When it comes to your artistic endeavors and professional passions, are you afraid that outsiders will one day expose you as a fake? Welcome to the club. According to a study out of Georgia State University, a third of successful adults believe that they don’t deserve to be where they are. Hollywood star Kate Winslet confessed, “I’d wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot and think, I can’t do this; I’m a fraud.” Award-winning author Neil Gaiman told the 2012 graduating class of The University of the Arts that “I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard… would be there to tell me it was all over… and now I would have to go and get a real job.”
These sorts of anxieties have a name: Impostor Syndrome. In 1978, clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes discovered that many of the professional women they studied believed they were living a lie, thought they owed their success to luck, and experienced feelings of inadequacy, hypocrisy, and self-doubt. Clance and Imes hypothesized that women were particularly vulnerable to such emotional turmoil, an assertion that experts seized upon and feminists touted as an explanation for the infamous glass ceiling.
Here’s the ironic truth: Impostor Syndrome isn’t an actual psychological condition. It happens to almost everyone. And it may actually mean you’re more competent than you initially thought.
A common core of insecurity
When Clance and Imes published their groundbreaking study, they titled it, “The Impostor Phenomenon in High-Achieving Women.” Note that the word “syndrome” doesn’t appear anywhere. Clance herself has stated, “I’m not sure when it began to be called a syndrome, but I do think that somehow that’s just easier for people to think about than phenomenon.” The distinction matters; a phenomenon is simply something that happens, while a syndrome is a disease.
What’s more, Impostor Syndrome affects more than just a small demographic sliver. In 1993, Clance revised her findings, concluding that “males in these populations are just as likely as females to have low expectations of success and to make attributions to non-ability related factors.” Her book, “Presence” broadened the types of people who experience it to, well, just about everyone. Other researchers have noted two important things about Impostor Syndrome. First, those who suffer from it tend to be overachievers whose main problem lies in being overly critical of themselves rather than inadequately accomplished. Second, only one particular demographic seems utterly devoid of Impostor Syndrome symptoms — actual impostors.
So what does this mean for you? Experiencing Impostor Syndrome doesn’t mark you out as mentally ill. It’s a common core of insecurity native to humanity, and an acute case probably means you’re pretty accomplished.
Is Imposter Syndrome really about perfection?
So what’s a creative who feels emotionally crippled by Impostor Syndrome supposed to do? Is the only option to fake wholeness until you reach some critical mass of achievement? Not at all. Since Imposter Syndrome is linked with perfectionism (a trait typically associated with high-achievers), trying to mend that internal issue through external achievement is akin to polishing the brass on the Titanic: attractive, but it won’t keep you afloat. To quote Fast Company’s Drake Baer, start by “see[ing] it for what it is: a surreptitious cycle of self-recrimination. Since you don’t feel you’re the absolutely most perfect person at your job, you quietly accuse yourself of being a fraud, and then feel shamed for being so phony, and then intensely vulnerable for feeling shame, fueling a need for further self-protective perfectionism.”
Of course, that’s only the first step. Eighties-era cartoons would have you believe that knowing is half the battle, but with Impostor Syndrome, it’s the whole war. So how should you go about changing what you think about yourself? Over at Fast Company, Mike San Roman suggests acknowledging that the problem exists, recognizing that no one always performs perfectly and intentionally receiving positive feedback when offered. Author Margie Warrell tells her readers to take responsibility for their successes instead of focusing on failures and absolutely avoid comparison. The Wall Street Journal’s Becky Blalock urges those struggling with Impostor Syndrome to regularly reach outside of their comfort zones and develop the habit of positive self-talk. Multiple pundits praised journaling as a healthy way to keep track of your thoughts.
The most important way to squash doubt is to keep your sketchbook open and your iPad unlocked. Don’t let the self-recrimination spiral suck you down and drag you away from engagement, creativity and accomplishment; these are things that make life worth living. Sometimes everyone feels as though they’re wearing a mask — but that doesn’t make you a fake.
Neil Gaiman’s pep talk
We love hearing stories of how people overcome shyness and insecurity to thrive with their art. Neil Gaiman’s graduation speech is a delightful salve to feelings of being not good enough. If you like his speech, consider checking out his new book of essays that includes this graduate address, The View from the Cheap Seats.