Have you ever read something so impactful that it seemed as though it was written just for you -- something so specific to your particular worldview that you have trouble imagining that it wasn't based on events from your own life?
That's how I felt recently when I read this piece in The New York Times by Carl Richards on Imposter Syndrome. I mean, for the record, I'm still unconvinced that Carl didn't write this essay after wire-tapping my phone or skimming through my diary. I'm onto you, Carl.
Anyway: Imposter Syndrome. What is it? Is it contagious? Is it treatable?
According to Richards, Imposter Syndrome is a term coined in the 1970s by psychologists to describe a type of anxiety present in the lives of many artists, myself included. In its most basic sense, it is the fear of being "found out." It's a sensation of waiting for people to realize your own perceived lack of talent.
And it's particularly strong during seasons of transition -- at the starting phase of a new project, or even in the obsessive thinking phase leading up to it. It's a fear that, like many others, has a voice. And that voice can say some really shitty things. For instance, here are some of the things you might hear in your mind when in the throws of Imposter Syndrome:
"Who gave you permission to call yourself an artist?"
"You don't actually have talent. You're just pretending."
"Everyone who does what you are trying to do has a wealth of experience, confidence, and ability that you simply lack."
See? Pretty brutal stuff.
And for years, whenever I would begin a big creative endeavor, I was plagued by these kinds of thoughts. They were especially pervasive when I started my writing career. I mean, just so we're clear, no one ever gave me a license to do this. No one ever gave me the "OK" to start referring to myself as a writer (you know, except for my friends and family and mentors and basically everyone in my life).
And for some reason, this lack of official permission felt like some sort of taboo. I mean, surely the President of Writing is supposed to hand-deliver a typewriter and induct you into the club before you can even think about putting the word "Writer" on your LinkedIn profile.
But that's not the only instance in which I've experienced Imposter Syndrome. As a person who puts myself out into the world on a semi-regular basis and says, "Hey! Look what I made!" I am used to dealing with powerful doses of overwhelming doubt.
And I know I'm not the only one. I recently asked some folks on my email list to tell me about their struggles with creative work. Out of this simple request, I received a flood of responses from folks whose answers all looked remarkably similar. Each person, on some level, dealt with some variation of Imposter Syndrome. Here's one of my favorite comments I received:
I need to be able to look myself in the mirror and be like, GIRL, stop worrying so damn much. You're good at what you do and you deserve to be here...doing this...living THIS LIFE. It's hard.
(And by the way, she's totally right.)
In Richards' article, he also cites several notable, historically successful people as Imposter Syndrome sufferers, including legendary author and poet, Maya Angelou. I will repeat: MAYA FREAKING ANGELOU. As in, the woman who wrote this:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
::COMMENCING MASSIVE FREAK-OUTAGE:: How is it possible that Maya Angelou -- a person so brave, so gifted, so renowned and skilled in her craft -- how could she have struggled to see herself the way that we do?
So this begs the question: what causes Imposter Syndrome?
From my experience, it derives from a deeply-ingrained misconception that our talents are the norm, that the abilities we have aren't really that unique in the first place. Our thoughts look like this:
Surely everyone can do this. Surely the fact that I can [write, paint, design a website, take pictures, sing, whatever your thing is] -- surely that's not all that special. And the fact that I struggle in any way is a sign that I'm not even very good at this basic thing in the first place.
We fail to see anything spectacular in what comes natural to us.
So how do we deal with Imposter Syndrome? Here's what's worked for me:
See it for what it is
The reason why I loved Carl Richards's article so much was simply the fact that it gave a name to a sensation I had been feeling for years. The mistake we often make when in the depths of Imposter Syndrome is that we assume it is a feeling of logic. We assume we are just being honest with ourselves.
But in actuality, Imposter Syndrome is a distortion. It causes you to see the world through a lens in which you are not the gifted person you are. So the first step: put a name on it. Call it Imposter Syndrome. Call it Trevor. Call it whatever you want. But just know that whatever you choose to call it, it's not your reality.
Talk about it
Arguably the biggest reason Imposter Syndrome/Trevor is so common is because we don't own up to it. Everyone pretends like they have their shit together. They pad out their Twitter profiles with confident statements of what they are, what skills they possess, the people they are DEFINITELY capable of helping. And this creates a culture in which we easily assume that we are the only ones struggling. You put up a front, and you know it's a front, but in the meantime, you totally buy into the front someone else is putting up. It's a vicious cycle.
So let me just state for the record: we are all terrified. I mean it. Like, have you ever seen a chihuahua just standing on a sidewalk trembling? Yeah, well, that's how we all feel on the inside when we are starting something new. We are all just trembling chihuahuas, petrified that we are not good enough, talented enough, or ready enough.
So let's just own up to it. Because once we start owning this thing, once we let people know the truth about our fears and anxieties, we feel understood. And being understood is a powerful thing.
Do the work anyway
Let's make something abundantly clear here: Imposter Syndrome can cripple you. If you buy into the belief that your skills are average, that your talents are sub par and that everything you make will be exposed as amateur, then you won't ever make anything. At the same time, at least from my experience, Imposter Syndrome doesn't go away. You don't suddenly wake up with confidence-to-boot and total belief in yourself. If you are the kind of person who is going to struggle with feeling like an imposter in the first place, you are probably going to struggle for life. Sorry.
That said, do what Maya Angelou did. Make something anyway. Find a way to trap those doubting voices in your mind in some kind of mind-box and regardless of if you can still hear them or not, create something anyway. Surround yourself with better voices, people who know your heart and believe in you. Let their voices be louder. And just do the damn thing.
Because once you've done it, then you've got something to point to. You've got a way to soothe your future self, the one who is still burdened by feeling like she is about to be exposed as a fraud. Show her what you made so that she can make something else.
How do you deal with the fear of being "found out?"