How to conquer impostor syndrome

Scoring the job is not always the confidence boost you'd expect. Many people in the arts suffer from crippling self-doubt that drains time, talent and emotional energy. We've compiled the ultimate guide to defeating impostor syndrome.

When starting a new job, launching an exhibition or winning a prize, do you bask in the glory of the achievement?

Or do you secretly find that there has been some kind of mistake, that you are a fraud who has skirted by, your true lack of talent undetected by those around you?

If so, you are in good company. Such experiences are common and often referred to as impostor feelings or ‘impostor syndrome’ – internal feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt that persist despite overwhelming evidence of an individual’s abilities.

Not just a women’s syndrome

Impostor syndrome was initially identified as one of the self-sabotaging behaviours women often display in situations where they are under-represented and not raised to achieve.

In the 1970s, therapists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes at Georgia State University used the term impostor phenomenon to describe the internal experience of high achieving women feeling like phonies.

But what had been cast as a ‘women’s syndrome’ has since been found to be more widespread, with 70% of people experiencing feelings of being a fraud.

‘The broad research still says women would report more feelings of the impostor syndrome, but that could partly be because women are much more likely to talk about it,’ said Hugh Kearns, co-founder of Thinkwell.

The perception could also stem from how women attribute success. Studies have also found that women are more likely to project the cause of success outwardly to ‘luck’ or a temporary effort, rather than inherent ability.

But such traits are not exclusive to women. Those experiencing impostor feelings tend to dismiss their achievements as simply good timing, the right networks, or even a mistake such as a computer glitch.

Why it’s worse in the arts

For over 20 years, Kearns has worked with thousands of high performing “impostors”. He notes that the phenomenon can be especially prevalent in people in creative fields who put energy and passion into their work.

‘Most people will have the occasional impostor feeling, it’s not that unusual, but the times you are more likely to feel it are when you are being judged, measured or when you feel you are at risk in some way. For creative people, because you work hard on your novel or rehearsing a play, it’s very hard to separate the work from the person.

‘But if you work in a bank someone criticises the bank, you don’t take it quite as personally.’

His book The Imposter Syndrome: Why successful people often feel like frauds, details the impostor cycle, the origins of impostor feelings, how self-sabotage relates to impostor syndrome, and provides impostor-busting strategies.

The better you get, the worse it gets

The greatest fear experienced by someone with impostor syndrome is the thought of being ‘found out’. As author Neil Gaiman points out in his commencement address, ‘The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you.’

Actor Emma Watson once told Rookie magazine, ‘It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just going, “Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved”.’

To the outside world, both Gaiman and Watson embody talent, but what they both show is that as success grows, so can impostor feelings.

‘That’s the interesting thing about it,’ said Kearns. ‘Let’s say a person gets a new job and tells themselves, “I can’t do this”, but then after a while they get more competent and then they get a promotion, you would imagine that they must now feel that can do it.

‘But ironically often the higher you go, the worse the feeling becomes because expectations are higher,’ said Kearns.

For many, ‘impostor feelings’ are a natural part of everyday life that come and go without interfering too much with their wellbeing. It is when they become more severe – ‘impostor syndrome’ – that it can become a detriment to a person’s health, leading to depression, anxiety, and self-sabotage, said Kearns.

Defeating the beast

How can people working in the arts do away with feelings of self-doubt that ultimately zap our time, talent and emotional energy? Speaking to leaders in the sector, we’ve compiled the ultimately guide to defeating impostor syndrome.

1. Understand the definition of an impostor

A common question is how do you know if you have impostor syndrome or if you’re simply just not good at your job?

It might be comforting to hear that impostor feelings are most often found among capable individuals, not people who are true frauds.

This echoes the cognitive bias of the Dunning-Kruger effect whereby unskilled individuals are unaware of their inept ability, and conversely highly skilled individuals tend to underestimate their competence.

