March 22, 2023

I knew the feeling long before I knew there was a word for it. The feeling that you're pretending to be someone you're not. It doesn't matter how successful or talented you are - impostor syndrome is like that little devil sitting on your shoulder, whispering that you're not good enough.

You believe that you have to prove that you have something to offer, that you fit in, that you belong here. But at the same time you're convinced that eventually you'll be exposed - as a pathetic 'fake' who can't really do anything. It is a battle against your own self-doubts. They persist and can rob you of the joy and fulfilment of your own work. It takes courage and determination to confront them and allow yourself to grow.

The enemy in our head: What is impostor syndrome?

Those affected feel a deep insecurity about their own abilities. Imposter syndrome often affects people who are particularly successful and capable. However, they do not attribute their objective successes to their own abilities, but believe that they were brought about by chance, luck or the help of others. Failure, on the other hand, is always blamed on themselves and their "own shortcomings".

These deep-seated self-doubts often affect professional success or academic performance, but personal relationships and well-being can also suffer. The constant threat of being 'found out' is very stressful.

Characteristics of the impostor syndrome:

  • Lack of self-confidence
  • Inability to accept compliments
  • Constant self-doubt
  • Procrastination
  • Self-sabotage
  • Lack of self-acceptance
  • Negative beliefs
  • Perfectionism
  • Overcompensation

The phenomenon was first described in 1978 by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. The two psychologists initially believed that the syndrome mainly affected successful women who believed their performance was overrated. Today we know that the Impostor Syndrome affects women and men equally and is not limited to professional situations. It can also affect parenting, relationships and any area where we try to live up to other people's - sometimes only perceived - expectations. Artists are constantly forced to face new challenges and present their work in public, making them particularly vulnerable to impostor syndrome.

Why I sometimes feel like an impostor: A personal confrontation with the Impostor Syndrome

I've always had a bad relationship with my own achievements. I know it's easy to blame everything on childhood. But it's important for me to understand the roots of my self-doubt. As a child, I was never praised when I did something well. On the other hand, I always heard my mother bragging about my achievements at school to her colleagues or friends. But it was never my merit, it was hers - her genes, her upbringing, etc. But when things went wrong, it was always my fault. I should have studied more, tried harder, or paid more attention.

Impostor syndrome can be frightening and debilitating.

It is not surprising, therefore, that I was never able to compare my achievements with my successes. When I did succeed, I felt that I had only narrowly escaped disaster, that I had only been lucky. I had to constantly remind myself that my 'natural failure' had not taken over.

Sometimes I wonder how much easier it would be if I could be proud of myself and acknowledge my successes without immediately relativizing or diminishing them. It is a daily struggle not to be paralysed by my own doubts.

It was already hard when I was still working in my commercial job. It got really bad when I decided to work as a professional artist. Am I good enough? What do I have to look for in the art world - and what do I have to offer? Won't everyone see that I'm just a hobby painter with moderate talent? On the other hand, art gives me so much inner peace and security that there is no doubt that I must create art, that I am an artist.

I oscillate between these feelings - the doubt that I have any right to claim a place in the art world, and the certainty that I am - and can only be - what I am: an artist.

In the meantime, the doubts are diminishing. I get confirmation from outside, which is nice, but not the reason. When I have doubts about my work, I now check if there is an objective reason for them. I don't want to remain complacent, I want to face new challenges. I want to keep working on myself and getting better.

But sometimes the questions I ask myself are not justified. It's the old little devil sitting on my shoulder, telling me I'm not good enough. But today I not only know the word, I know what imposter syndrome is and what it does to me. That alone helps a bit.

In search of appreciation: The roots of the impostor syndrome

In fact, the causes of impostor syndrome often lie in childhood. As in my case, it can be due to a lack of praise and recognition, but it can also be due to parents' expectations being too high. When children are always expected to do better, they feel that they can never do enough. On the other hand, too much praise can lead to impostor syndrome. Children who have been taught that they can achieve absolutely anything may tend to believe that they must achieve everything. When things go wrong in life - as they inevitably do - they believe they have failed.

