024: Overriding Imposter SyndromeMay 23, 2023
Imposter syndrome. I’ll bet that you have a visceral reaction just to hearing me say those two words. Every creative that I’ve ever known has dealt with imposter syndrome at some point during their artistic career. Imposter syndrome is virtually impossible to avoid. But it’s not impossible to overcome. You are not helpless in the face of your imposter feelings. You can take steps to hit the mute button on that little devil on your shoulder whispering that you’re not good enough or that your work isn’t valuable. You can override imposter syndrome. Today, we’re going to talk about how to do that.
Hello, thriving artists, and welcome to the Starving Artist No More podcast! I’m your host, creative entrepreneur and artist Jennifer Jill Araya, and I’m so excited to be back with you today. I recently had to take a brief break from this weekly podcast because I had a symphony concert to get ready for! A few weeks ago, I performed the soprano solo part in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, and the extra rehearsals and practice time meant that something in my weekly and daily workload had to give, and that “something” was recording new episodes for this podcast. But I’m back now and so excited to share with you the upcoming episodes I’ve got planned. I’ve had quite a few creatives write to me over the past month wanting to know my thoughts about specific topics related to creative entrepreneurship, and I’m excited to share those topics and thoughts with you as well.
Which reminds me, if there’s something you want me to talk about here on this podcast, let me know! You can reach me on my website, www.StarvingArtistNoMore.com. Just fill out the contact form and let me know the topic you think I should discuss during a future episode. My goal with this podcast is to help you, and so if there’s something you want to me to discuss, then I will make that happen!
I also have a resource on my website that I want to make sure you know about. Finances are a really difficult thing for every creative entrepreneur. Many of the artist business owners I know are graduates of fine art school or music school or acting school. We didn’t study business and finance. We’re not intimately familiar with the finer points of managing the finances of a small business. And yet, that is exactly what we find ourselves doing as creative entrepreneurs. Yes, we get to make a living with the craft that we love and that brings us joy and artistic fulfillment, but we also have to deal with the financial side of the business! If you’re struggling with that, visit my website, www.StarvingArtistNoMore.com, and fill out the form so that I can email you my free guide, “Say Goodbye to Feast or Famine: Three Financial Must-Haves for Creative Entrepreneurs.” This guide is completely free, and I really believe that it can help you get a handle on the tricky financial aspects of your business. Small business finances are scary to most creative entrepreneurs, but they don’t have to be. You can operate your business with well-managed finances, and this guide can help. Just go to www.StarvingArtistNoMore.com and fill out the form to get the guide delivered to your email inbox.
And with that, it’s time to turn to the main topic of today’s episode: how to override imposter syndrome.
Before we dig in too deep, let’s get our terms straight. If you’ve listened to previous episodes of this podcast, you know that my primary artistic work is as an audiobook narrator, and when I’m narrating an audiobook, definitions matter! So let’s define imposter syndrome. In this case, I find Wikipedia’s definition super helpful: “Impostor syndrome … is a psychological occurrence in which people doubt their skills, talents, or accomplishments and have a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as frauds. Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon do not believe they deserve their success or luck.”
As I mentioned a few minutes ago, imposter syndrome is incredibly common in the creative and artistic world. In my own anecdotal experience, every creative that I’ve known well enough to know whether or not they deal with imposter syndrome has at some point dealt with that insidious voice in their head whispering that they’re not deserving of success, that their work isn’t good enough, that they’re not good enough. It’s a pervasive and damaging state of mind that can hold you back from being your best artistic self and doing your best creative work. Imposter syndrome is hard, and it is everywhere.
So what do you do about it? When those thoughts of inadequacy and doubt crowd into your mind, how do you banish them? When you feel like a fraud, where do you turn? When you don’t believe your success is valid or genuine, how do you move forward?
