How to conquer impostor syndrome
Creative people are often more susceptible to impostor syndrome. Emmy and AACTA Award-winning producer turned screen sector executive coach Ellenor Cox has some tips to overcome it.
Have you ever had that, “I’m in over my head and any minute now they’re going to find out” feeling?
If so, then join the club. The experience of so-called ‘impostor syndrome’ is, without a doubt, the most common issue that challenges my screen sector clients.
The dictionary definition of impostor syndrome is: “The persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.”
Creatives seem to suffer from the impostor syndrome affliction moreso than any other profession. There are a number of reasons for this, and when you understand them, you’ll be able to see your own impostor feelings in a less personal way and take solace in the fact that you’re not alone with these thoughts. Use the simple ‘mindhacks’ outlined below to create a more positive reframe on this all too common feeling.
What other industry has professional critics?
Being creative involves using our heart and soul to create a work which is highly personal. It’s one of the most vulnerable acts possible; every time we make our art public we’re putting ourselves on the line and having our work defined by artistic and literary standards that are completely subjective. How many other occupations do you know where a person’s work is judged by people whose job title is ‘critic’?
It’s a challenge to maintain a consistent level of confidence when you know you are only as good as your last movie, book or painting; when even the brightest stars fade quickly, and where success requires that you prove yourself over and over again in ways few others must.
But what if you really have achieved a certain degree of stardom? You might expect to feel more confident. Instead, fame can cause you to question yourself even more.
Meryl Streep and cold feet
I went searching for a well-known Emma Watson quote about feeling like a fraud and I discovered along the way impostor confessions from the likes of Meryl Streep, Robert Pattinson, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Lopez, Sheryl Sandberg and many more.
When Meryl Streep was asked “Will you always act?”, she talked about the incapacitating cold feet that she gets at the start of every new project and then said, “You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?’”
If this response from the most Academy Award-nominated actor in history doesn’t tell you at once how normal and absurd the impostor syndrome is, nothing will.
We all feel like an impostor at some stage. We all freak out that we’ll be discovered for faking it or that somehow our accomplishments were just a bit of luck.
The first thing to do with these thoughts is to normalise them. When many of the most acclaimed creative people alive feel like impostors, then why wouldn’t you? Instead of berating yourself, acknowledge your courage in choosing a creative profession and revel in the fact that you’re sharing the same human insecurity as some of the most talented people alive.
Green and growing
When these feelings of being found out, being judged, or exposed for faking it come up, what are we usually in the act of doing?
We’re almost without exception trying something new; stretching ourselves into an area or uncertainty or unfamiliarity. In other words, we’re giving something a go and are midway through the process of learning. When we’re doing something new, it’s completely normal to feel uncomfortable. In fact, that’s the whole point of stretching ourselves: to find new levels of expertise.
Those who never come out of their comfort zone and who play a safe game with life never feel stretched and therefore never suffer from impostor syndrome.
We need to acknowledge that we can’t control the feelings that arise from being in this uncomfortable position of growing and learning. However, we can control the thoughts and actions that come immediately after we notice this discomfort
Rather than going into the negative spiral of impostor syndrome related self-doubt, we can ride this wave of discomfort and recognise that we are in the midst of a growth moment where it’s okay to feel scared.
Quit taking it personally
We can also choose in these moments to focus on the things that we can control, like our breathing and importantly, our thoughts.
We can remind ourselves of why we’re even in this position in the first place. Isn’t it because we’re heading in a new direction?
Remind yourself of these reasons and how you’ll feel when you succeed. Consciously choose not to wallow in a world of assumptions about what others might be feeling, doing or about to say. These are assumptions, not facts. You can’t control other people, but you can quit taking it personally.
Learn to enjoy the ride
Finally, remember to keep going regardless of how you feel or how many rejections and negative feedback you receive. You can’t wait to feel confident to act. Besides, confidence is not some state you achieve; it’s a constant up and down.
You have to really savour those exhilarating mental high points and forgive yourself for the inevitable lulls. That’s what Tina Fey does, who said: “The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania, and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh god, they’re on to me!’
Aim for revelling and enjoying those moments of egomania when they come and then sliding through those feelings of fraud as quickly as possible!
Ellenor Cox Coaching and Consultancy www.ellenorcox.com
An original version of this story appeared in IF Magazine #193.