreenCup Website Services. Describing herself as “a brand-new baby entrepreneur,” she struggled with something many creatives struggle with when they’re first starting out: assigning value to her work. “I was asked to develop a website for someone, and I got to go home and draw, for work. And that was mind-blowing. Our creativity, it comes out of our brain, kind of from nothing, so it can seem undervalued, even by ourselves. It was a learning process of figuring out who I am and what are my abilities and what is my worth.”

“Sometimes imposter syndrome will come back up because I haven’t totally stepped into the new identity or the new work I’m doing.”

In Kirin’s experience, imposter syndrome tends to manifest at two distinct intervals: when someone is new in their line of work, and when they are faced with a level-up. “If I go through a level up—I raise my prices, I start a new program—my identity shifts. Sometimes imposter syndrome will come back up because I haven’t totally stepped into the new identity or the new work I’m doing.”

Kirin comes back to this buzzword, “identity,” a few times during the course of our interview, driving home a valid point: the very human inclination to pigeonhole our respective identities lies at the core of imposter syndrome.

Diana Stelin, a Cornell University graduate, working artist, and the owner of the Plein-Air Art Academy in Boston, speaks to the fact that self-awareness, or the proclivity for it, is indeed a prerequisite to imposter syndrome. By this definition, imposter syndrome isn’t reserved only for adults. “There are some kids that, at around the age of seven or eight, start becoming perfectionists, and they also begin to criticize themselves.”

But regardless of age, Stelin notes that her job surpasses that of an art teacher, due to the pervasiveness of the syndrome. “It’s a job of a therapist rather than an art teacher, in a way. What I tell them is to take it slow, take it one step at a time, to start out with the big picture, and then break it up into little sections and take it one at a time.”

She admits this is easier said than done. “I was taught by some of my friends, who are in the world of psychology and art therapy, that the way I talk to my students is really the way I should be treating myself when I come across the same imposter syndrome, but it’s tougher, because you’re a lot more self-criticizing than you would be towards other people. As an educator, I often feel like I shouldn’t be imposing knowledge if I’m not as accomplished as I should be.”

Without realizing it, Stelin brings up a distinguishing factor to the syndrome: its interpersonal manifestation. Occasional feelings of self-doubt may be somewhat inevitable, with internal roots that are shaped by our past experiences and the state of our self-esteem, but imposter syndrome tends to rear its head when we’re faced with the perceptions of others.

Nancy Parra, a national best-selling author, wrote 17 books in full before one sold. “When it was published it felt as if I was walking through McDonald’s naked. Everyone was going to see that I was a fake. I couldn’t take it back.” Parra describes her creative process as being addled with intervals of self-doubt – though she does so with the brink of a laugh in her voice, born from 26 books worth of residual self-doubting. At this stage, she’s literally a pro.

“When my book was published it felt as if I was walking through McDonald’s naked. Everyone was going to see that I was a fake.”

“Every third chapter, fifth chapter, and fifteenth chapter of a book – every book – I doubt the book. I’ve learned that this happens at this point in every book, so I’ll just continue. That’s a little different than imposter syndrome, because imposter syndrome comes about, I think, when you’re interacting with other people, when you’re showing the book to peers or when readers come to you and say, ‘Oh, I loved your book.’ And then you turn around and say, ‘Are you talking to me? Is that me?’”

When it comes to delivering your creative work to the masses, self-doubt and imposter syndrome tend to go hand in hand, particularly if you rely on the increasingly contentious arena of social media. I like to call social media the home of the not-so-humble #humblebrag, but there’s much more to it than that. Over the past few years, social media has become a unique marriage of daunting competition and cathartic support. My Twitter feed, for example, is littered with just as many some personal news announcements as #shareyourrejection horror stories.

When I mentioned #shareyourrejection to Kirin, she prompted me to look into an event called Failure:Lab. Failure:Lab was founded in 2012 by a group of professionals in West Michigan. Their mission, per their website: “to eliminate the fear of failure and encourage intelligent risk taking.” Failure:Lab is built on the idea that failure is simply an inevitable nuance of life, which is not so different than what the Share Your Rejection hashtag on Twitter attempts to achieve. In theory, the acceptance of failure stands to change the conversation about how we choose to view success. If we aren’t so afraid of failing, and of being outed for our supposed failures, then perhaps we can nip imposter syndrome in the bud.

Getting comfortable with failure is just one way to nurture your creative self. Along those same lines, keeping a journal, taking periodic social media breaks, getting plenty of sleep and exercise, and giving yourself a creative outlet separate from your work are all ways to strengthen your sense of self; and in turn mitigate those low points which predispose you to feeling like an imposter. If you crave an aside from introspection, engaging in mentorship is a rewarding way to not only cement your sense of purpose, but to pay it forward.

At one point during our interview, Kirin quipped that imposter syndrome is “nothing to sniff about"—and she’s right. Whether you’re a self-taught writer or an accoladed graphic designer, feelings of fraudulence can be a serious detriment to the creative process. In fact, as I was piecing together this feature, interviewing people who seemed much more qualified than I’ll ever be, I felt my own imposter monster creeping up. It told me that there’s no way I could do justice to such a heavy topic and to my interview subjects. It told me to stop dead in my tracks and drown my inadequacies in ice cream, and for a second or two, I humored it.

But that’s the thing about imposter syndrome—it’s a naysaying voice that stands to be challenged. The detrimental part happens when we don’t challenge it. "The saddest thing, I think, is when people suppress their calling, especially in creative spaces, because that’s where we get a lot of our joy and hope in the world,” says Kirin.

In an effort to end my interviews on a positive note, I asked all of my subjects if they had experienced any upsides to the syndrome. My question was met with contemplative pause. Nancy Parra answered that she felt imposter syndrome kept her humble, and accountable to her readers; Veronica Kirin explained that her imposter syndrome kept her accountable to herself; and Diana Stelin remarked that her imposter syndrome has served as a catalyst.

“I’ve been thinking about [imposter syndrome] a lot, and about how painful it is to come across, but also how much of a transformational force it can be,” says Stelin. “You have this one devil on your shoulder, the imposter syndrome, but then you have that inner energy and inner force resisting it and trying to do even more to fight it. So I think if I didn’t have that, then I definitely would not have gotten to where I am right now, because that culture of self-criticizing actually propels me forward.”

Zakiya Kassam is a freelance writer and editor. She currently reports on decor, design, and tech for Canadian Home Trends Magazine, and her writing has also appeared in The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and Ryerson Review of Journalism. You can find her on Twitter: @zakkassam.

Further reading on creative careers:
How My Day Job Inspires My Creative Work
The Link Between Creatives and Underemployment
Why I Skipped Art School and Taught Myself Photography

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