I’ve got some ideas that have helped me and have helped the creative entrepreneurs I work with. These ideas are not the be-all, end-all for dealing with imposter syndrome. I know that all of these ideas won’t work for everyone, but my hope is that at least one, if not more, of them will work for you. And I also want to begin by saying that if you listen to this episode and find yourself saying, “but I’ve tried all that, and it’s not gotten any better,” it’s ok to seek help, whether that’s from a coach or mentor, or from a psychiatrist or therapist. Yes, imposter syndrome is a common phenomenon, but you don’t have to sink under its weight. Hopefully this little podcast episode provides a way for you to start on that journey, but if it’s not enough for you, be proactive and get the help you need. You can override those thoughts and emotions, especially if you have the right people helping you in that journey.
So, with that little caveat, let’s dig into my ideas for fighting imposter syndrome. The first thing I always do when I find myself sinking under the burden of imposter syndrome is to squash any hint of comparisonitis. When you’re feeling not good enough, focus on your own work and your own process, and let the work and process of others go.
In creative industries, it can be so incredibly difficult to stop the comparison game. From the very earliest years, when elementary school art projects are hung on the walls of the art room, we can’t help but compare our work to those of our peers and colleagues. And that continues all the way through. I remember the studio showcase performances in my years as a conservatory student. As a working professional, I still attend masterclasses and workshops where I’m performing and receiving critique alongside my colleagues. It’s impossible not to compare yourself and your work to others …. isn’t it?
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” and he was so right. When you allow yourself to sink into the mires of comparisonitis, of comparing yourself and your work to others, you are stealing your own joy. You are sapping your creative experience of its delight and wonder. You are focusing on someone else’s work and thereby hurting your own.
Part of the reason that comparisonitis is so damaging is that you are comparing your own full-bodied artistic experience, with all its ups and downs and loop-de-loops with someone else’s highlights reel. When you’re comparing yourself to someone else, you don’t have all the information. What you see is equivalent to their social media highlights reel. It’s only showing the best, only portraying them in a flattering light. It’s not the full picture. You don’t see their struggles. You don’t see their setbacks and disappointments. You don’t see the moments when they’re weighed down under their own comparisonitis and imposter syndrome tendencies. You are an outsider looking in at your colleague’s work, and in most cases, you simply can’t know everything. Comparing yourself to your colleague is like comparing your “just out of bed, haven’t even brushed my teeth or my hair” selfie with your colleague’s retouched professional head shot. Of course it’s not going to compare favorably! You’re not comparing like with like. The comparison is meaningless.
And in those rare cases where you do know enough about someone else’s work and work process to feel like you know everything, or at least know most things, you are still a different person with different strengths and weaknesses than them.
I have a close business accountability relationship with two other audiobook narrators, Gail Shalan and Marni Penning. We meet every other week to share our joys and struggles with each other, and we problem solve together with the difficulties we are each facing. And in that little group of three, we all have different strong and weak areas. The things that I’m good at, and that are easy for me, are not necessarily easy for Gail and/or Marni. And the places where I struggle might be the easiest things in the world for them! I know these two ladies and their work well enough that I could, if I wanted to, compare my business with theirs. But it still wouldn’t be a like-with-like comparison. It would still be meaningless. Because what is hard for me is not necessarily hard for them, and vice versa.
When my old nemesis of imposter syndrome starts whispering insidiously in my ear, my first act of resistance is to squash any comparisons that I’m making. I fill my mind with my work and my projects and my tasks. I focus in on what I can do, on what I have control over. I let go of what they’re doing, and I focus on what I’m doing.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t see the wins and achievements of my colleagues and peers. I absolutely can still notice what they’re doing and celebrate with them. But it does mean that I don’t let my internal thoughts continue down that path to the point that I’m comparing myself to them. I remind myself that I am only seeing their highlights reel, so any comparison I make is meaningless. What I can control is my own work and my own process, so I move my focus there and let comparisonitis go.
But what do you do when your feelings of self-doubt and fear stem not from comparing yourself to what others are doing – the work of your colleagues and peers – but rather from what others are saying or thinking about you?
I’ve had this happen. Honestly, this is where I struggle with imposter syndrome the most. A bad review about my work comes out in a publication or is posted online. An overheard conversation or a posted social media comment portrays negative thoughts about my work. How do you fight feelings of inadequacy when they stem from other people’s thoughts about your work?