By that logic, underestimating and questioning your ability is a sign of being skilled in an area. In other words, the fact that you are concerned about being an impostor, suggests you aren’t a real impostor because you do not have the intention to pretend.

2. Normalise the feelings

The first thing to know about the impostor syndrome is that it is a secret, said Kearns.

‘You can never tell people about it – you can’t put up your hand and say, “I’m an impostor,” because the worry is that they will respond with, “We thought so.” You have to keep it quiet and pretend like you are totally together.’

One of the best things you can do to keep impostor feelings at bay is name it and recognise that it is more common than you think.

‘It can help to normalise it and recognise that a large proportion of the population feels like this. You are not unusual, you are not weird, it is just the way the people are built – to question themselves are along the way.’

3. Luck has nothing to do with

Lisa Dempster was working as a communications officer at the City of Melbourne when the outgoing director of Emerging Writers’ Festival encouraged her to apply for the role.

‘For a significant amount of time after I got the role, I did feel I had been ‘lucky’ to get that job, that it was sort of random act of chance rather than something that was deserved.’

In the competitive arts industry, in many ways you can be ‘lucky’ to secure work – especially at the early stages of a career.

But such ‘luck’ does not diminish your aptitude for a role. ‘I think it is easy in the arts to feel a sense of luckiness, but luckiness is not luck. Just because you are lucky to have a role or to be in a position, doesn’t mean that you are not deserving or that it is “lucky” to get that job.’

Now as the Director of Melbourne Writers Festival, Dempster has both hindsight and perspective on her side. ‘Of course now when I look back I can see I did have all the right skills in place to be an arts manager.’

‘I wish it was medical so we could get a little pill that helps with it,’ joked Dempster.

4. Be aware of your impostor moments

There are moments in our everyday lives that can trigger impostor feelings – putting the first words on a page, giving a presentation, preparing for an interview or meeting someone new and being asked to describe what do you do.

Even today, Dempster will occasionally grapple with impostor feelings and become nervous before launching a program or public speaking. ‘I’m always so excited, but I also have this voice in my head saying, “Are you ready to do this? Are you capable of making those speeches?” Even though I’ve been doing this for six years now, seven festivals, I still have the same anxiety present in my right now as I did going to my first EWF launch.”

Kearns suggests taking stock of your own trigger moments. ‘What you have to be aware of is when those moments come, realising you are probably going to feel like a fraud but it really isn’t true. You have to talk yourself through that anxiety at that time.’

5. Set objective standards

People suffering from impostor syndrome often have very high standards and can swing between extremes – “if I am not perfect, I’m incompetent.”

Kearns told ArtsHub that for some, high standards are a form of self-sabotage. ‘People set themselves outrageous standards then don’t achieve them and as a way to prove they are a fraud.

Rather than telling yourself your first book will win the Pulitzer Prize, aiming to get it read by a publisher or win a small award is much more constructive.

‘If you set objective standards in advance then it is easier to look back and say, ‘Hang on, I actually did achieve what I set out to achieve.’

The research by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1970s found that suffers of impostor syndrome ‘find innumerable means of negating any external evidence that contradicts their belief that they are, in reality, unintelligent.’

Being able to keep track of your goals can help you learn to ground yourself in the facts when having an impostor moment.

6. Resist comparing yourself to others

As the coordinator of Creative Women’s Circle, Tess McCabe can see how detrimental impostor feelings can be to the creative process and prevent people from taking up opportunities. 

Comparing yourself to other creative professionals can be one of the most destructive habits of those with impostor syndrome.

‘Social media has a lot to answer for in terms of making people doubt themselves,’ said McCabe.

But as Kearns points out, ‘comparing yourself is not usually very helpful because you are comparing yourself with the outside of the other person – they look really together but on the inside they are like you.’

To overcome comparing yourself, McCabe recommends experimenting with your work or turning the focus back to your own ideas.

‘Our commitment to crazy deadlines and being busy all the time has made us lose a sense of permission or space to be creative for no reason. But I think that always helps for creative people to explore ideas.’

