On getting over imposter syndrome…
September 13, 2016
This post is about imposter syndrome. Specifically, mine! I’ve had a stubborn, recurring case for, oh, pretty much my life. As a grad student, parent, creative professional, um… person who cooks things people actually like…? And so on. But I am pleased to report that it seems I am finally kicking the old affliction! Hallelujah. So I’ve whipped up (haha) a post on the topic, my own story and magical strategies included.
This spring I flew to London for the weekend all by my sweet self. It was for a creative bloggers’ conference called Blogtacular. Achim and I agreed, it could be my (extra fancy) birthday gift this year. Out loud, that’s what I called it. A special treat, a solo trip for mama to get away for a little rest and fun, but I knew that wasn’t all it was… And although I feel a painful pang of self-consciousness saying this, I’m just gonna go ahead and own it. This trip was an investment in my dreams. It was me quietly daring to take my creative aspirations and ultimately myself seriously.
It was so worth it. I came home feeling like I’d turned a corner, like some cognitive dissonance had resolved and I’d sort of found my place. And more or less, it has stayed that way. I’ve been thinking a lot about what shifted and why, and I want to share my thoughts with you, because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who’s had trouble believing they belong.
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Lisa Congdon was the conference keynote speaker. She’s a fine artist, illustrator and author whom I admire and have been following via her blog and social media long enough that I sometimes have the feeling that we are actually friends, haha. Anyway, I heard about the conference through my ol’ bud Lisa 😉 , and as it turned out hearing her speak was a highlight for me.
She talked about how vulnerability and authenticity in life and in creative practice can make meaningful connections between people. The basic idea is that by being real, especially when it’s hard, we offer something that builds someone else up by making them a little less alone. She referenced the Harvard Study of Adult Development findings on the correllation between relationships – connection – and ultimately, a good life. Then, she dropped a little anecdote that did for me exactly what she was talking about.
It was just a tiny comment really. But coming from Lisa, whom I look up to, it had an impact on me, and even kind of set the trajectory for my weekend. She said that when she first started out, she would go to events and avoid approaching creatives she admired because she thought they would think she wasn’t good enough, wasn’t a real artist. She realised now, she said, that this was not true, that they actually saw her as just like them. But back then, she had “imposter syndrome”, or as it’s called in clinical psychology, the imposter phenomenon.
It all sounded mighty familiar to me.
So what’s imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome refers to that niggling, chronic sense that despite evidence to the contrary, you don’t have what it takes, don’t really belong, and you’ve only just narrowly managed to fool those around you into believing that you do. Do you know the feeling? It is super, duper common. Especially among high achievers, and (maddeningly!) women.
Besides being a shitty, stressful feeling, living in that kinda fear can make us close a lot of doors on ourselves.
I imposter syndromed my way through art school, grad school, and intensely, my first few years of parenting. I know I missed out because of it. Art shows I didn’t apply for. Internships I ignored. People that I didn’t dare approach. When Jonah was born, I literally felt uncomfortable meeting with parent groups or going to drop in centres for fear I’d be exposed as… I don’t know what? Not like, an actual, real parent, somehow. Real parents don’t have surprise babies in the middle of their studies. They don’t eat peanut butter apples for supper at midnight. Real parents wash their floors more than once in a blue moon, have fancy savings plans and don’t live in tiny attic apartments with no nursery for the baby. And their babies sleep in the crib; they don’t use it as a giant laundry basket. Blah, blah, blah.
I remember back when Jonah was a baby and I was finishing my master’s, my dad was taking care of Jonah and he met my new neighbour, who also had a baby. She was a beautiful young doctor and she and her husband had just bought the newly renovated house two doors down from the little attic apartment we were renting. He told me she was such a nice girl and seemed really interested in meeting me, but in my insecurity, I kept putting it off. Finally, he invited her up when he knew I was home and I was so flustered, it must have seemed like I totally blew her off. Now I think back and I can see the look of hope on her face. She was just a new parent too, in a new neighbourhood, looking for others to share this crazy thing with. That could have been so good for both of us.
Sure enough, when I started honestly talking to other parents, in real life and through blogs and social media I realised that they were likewise figuring things out, striking every conceivable balance and gracefully dropping balls here and there and everywhere in the process.
And that really made parenting easier and more fun and opened me up to lot of friendships and all the joy and opportunities that came through them.
