I’ve never broached this subject before, which for me is kind of a miracle. It’s certainly something that I’ve had to work under for the entirety of my creative career, yet not once did it ever occur to me to write a help-piece for others.
That was of course, until last night. My wife came home from work at her fabulous new job, and confessed to me that she was already struggling with Impostor Syndrome in this new venue. For her part, she was dealing with the irrational belief that she had somehow fooled her superiors into hiring her for the position.
Preach on, love. The Choir’s listening intently.
Impostor Syndrome is an absolute harridan of a mental state to contend with, and if you’re one of those fellow creatives out there trying to pay the bills with your skills, you’ve undoubtedly encountered it. Well, unless you’re an unrepentant narcissist. If so, what the hell are you doing here? Shoo.
Pictured: That guy. Don’t be him.
We talked for a good hour and change about it—and stayed up far too late—but in the end she felt better. What’s more, the talk inspired me to actively chat about it myself in this medium. Because frankly, Impostor Syndrome has been my close companion and confidant for the majority of my life.
Every voice-over role I’ve ever landed, every paid illustration commission I’ve ever put my hand to, every book sold, and every single convention panel I’ve given have come pre-packaged with the same kind of guilt and self-recrimination that my wife was experiencing in her new job. You know the drill. You know the words. You might be thinking them right now.
“I’m not really qualified. Did I just fool them into accepting me?”
And honestly I think that’s just because Impostor Syndrome shares a flat with Depression, and it has long since picked up on some of the greatest hits of Depression’s tricks and bad habits. Chiefly, it capitalizes on the irrational idea that the person in question is unworthy, and that the people around them will eventually find out and drop them as quickly as Lance Armstrong got booted by his own charity.
The key word here is irrational. But I’ll get back to that.
Not that kind of irrational …
The good news is that since it has opted for living in my gray matter rent-free, I’ve learned a few tricks to put it in its place before it can really screw over my day. I’ll freely admit that these mental gymnastics do not cause the feeling to go away completely. I don’t believe it ever truly leaves you alone. If there’s a Power Word: Kill kind of arcana that perform this minor miracle, I’ve not found it. But I do at least know how to keep it at bay while I get the work done.
First off, here’s where a bit of my own self-recrimination can be used for my benefit. Consider it a bit of psychological jujitsu that I apply to redirect Impostor Syndrome’s momentum back in its dumb face.
Note: I do not consider myself the smartest person in the room, in the partnership, or in the relationship. Like, ever. I know things, yes, but I fervently believe that I’m never the brightest crayon in that box. So, the idea that I’ve just pulled the wool over the eyes of whomever has hired me, is listening to me, or has bought from me is laughable when looked at in that unflinching spotlight. It assumes that I’m either that clever (ha ha ha no) or that the other person is just that stupid. That might be mathematically possible, but statistically it doesn’t track across the board. Me one, Impostor Syndrome nil.
But let’s entertain the idea that they’re just being “nice”. Okay, sure. I like nice. I can eagerly work within the limitations of nice.
Because nice doesn’t account for complete strangers who’ve paid for my work. Nice doesn’t explain away projects involving large budgets thrown my way. Nice doesn’t qualify the idea that there are people out there sporting flippin’ tattoos of my work. And, to be blunt, while friends buying my books or illustrations are certainly nice people, you don’t become a repeat customer shelling out your own hard earned dime just to be nice.
There’s something there that’s quality beyond the friendship, or beyond the concept of a rando being overly polite to me. There’s something worth it to them. Me two, Impostor Syndrome goose egg.
What else ya got? Let’s make it a hat trick, shall we? Hit me with that two-fisted nightmare: what if they find out I’m not who they think I am? What if they snap out of their daze, and discover that I’m an untalented nobody? I’ve failed so much before, so what’s going to stop them from seeing me as a failure and jumping ship?
And here, Impostor Syndrome has a point. I have failed repeatedly in the past. I’ve been fired from jobs. And at first blush, I have every reason to be worried, given my record. But, as always, it’s on examination that this argument made by this council proves to be incomplete.
The last two jobs I was actively fired from were at Subway, and Sonic Drive-in. I was 16 and 17 years old respectively. So, you’re telling me that an impatient, dumb, younger me got ousted from a couple of fast food gigs? Calamity!
How about those failure? Hoo boy, do I have a string of them. I totally cop to that. But none of them were for a lack of trying, and none of them were contingent on the employment given me by someone else. Got that? Each one of those failed projects was mine.
And what was the result? I work harder. I try harder. When I work with a client, I give them my best, and make corrections as needed. When it’s a book that someone bought, I make sure the next one is better, and a constant improvement on whatever they read before. Again, all on my own time, my own dime, and my own sense of accomplishment.
Announcer Voice ACTIVATE: FINISH HIM!
Because, dear Impostor Syndrome, I’m selling my works, not myself.
Me three. Impostor Syndrome nada. Flawless victory. It takes time, effort, and an understanding of your own limitations to deal with this issue, sure, but it also takes a fair accounting of your own strengths. If people approached you, hired you, or commissioned you for what you do, it’s because they see something there that your own mind won’t always give you a glimpse of.
Your real potential.
Until next time, Horns Up.
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