I’ve got a quote from author Daniel H. Pink that I think is appropriate here. In his book The Power of Regret, he writes, “Human beings are impressive creatures. We can fly planes, compose operas, and bake scones. But we generally stink at divining what other people think and anticipating how they will behave. Worse, we don't realize how inept we are at these skills.”
Human beings are terrible at knowing what other people are thinking and anticipating what they will do. We just don’t know other people’s motives as well as we think we do.
Imposter syndrome can sometimes stem from believing – fearing – that others think you’re unqualified to do the work that you do. But it’s impossible for you to know what they’re thinking. You’re human, and just like me, you’re really bad at figuring out other people’s thoughts and predicting their actions. The people that you fear think of you negatively probably don’t.
And yes, sometimes reviews are written or statements are made that directly state that you or your work isn’t good enough. But along the same lines as what Pink was saying, we also stink at determining others’ motivations. Who knows why that reviewer wrote what they wrote, or why that person speaking about you negatively said what they said. Their ill view of you and your work likely has a lot more to do with their pre-existing emotional and mental state than it actually does with you and your work.
We can’t know others thoughts. We can’t accurately predict what they’re going to do. And we can’t know why they’re doing any of it. We can’t know their motives.
There’s nothing to do but let it go. Don’t give other people space in your head. Banish others’ thoughts and opinions and actions. Their thoughts and motives are unknowable to you, anyway. Don’t let them have power over you and your work.
Instead, focus on the feedback and constructive criticism of those who you truly trust to give you that kind of guidance. Whether that’s a mentor, teacher, or coach, or whether that’s a trusted colleague who is also a friend, absorbing the feedback from someone who truly holds your best interests at heart will always be a better plan.
Some artists I know are review buddies for each other. They never read their own reviews but instead have a friend who reads all their reviews for them, and they read all of their partner’s reviews. That way, their partner can share the really good, stand-out reviews and can also keep an eye out for any negative patterns revealed by those reviews that the artist needs to address. And they aren’t giving those Negative Nellies any space in their head.
I’ve just told you two things not to do in your effort to override imposter syndrome – stop comparing yourself to others, and banish others’ thoughts and opinions. Now let’s look at two proactive strategies, two things you can do to make a difference in how you view yourself and your work. Sometimes, being told to stop doing something is like being told not to think of a white elephant … you hear the prohibition not to do it and can’t help but do it. So to keep that from happening, I’m going to give you two positive thought patterns to replace them. Goodbye comparisonitis and other people’s thoughts. Hello gratitude and supportive self-talk.
First, gratitude. I’ve talked about the importance of gratitude in the life of an artist before, all the way back in Episode 4 of this podcast. But it’s important enough to the fight against imposter syndrome that I had to mention it again. Having a mindset of gratitude about your work makes a huge difference in your perception of that work.
It all stems from a psychological phenomenon called the Frequency Illusion. In short, this theory states that the more you notice something, the more likely you are to notice that same thing in the future. If you’re on the lookout for people named Joan, you’ll notice people named Joan every time they come along, and it will feel like they’re everywhere. If you’re on the lookout for good things in your career and life as a creative entrepreneur, you’ll notice them every time they happen, and it will feel like they’re everywhere.
Stanford professor Arnold Zwicky, who coined the term “frequency illusion,” says that frequency illusion happens for two reasons: first, humans have selective attention bias. We notice things that are important to us and disregard the rest. If what is important to you is people named Joan, you’ll make note of them. But you won’t notice all the people named John and Jane and Judy. Only what is important to you will “stick.” And secondly, once we start noticing something thanks to selective attention bias, we use confirmation bias – when we look for things that support our beliefs while disregarding things that go against them – to continue to reinforce in our minds that whatever it is we’re noticing is everywhere all the time. In other words, if the name Joan matters to you, you’ll look for reasons for that name to continue mattering to you. Due to frequency illusion, the tendency to notice something a second, third, and fourth time once we’ve noticed it the first time is a universal human trait. If we see something once, we’ll be on the lookout for it in the future and see it again and again and again.
The good news is that we can choose what we notice. We can choose what is important to us. We can use this universal human tendency to our advantage by focusing on the good in our creative lives, by focusing on gratitude.