Lisa’s comment resonated with me now, though, because most recently I’ve been hobbling around with that self-clipped wing in my creative pursuits. Over the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about where I want to put my narrow margin of energy outside bringing up the babies and managing my insane apartment explosion. And… I love to draw. Making bright, playful, heartfelt picture stories is my delight. If you knew me at 10 this may have been pretty obvious, but it’s taken me a while to get back there. I’ve been doing some freelance illustration over the past couple of years, and it feels good. I want to expand on it and I’ve got ideas that I’m so excited about, but I’ve caught myself choking out my own plans.
Here’s how it works. A frightened little part of me whispers mean crap ranging from completely discounting the credibility or honesty of people who express an interest in my work, to finding a gazillion excuses for not taking the practical steps I’ve laid out for myself, or simply overloading me with self doubt that paralyses me into letting opportunities fall through my fingers. I’m just good with Instagram filters, it says. I’m a hack. I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t belong here.
The thing about thoughts like that is that they prefer to be kept quiet. They feel shameful. So we shove them covertly into the recesses of our being, where they become private, isolating forces. Sneaky little influences that hide and hinder us.
And that is why Lisa’s little admission struck such a sweet note with me. Like magic, it made me feel less alone. Seeing my own damning thoughts and fears mirrored in Lisa, (for whom they certainly couldn’t be true) took the power out of them, and I felt bolstered by that connection. Oh, I thought. Huh. Maybe I’m not so different from these people. And going forward with my head high and my little box of beautiful, freshly printed business cards felt that much easier.
I started this post, oh, a good two months ago, so I’ve had the luxury of really thinking about my waning imposter syndrome (hey, a silver lining to taking an infinity to finish things!). I think that connecting honestly with others in a similar situation is one of three broad strategies, or as I will call them “elixirs” that can be used to shrink even the most annoyingly persistent and recurring cases of imposter syndrome. They are as follows. Ahem.
Elena’s Triad of Elixirs for
Stubborn Cases of Imposter Syndrome
The Logic Elixir
The first is logic. A good look at the facts. I like to take a mild cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) approach myself. It starts with pinning down the negative thoughts I am having, e.g., I have no idea what I am doing, and then refuting those thoughts with rational evidence, such as examples of successes I’ve had, skills I’ve acquired, and trustworthy positive affirmation I’ve received. Given the new evidence, I will simply replace my negative thought with a more positive, rational alternative, such as I have lots to learn, but I am good at some things and am making progress. Sounds basic, and it is, but it’s amazing how long those distorted thoughts can run rogue if we let them.
The Connection Elixir
The second elixir is connection. This is the Lisa Congdon anecdote variety, or back in my earlier parenting days, the talking candidly with other parents variety. The more we get out there and connect with others doing similar things, giving honest voice to our joys and fears and listening to and supporting others through theirs, the more we realise we are not so different from the superstars who surround us. It’s amazing how that authentic connection can shrink and shrivel those insecurities like a deflating balloon.
The Action Elixir
And finally, we need to take action. There is nothing that works to weaken the grasp of debilitating thoughts like just going ahead in spite of them. Calling them what they are: A weird and wily collection of rogue brain chemicals. Bid them good day, and do the things they say you can’t do. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but that will change. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy talks about her own imposter syndrome in her incredible Ted Talk on the power of body language. Cuddy experienced a head injury during college, took four years longer than her peers to graduate but eventually made her way to Princeton, Harvard and beyond. The talk is pretty mind blowing if you haven’t seen it yet, and she ends with a passionate (and evidence based!) message to “fake it until you become it.” Go out there and do it anyway, and do it again, and again, until we no longer feel like we are faking it, until we no longer feel like we don’t belong, because we do.
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I’ve been actively taking all three elixirs over the past several months. There are no contraindications – they work beautifully together. I started with The Logic Elixir, which gave me the courage to sit myself on that plane with my little blog and business cards and present my smiling self over and over to the other creatives at Blogtacular. This lead naturally to the connection elixir and the action elixir, as I eschewed my ill-placed shame and looked my peers – even my superstar peers! – in the eye and talked about the things I was struggling with and asked them questions and learned and laughed with them.
And I came home feeling legit. Inspired, capable, and less like an imposter in this game than I ever have. Of course, it’s still a work in progress. It takes a little creativity to keep those elixirs a flowin’, get the proper dosage in ordinary life. For example, for connection, I listen to a lot of podcasts (my favourite at the moment is Creative Pep Talk with Andy J. Miller, for the big hearted creative entrepreneurs out there! It’s amazing!). And the reality is, I don’t expect to be totally done with self doubt, maybe ever, but somehow when I do the things outlined above, I’m not so tripped up by it.
Which is exciting. 🙂
And I hope, helpful for you too!
Photos courtesy of Will Ireland for Mollie Makes