Episode 7

01/02/2021

Impostor Syndrome in Creatives

About this episode

Impostor Syndrome in Creatives - what is it and why does it affect creatives so universally? I'll tell you what it is, why it happens, and give you some ways to overcome it or at least reduce it.

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Impostor Syndrome in Creatives

Dear Adam, can you please tell us more about the dreaded impostor syndrome in creatives, and somehow put a positive spin on it? Yours sincerely, Adam… Yeah I’ve taken to writing myself letters, but impostor Syndrome is today’s topic here on The Positive Creatives!

[The Positive Creatives amazing intro jingle – frankly you’re missing out if you read the transcript]

Good day my positive creative friend and welcome to episode 7! I don’t know how we got here but we did. I know it’s not 100 episodes or anything but at the moment I’m celebrating every episode as a small win and I want to say a big thank you for all the messages since last week’s episode.

For those of you who messaged to say it helped you in some way, honestly you made my week. Thanks for listening and thanks for telling me you listened and liked it.

As I’ve said since the beginning I’m trying not to get distracted by stats or numbers but these real connections are the reason I’m doing it and… yeah… thanks!

I know there’s loads of memes that fly around about pandemic life being deadly slow and how there were like 300 days in January but I’m telling you for me it feels like the days and weeks are absolutely flying by.

I don’t know if that’s good or bad, because if you listened to last week’s episode I’m currently snuggled into group 2 and trying to embrace and enjoy the rest before my work kicks off again hopefully in a few months and I’m back to 100 miles an hour!

I’m prioritising exercise and rest at the moment and I also had a realisation this week about something that I think is important. It’s not something I can make a full episode out of so I just thought I’d mention it before we get into this week’s meaty subject…

It’s really important, always, but especially in tough times like we’re in right now, to recognise the things that cause us fleeting moments of happiness. Those kind of moments which could easily come and go unnoticed. Somehow you’ve got to bring them forward into your conscious mind and recognise that you just felt one of those precious little happy moments and see if there’s a way to make it happen regularly. I’ll tell you what made me realise that this week.

I just mentioned before that I’m prioritising fitness. Obviously that means spending a load of money I don’t really have in some overblown gesture that I’m on one of my regular health kicks. So I’ve bought some gym equipment for home and the cherry on the cake was a new Apple Watch! Now… when the watch arrived I wasn’t sure I liked it, I regretted the spend.

But then, while looking for a suitably cool watch face, I found a Toy Story themed watch face. Big Toy Story fan here, so I put the watch face onto my watch just for a bit of fun really.

By the way, I didn’t like Toy Story 4.

Anyway, so I’ve enabled the Toy Story watch face, and basically what happens is whenever you look at the time a different character comes up from Toy Story with a different animation. Well I immediately noticed how I smiled every time I looked at my watch seeing Woody or Buzz or Jesse or my favourite – Rex. I wasn’t overcome with happiness or anything, don’t get me wrong, but I noticed that it made me happy. I’ve had it on there all week and honestly that novelty isn’t wearing off. The other morning I put my watch on, and Ham the pig came on the screen and I hadn’t seen him before and honestly – it made my day before the day had even begun!

This is not sponsored by Toy Story and I have no affiliation to Pixar but if you’re listening bosses of Pixar or Disney or Apple, feel free to call my agent… me… feel free to call me.

Anyway I just thought I’d put that in as an aside this week. If something makes you happy, however fleeting it may be – notice it and find a way to keep that thing happening in your life. And if you ever meet me hopefully that’ll explain why Buzz Lightyear is dancing across my watch face!

Right. Anyway. impostor Syndrome.

Two words which it seems are often on the lips of the creatives I meet these days. I don’t know for sure whether creatives feel impostor syndrome more than regular civilians, but I don’t remember ever feeling it when I had non-creative jobs. But that could be more to do with the fact I’d never heard of it back then.

It’s definitely more likely that you’ll think you suffer with something you’ve heard of for sure, but I don’t remember when I first heard of impostor syndrome thinking ‘oh man I’ve always had that’ but I’ve definitely had it since being a creative…

Before I tell you a story let me tell you what impostor syndrome is and what it isn’t…

Oversimplified, impostor Syndrome is a constant fear of being judged by others. In general it appears to be associated especially with moments of success like an award win, or things like that. But I can totally see why it’s something that could niggle constantly at the creative mind because what we do is constantly and consistently subjective.