Remember, if you notice something once, you are more likely to notice it again in the future. And your mind will place particular weight on these repeated instances of noticing, meaning that every occurrence of the thing you are noticing gains ever increasing importance in your perception.
If the thing that you are noticing is your creative wins – the experiences and the moments in your creative life that you are thankful for – if you are intentional about noticing the good things about your life as a creative, then you will notice more and more and more that is good. The frequency illusion will start to work for you, positively shaping your perception of your work.
Author Sumner Davenport writes, “Living your life through Gratitude is not one of comparing how you are better than someone else, or Gratitude only for what you own or obtain or achieve. Living your life through Gratitude is seeing that the world would be missing something very valuable if you were not in it.”
If you were not here, doing your creative work and giving of yourself to your artistic pursuits, the world would be poorer for lack of your creativity. When you focus on the pleasure and satisfaction of engaging in the creative process, you are choosing to live your artistic life in gratitude, and imposter syndrome has no place there.
Nothing is more deadly to feelings of imposter syndrome than feelings of joy and fulfillment and gratitude around your creative work. When you are noticing all of the good things about your creativity, you can’t simultaneously feel self-doubt. When you are absorbed in the delight of creating something that never existed before you dreamed it into being, you can’t be bogged down in self-criticism. When you’re savoring the incredible emotional high that comes from pouring your entire being into a project, your mind can’t be telling you that you aren’t good enough. You can crowd out those imposter syndrome feelings so that they don’t have any room to get a foothold, and that begins with embracing gratitude for every tiny little thing that has any positive aspect and focusing on it.
Which leads me directly into my second proactive strategy for overriding imposter syndrome: change your self-talk. Imposter syndrome truly starts in your self-talk, in the stories you tell yourself about who you are and the value of your work in this world. If you are telling yourself, internally, that you’re not good enough, then you’ll feel imposter syndrome. If you’re telling yourself that your work doesn’t measure up, then you’ll doubt that you’re worthy of the success and achievements you receive. If you’re telling yourself that other people are better and more deserving than you are, then feelings of fear and inadequacy will paralyze you. But the root of all of those scenarios is what you’re telling yourself. Cultivate positive self-talk.
We all tell ourselves stories: stories about how the world works, about who we are, and about our place in that world. These things all combine to form what psychologists and scholars call our mental model. I talked a lot about mental models all the way back in the very first episode of this podcast. If you’re dealing with imposter syndrome, the deeper issue is truly that your mental model is telling you that the way the world works is not one in which you and your creativity have value. And that isn’t true. Your mental model is lying to you. So you have to change your mental model.
Now, I don’t want to minimize just how hard it is to change your mental model. I know I just said it rather flippantly – “change your mental model” – but there is a lot of deep, soul-searching, difficult work captured by those four words. But just like the frequency illusion can help us focus on the good in our work, the frequency illusion can help us stop our negative self-talk and shape a mental model that supports us.
When you’re focusing on gratitude, you’re using the frequency illusion to notice very single positive thing that happens in your work. When you’re focusing on changing your mental model, you instead use the frequency illusion to catch any negative self-talk that dares to make an appearance, and change it to a truer, more supportive statement instead.
Mahatma Ghandi said, “Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words. Keep your words positive because your words become your behavior. Keep your behavior positive because your behavior becomes your habits. Keep your habits positive because your habits become your values. Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny.”
Our thoughts, our self-talk, are the root of everything. It is not an exaggeration to say that your beliefs about what is possible for you and your business will be the limiting factor – or the enabling factor – in how your business grows. If you don’t believe it’s possible to have all your needs met by your business, then you won’t be able to recognize the opportunities you have to make that happen.
Building a fulfilling creative business starts by believing it’s possible to do so. And believing it’s possible to do so begins with noticing the stories we tell ourselves, the thoughts that go through our minds, and shaping those stories into self-talk that support, motivate, and encourage us.