7. Know what it really means to “fake it till you make it”

On one hand we are told to ‘fake it till you make it’ but in doing so, doesn’t that contribute to feeling like an impostor? After all, you started out faking it.

For Kearns, the popular encouragement has been misinterpreted. ‘I think “fake it till you make it” is about acting confident – you have the knowledge, so rather than worry simply trust yourself that you can do it.

‘But “faking it” when you don’t have any ability is where the problems arise because it becomes a bit self-fulfilling – you fool a few people but inside you know you don’t have the skills for the job.’

But how can you build that trust? After all, someone with impostor syndrome doesn’t believe they have the knowledge, they believe they are “faking it” and fooling people around them.  

This is where grounding yourself in evidence comes in. ‘Most of us are not particular good at trusting ourselves or being objective and that is when it is really good to look at your track record. You won an award, you did well, and trusted colleagues have said you’ve done a good job, so you look at real facts instead of trusting your own innate judgement,’ said Kearns.

8. Find a mirror

‘When you are feeling down, you are just crap at judging at how good or bad you are,’ said Kearns.

In her role as Director at MWF, Dempster often has writers approaching her for advice and has observed a consistent pattern of women in particular using diminishing language about themselves and their career.

‘I think it always easier to see in other people than it is to see in yourself,’ said Dempster.

When she notices self-doubt in others, her suggestion is to surround yourself with supportive people you can confide in and will offer constructive advice.

‘It gets you out of your head, you don’t have to believe it yourself, but if you have other people saying you should do it, then you should listen to them,’ she said.

For Tess McCabe, it’s also about finding the right ‘mirror’ that can reflect back your true accomplishments and capabilities.

9. Feel the fear and do it anyway

If you there is something you would like to do but don’t feel ready for, you should just try it out anyway, advises Dempster.

‘You should turn off that switch that says you’re not ready and just apply anyway, because you never know where it will lead. Perhaps the person you are interviewing won’t think you are ready, but it is at least going to be a process that will advance you in some way.

‘So feel the fear and do it anyway. It is a bit of a cheesy throwaway line but I think it is a very good lesson to learn.’

McCabe agrees. When asking women to speak at a Creative Women’s Circle event, a common reaction is surprise, as they don’t feel like they have anything to offer. But as McCabe points out, ‘by virtue of being asked to speak, someone thinks you do.’

Often, people don’t know what they are capable of and being pushed into the deep end that can help them recognise their value.

‘Often after it’s all said and done, speakers say they learned something about themselves or look at their career path in a way they hadn’t before because they are forced to sit down and take stock,’ said McCabe.

10. Remember impostor feelings can be good for you

If you don’t have impostor feelings occasionally, then that is a real concern, said Kearns. ‘That borders into the idea of narcissism.’

‘It is actually quite a good thing to question yourself – I would argue it is quite a normal and functioning thing to do.’

Especially in the arts, such feelings are a byproduct of how we navigate our careers. ‘An arts career it is not necessarily linear, you can’t track how well you are doing based on what your position is because we usually move laterally… there is no defined career path so I think it is quite easy to start feeling anxious about where you are at and how much you deserve to be there at any given time,’ said Dempster.

But the feelings can become toxic when they prevent us from achieving our objective goals. Grounding yourself in the facts, looking at evidence, confiding in trusted friends and not being afraid to fail can help diminish the impostor syndrome demon.

Above all, embrace that you still have things to learn; that it will be a magnificent ride of ups and downs. Enjoy it for what it is. Work hard to quiet that voice of self-doubt when it tries to swoop in and spoil the moment – you worked hard and deserve to experience your successes, however big or small, and the many more to come. 

Madeleine Dore
About the Author
Madeleine Dore is a freelance writer and founder of Extraordinary Routines, an interview project exploring the intersection between creativity and imperfection. She is the previous Deputy Editor at ArtsHub. Follow her on Twitter at @RoutineCurator