So we have to live with the fact that this isn’t a sport where it’s clear who won, came second, scored a goal, came last and stuff like that. What we do is subjective – people will like it, love it, not like it, hate it, have no feelings about it whatsoever and everything in between.

So if we go with this simple concept that impostor syndrome is a fear of judgement then it’s obvious why we, as creative people, feel it deeply and a lot of the time.

It’s important too, to say that impostor Syndrome isn’t just humility. It’s not just us being humble or modest about our work. Humility is great, impostor syndrome isn’t great and can actually hold us back.

When I first became a photographer back in 2009, 2010, I went to a photography workshop. I was actually on holiday up in The Lake District but I took a day out of my holiday to go to this workshop. I’d been a photographer for about six months I guess, and I’d shot my first couple of weddings.

I remember as soon as I arrived at the venue for the workshop I was frozen. I couldn’t get out of my car. I sat there, totally frozen, for what felt like ages. The only reason I got out and went in was that the fear of walking in late and everyone looking at me was slightly more terrifying than the fear of walking in there and pretending I was a photographer for a whole day. How on earth was I going to keep up that charade around actual photographers for a whole entire day of my life.

But I made it in.

Then the dreaded introduction phase of any group workshop. We had to say our name, where we were from, and what we did for a living. I could feel the heat travelling up my neck and into my ears as it got closer and closer to me… and then the hot eyeballs as I said “I’m Adam from Manchester and I’m a marketing analyst.” Because that was my day job back then. The one I wanted to escape from into the promised land of full time creativity.

I don’t remember what anyone else said because I had to wait for my eyes, ears and neck to return to human temperatures.

But as soon as everyone had said their bit, I remember the photographer running the workshop got up and said it’s weird – we’ve got a dentist from Liverpool, a marketing analyst from Manchester, a recruitment consultant from Birmingham… or whatever… I’m making these up… but he said it’s strange how on this photography workshop we’ve got no photographers!

He was a funny guy, charismatic and I remember laughing but not really getting what he meant.

But then… he made us all introduce ourselves again but this time instead of saying our day job we had to say we were a photographer.

Instant hot neck, ears and eyes.

But I did it. I’m Adam, from Manchester, and I’m a photographer.

And you know what it was the first time I’d ever, ever said I was a photographer.

And he said from that moment on we had to do two things. Whenever anyone asked us what we did for a living, we had to say photographer. And – and you might find this a bit weird, and a bit Alan Partridge, for any Alan Partridge fans – the other thing he said is that when you first see yourself in the mirror in the morning, and last thing at night – tell yourself “I’m a photographer.”

I’ve always been cynical about stuff like this let me tell you, but I was so desperate to be a photographer that I did this religiously for a while. I started introducing myself as a photographer when asked what I did – I even got work from doing that, and twice a day I’d tell myself in the mirror that I was a photographer.

And you know what I think getting that advice at the start of my career was absolutely one of the best things I ever got from any workshop I’ve ever done. And I think it gave me more confidence than I can even imagine that I was, or at least could be, a photographer.

So you see – a lot of impostor syndrome comes from this voice in your head, your inner monologue, telling what you are, and often what you aren’t. I’d sat frozen in my car that morning telling myself silently ‘you’re not a photographer, what are you doing here, there are actual real photographers in there and if you go in there they will know you’re not one, go home, you don’t belong here’.

But somehow the voice that said ‘if you walk in there late you’ll burst into flames and die’ was louder and thankfully won that day.

So I was lucky because when impostor syndrome kicks in most people choose one of two paths. The usuals – fight or flight.

In this case, fight is to actually work really hard, as a way you think of hiding the fact you’re a fraud.

Flight would be to either run away – in my case, just leave and drive away, or to downgrade my ambition. I could easily have decided at that moment in the car that you know what, I’m not a photographer, I’ll just stick to dabbling and doing it part time and not go through with this ridiculous ambition to be a photographer.

But obviously now sitting here I’m glad I chose to go in, and getting that advice to tell myself and other people I was a photographer before I really was one, was actually a clever and often used psychological trick to reprogram and silence that inner negative monologue which can hold us back.

Now… if you remember back to episode one when I talked about the Dunning Kruger effect, you might be thinking this sounds a lot like that. And yeah there are similarities and overlaps between the Dunning Kruger effect and Impostor Syndrome but where the Dunning Kruger effect is linked to learning something new, Impostor Syndrome is more of a constant fear of exposure or judgement or even humiliation that you’ll be found out as a complete fraud at the thing you do.