Whether impostor syndrome develops from such experiences, and how pronounced it is, has a lot to do with one's own personality. Low self-esteem or a tendency to perfectionism lead to a fear of failure and favour impostor syndrome. External circumstances can also play a role. Students from non-academic families, for example, are much more likely than academic children to wonder whether they are on the right track at university. Working in a high-pressure environment can also play a role. It can even be 'dangerous' to be a natural. If you see others working hard for what comes to you easily, you can feel like a fraud.

Is there also the reverse impostor syndrome?

Yes, that does exist. It is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. While people with Imposter Syndrome tend to underestimate their abilities and knowledge and are aware of their own limitations and gaps in knowledge, people with the Dunning-Kruger Effect tend to overestimate their abilities and knowledge. They consider themselves (even unjustifiably) to be gifted and talented, while belittling the achievements of those around them.

Fake it until you make it? No, thanks! 5 tips against the Impostor Syndrome

No matter how severe impostor syndrome is, it will make you unhappy in the long run. But you can do something about it. I have put together 5 tips to help me when I start to doubt myself:

  1. Acceptance: It has helped me a lot to accept that impostor syndrome bites me now and then. I don't ignore my feelings, I now consciously accept them and allow myself to feel bad. And then I ask myself: is there a reason? If so, what can I do about it? If not, I let the feeling go. Accepting yourself can also be a challenge, but you have to master it. It helps me to do something good for myself now and then, or to remind myself with an affirmation that I am enough.
  2. I am not alone: many successful people struggle with this syndrome and sometimes feel like frauds. They include Tom Hanks, Kate Winslet, Ryan Reynolds, Meryl Streep and Emma Watson. I'm in good company! But of course it's not just famous people in this group. Once you start to open up about it, you realize that family, friends and acquaintances are also affected. In my case, it's mainly a dear friend I talk to about it. It helps to share. It creates a sense of community and understanding.
  3. Enjoying success: When I have doubts, I reassure myself that I have worked on my successes. There was no mistake! I really deserve it. It is very important to see your successes at all. Even the small ones. I often read that you should keep a success journal. I can imagine that would be very helpful. But I don't do it myself. But I do keep a calendar. I enter all my tasks and appointments in it. Not just so I don't forget. On days when I feel I haven't done anything, I can see what I have done.
  4. Don't compare: It's tempting to compare yourself with others. I don't do that anymore. I'll be honest. I try not to. And very often I succeed. Of course, I look at what other artists are doing, exhibiting, achieving. I am happy for them about their successes, and I am also inspired by them. Yes, and sometimes I have the feeling that I fail where they shine. But as soon as I realize that, I stop letting it happen.
  5. Nobody is perfect: Perfectionism has never been one of my vices. Nevertheless, I know the "fear of the blank canvas". At the beginning of my artistic career, I was often afraid of wasting my art materials. What if I made a mistake, what if the artwork came to nothing? Then I would have wasted the materials. Now, I live by the motto: paint is only wasted if it stays in the tube. You have to allow yourself to make mistakes.

Extra Tip

Do you suffer from Impostor Syndrome and these tips don't help? Maybe you haven't managed to break through the negative thinking patterns yet. Then try the other way round. Prove that you are an impostor. Look for evidence, not opinions, but irrefutable proof that you don't deserve what you're getting. You probably won't be able to. Simply because you deserve your successes. Maybe then you will believe it.

Be your own hero: Free yourself from your inner critic

Did you recognize yourself in any of the descriptions? I know from my own experience how difficult it can be to open up to others and talk about your fears and insecurities. But let me tell you: you are not alone! Almost everyone experiences this at least once in their life. But imposter syndrome can stop us from achieving our goals and following our dreams. We need to learn to trust ourselves. We need to believe in ourselves and our abilities.

Often just talking about it helps. So I encourage you to speak up in the comments and share your experiences. Maybe you have tips and tricks that can help others, or you just want to share your thoughts and feelings. Every contribution counts and can help others feel less alone.

So, go for it!

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About the Author Lea Finke

Lea Finke is an artist with all her soul. In her blog, she talks about inspiration, passion, and encounters with art.

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