But that first step – noticing our self-talk – is hard. So often, the thoughts and motivations that underly our emotions and our actions are almost invisible to our conscious mind. But if you pay attention, you’ll start to pick up on the stories you tell yourself internally, to justify your actions and your emotions. You’ll start to hear the negative stories your head, when you tell yourself, “This happened because my work stinks. That happened because I’m not qualified to take on this project. She said that because I’m not a good enough artist to do justice to this task. He thinks that because I performed so terribly the last time.”
And when you hear the negative stories, you have the power to change them. You can stop those negative stories before they have the chance to impact your emotions and your actions, and you can change them to stories that both are true and that support you.
“This didn’t happen because my work stinks. This happened because I didn’t plan appropriately for the project. I can do better next time.”
“That didn’t happen because I’m not qualified for this project. I am qualified. I wouldn’t have been hired for the project if I weren’t qualified. That happened because I didn’t get the help I needed at the beginning of the project. But it’s not too late. I can ask for help now, and I can still do a really good job.”
“She didn’t say that because I’m not a good enough artist. She said that because she is dealing with her own feelings of imposter syndrome. I can give her grace and offer her friendship. I know that what she said is a reflection of her, not of me.”
“He doesn’t think that because of my poor performance last time. I can’t actually even know what he’s thinking because humans are terrible at guessing what others think. But if he does think that, he’s thinking it because he’s worried about how this project will turn out. It’s been a rough process so far, but I know how I can smooth things out going forward, and I can reassure him that this project will turn out wonderfully.”
Obviously, these are just hypothetical examples. And at first, stopping your negative self-talk and reframing it in a more positive light will feel really silly. It might feel like you’re making excuses for yourself. But you’re not. I guarantee that the more supportive view of the situation is the more correct one. And every time you intentionally move your self-talk from one of criticism and negativity to one of grace and support, you are moving your mental model to one that more closely resembles reality.
And the reality is that the myth of the starving artist is just that: a myth. You can grow and thrive and flourish as a creative entrepreneur. The lies told to you by imposter syndrome are just that: lies. You bring value and significance to your world through your artistic work. You and your work have immeasurable worth. Sharing of yourself with those around you is a gift, and if you let imposter syndrome keep you silent, you’re robbing the world of something it desperately needs: you.
Thank you so much for spending time with me for today’s episode about imposter syndrome and how to override those negative thoughts so that you can truly thrive in your work as a creative. When I’m working to fight imposter syndrome, I first stop the comparison game. I make sure that I’m focusing on joy and excitement for my colleagues, not comparing myself to them. I let go of worries about what other people think and feel about me and my work. I recognize that I probably am misrepresenting what others are thinking and saying, and misunderstanding why they’re saying it, so my best course of action is to just let go of the thoughts and opinions of others. Instead, I focus on gratitude, being intentional about noticing the good so that I’ll continue noticing the good. And I pay attention to my self-talk, noticing any negative stories that float through my internal monologue, and intentionally changing those negative stories to ones that are supportive of who I am and the work I’m trying to do.
If you’ve found today’s episode helpful, or if you just have questions or comments for me, I’d love for you to reach out. My website is www.StarvingArtistNoMore.com, and you can just fill out the contact form to get in touch with me. If you think you need some extra help to handle your imposter syndrome feelings, I’d love to work with you. I offer one-on-one business coaching for creative entrepreneurs, where we dive deeply into mental models and any mindset blocks, like imposter syndrome, that are holding you back in your creative work. And of course, if you found this episode, or any episode of this podcast helpful, please share it with your friends and colleagues. Sharing is caring! And I’d like to send a huge shout-out of gratitude to my husband and audio engineer extraordinaire, Arturo Araya, who engineers every episode of this podcast and who often helps me notice and change my negative self-talk before I’ve even realized those negative stories are rearing their ugly head.
I still deal with imposter syndrome from time to time. None of these strategies are a cure-all. On some level, I think that a little bit of imposter syndrome is inevitable as a creative entrepreneur. But I no longer am paralyzed by it. I have taken steps to override the influence of imposter syndrome. It’s still there, but it doesn’t have the power to control me anymore. The same is possible for you, too. You can override imposter syndrome in your work. You can create with joy and confidence. I can’t wait to see what you create.
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