What is it, why do we get it and what can be done about it?
Almost everyone will at some time suffer from the thing we call imposter syndrome.
In strict clinical or psychological terms it is specifically used to describe a situation where the person with the syndrome has a persistent internalised fear and it can often be accompanied by other mental health issues.
In common language the definition is not so rigidly applied and it is essentially the feeling that we are somehow not sufficiently suitable, capable or qualified enough for the situation we are in. Suffering from imposter syndrome makes you feel like a fraud. I believe that it is perfectly possible to feel confident and competent in some areas yet feel the opposite in others. This is the definition I am using in this article.
One of the side effects of this type of imposter syndrome is the need to excessively prepare; for example if you are going to make a presentation to a group of people you would run through it again and again, you might well practice later into the night to be sure you are ready, you might spend the journey to make the presentation running through it in your mind. You may be tired and stressed by all the preparation yet the presentation will still go well but you are then sure that it only went well because of all the preparation that you did.
At a lesser level the feeling might prevent you telling people what you can do. As a professional freelancer you need to tell people what you can do, you need to promote your own abilities; that is tricky when the syndrome keeps telling you that you aren’t good enough.
Among the wide variety of work I’ve done is SOME illustration. I’ve designed a handful of book covers, I’ve been commissioned to produce drawings, I’ve edited books, I’ve created illustrations for instruction manuals and for training courses ranging from photography, digital imaging to bicycle maintenance. I’ve made illustrations for cards etc. Yet when asked to make some illustrations for a film my head shouts at me “you’re not an illustrator, why don’t they get a real illustrator?”
So I tell myself that “people have paid me to do illustrations for them, I’ve made illustrations for various jobs, therefore I am an illustrator” but in my head that nagging voice stills says “What if you can’t do it? What if they find out that you are a fraud?”
As a poet I’ve performed in little open mic venues and on festival stages. I’ve learned how to work the room, how to use a microphone and how to pace my performance. I have run numerous workshops for all ages from 5 to 80+, I’ve led poetry writing projects and produced books.
I’ve had poems published in books and online and I’ve been interviewed for radio programs. I’ve been commissioned to write poems and am paid at a proper professional rate. With all of that I can call myself a professional poet, BUT there is that voice again; “you’ve not had a book in Waterstones, you’ve not been on television, you’ve not Amanda Gorman, Tony Walsh or Alfred Tennyson….”
That voice is sometimes hard to ignore. That voice is the imposter syndrome.
Feeling the need to produce good quality work is not imposter syndrome.
Feeling pressure to do better is not imposter syndrome.
Wanting to be the best you can is not imposter syndrome.
Those things are about ambitions, but handle ambition with care because it can lead to making unhelpful comparisons. Every poet is different, we each have our own styles, our own interests and create our own unique work. Whilst ambition to be better is good, ambition to be the next Armitage, Sissay or Duffy is not so good.
I don’t want to be the next Seamus Heaney, I want to be Seamus Kelly. I want to write, draw and create as Seamus Kelly. One place where I cannot possibly be an imposter is in being Seamus Kelly.
You have to be yourself. You have to stop comparing yourself in a competitive way to others. You have to stop putting yourself down. You have to stop undervaluing yourself, your skills, your work and your creativity.
You have to do all that whilst that voice says “fraud”, and you have to credit yourself for successes. The voice may never shut up, but using facts, actual things you have and can do, to tackle it can make things better.
Don’t be the next Picasso, Mozart, Wordsworth or Neruda – be you, look for the value there.
I’m not suggesting its easy, or that it can be done without help. My help comes from fellow creatives and from my wife. It comes from the person who comes up to thank me after a performance because a poem reminded them of their mother, it comes from faces listening for the next words. It comes from the workshop participant eager to share what they’ve written. It comes from the requests for me to produce creative work. All of those things are needed to quieten that voice, to confidently say “I’m not a fraud”, (and at least most of the time to believe it).