In fact there’s even research to say that the better you are at something, the more likely you are to suffer! The research also shows that people who are actual frauds, don’t feel this at all. So the fact you feel it means you’re definitely not a fraud!

Congratulations!

So that’s the first tip – reprogram that inner monologue! I still get insanely nervous before weddings and other photography jobs, and I still use the mirror trick to tell myself I’m good at photography, I’ve done a good job many many times, I know what I’m doing. It definitely works to say out loud the opposite of what your inner mean voice is saying to bring the impostor syndrome out of you. Try it!

The other, kind of, symptom I guess, of impostor Syndrome is to downplay your achievements when someone praises you.

So like when a client or a peer or whoever praises our work and we say something like ‘oh thanks but I just got lucky’ or ‘I was just in the right place at the right time’ or I remember when I won a big wedding industry award I would tell anyone who congratulated me ‘yeah thanks but so and so didn’t enter and I’m sure they would’ve won if they’d entered and not me’.

Does that sound like you? Yeah, receiving praise is hard I get it, and if you’re an impostor Syndrome sufferer, receiving praise is a trigger.

So how do you overcome this? Well I know it’s easier said than done but you’ve got to learn to accept praise and positive feedback.

You made that thing, and someone tells you they like it. It could be a peer or a customer, it could be an industry award or someone you particularly look up too.

Don’t let impostor Syndrome take that moment of praise and recognition away from you. Some of the advice I read from psychologists on this is to really try and see this negative inner monologue as a person you don’t like, maybe even a person from the real world.

So if that person was standing behind you while you’re being praised saying stuff like ‘pfft, you got lucky’ and then you feel like you have to say you got lucky… you just wouldn’t do it. You’d tell the person you don’t like to shut up! So practice silencing the inner monologue. Say thanks.

Of course it’s not easy and impostor Syndrome is a real thing and you’re bound to have ups and downs.

But say thanks. And celebrate the wins. I really, really believe in celebrating your wins – big and small. You sold a piece of your art, you took a booking, or you just delivered a big project and got great feedback. Celebrate it.

Someone commented on your work and it made you feel good. Let that sink in, say thanks, and celebrate it.

Celebrations don’t have to be massive – it could be as simple as taking yourself out for your favourite coffee, or giving yourself an hour off to watch your favourite TV show. But celebrating the wins will again start to reprogram the part of you where impostor Syndrome lives and start to make you believe you are worthy, and you do deserve it.

So.

That was a long one, and I feel like I’m only at the tip of the iceberg of this.

Oh I forgot to say. impostor Syndrome and Perfectionism are also linked. So if you’re a perfectionist – and I talked about the prison of creative perfectionism in Episode 4, and you’re setting yourself goals constantly which are unachievable (remember, perfection is impossibly unachievable because it doesn’t exist) – so if you’re setting yourself impossible goals, you’re setting yourself up to disappoint yourself which will keep this cycle going of ‘oh I’m not good enough, oh I missed another target or goal, this isn’t perfect A-G-A-I-N’ and that keeps feeding your impostor syndrome with this information that you’re not good enough. So even more reasons to reject perfection as a concept, and set goals for yourself that you can achieve and exceed.

Right, I’m glad I remembered that about perfection!

Don’t forget to come and join me on instagram @thepositivecreatives, this week I’ll theme my posts and thoughts on Instagram this week around impostor Syndrome for Creatives, so please come and let me know what you think of all this.

To finish as usual I’ve got my listen, read, watch recommendations…

Listen – if you like to have music on while you work but nothing too distracting and you like Piano music with a contemporary edge, check out the music of Alexis Ffrench. Ffrench is spent with two F’s at the beginning.

Read – a book called Rework by Jason Fried and David Hansson. It’s a really great, straightforward read, and it’s possibly more of a business book than a creativity one but lots of the rules they put forward could easily apply to creative living too as the general tone is to do it your way.

Watch – a series on Netflix called Abstract where you can see into the minds and processes of different creatives, designers and artists. It’s so interesting!

Ok thanks for listening to this one. I’ve definitely gone over time this week but thanks for sticking with it! I hope it resonated, I hope it’s given you something to think about and I’ll see you next time on The Positive Creatives!

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