Imposter syndrome often rears its ugly head when we are finally making progress towards our goals and dreams. This happens because your brain has evolved to keep you safe.
Even though having your own show in a gallery is not going to harm you in any way, your brain sees this new experience as an unknown and wants to save you. Evolution has taught our minds that new and unknown could mean injury or death.
A few years ago I attended a choir concert at my daughter’s high school. I sat in the back where the house lights were on low and brought a small hardback sketchbook and a black ink pen. None of my drawings were great. I was playing around. Drawing letters, the outline of people in the audience.
After the program ended a woman behind me taps me on the shoulder and compliments me on my wonderful drawings. “Are you an artist?”, she asked.
I was a bit dumbfounded. I mumbled some answer about how I was just playing around and it was nothing important. The thought running through my head was I am not an artist! What about me looks like an artist? Can you see how bad these drawings are?
Moments like this have come up in my lifetime and time again. It doesn’t matter that I have sold art. That I have made my living off of being creative. That I have taught classes in art and given talks. But that woman asking me if my stupid doodles were art made my imposter syndrome explode like a volcano.
I still have moments of self-doubt. But thankfully, full on imposter syndrome hasn’t shown up in a long time. Through my work with other artists, and writing about my own experiences I have come up with 5 ways to kick self-doubt in the ass.
1. Recognize that your Brain is Lying to You
The fancy term for this is called cognitive distortions. Basically your brain processes everything you see and runs it through a filter and this can cause big distortions. A simple meaningless interaction like a distracted person not responding to your text quickly enough can be interpreted as they must be mad at me.
If you have anxiety problems this is magnified. I have moments where the rational part of my brain understands the logic and that the fear is not real. But the emotional part of me can’t accept the reality and let go of the feelings of nervousness.
To combat this, challenge your thoughts.
Knowing your brain is lying can take a lot of the edge off. I often ask myself, is this thought actually true? Do I have any evidence this is true? Want to battle this hardcore? Write the thoughts down – the lie, and the more accurate truth.
I suck and am no good at art. I’ll never make it. Vs. I’m having a bad day and I’m feeling very anxious. I want to be better and am not giving myself time to learn.
Later when you have time try writing about your anxiety. Examining the root causes can do a lot to stop these harmful thoughts in their tracks.
Now I try to pay attention to my thoughts so I can stop my anxiety spirals before they start. I’ve taught this to several people who don’t have chronic anxiety problems and they have told me it actually helped them. More than they thought it would.
2. Stop Worrying about Should.
Expectations suck. Growing up we feel the weight of our parents’ hopes and dreams for us. Or what our coaches and teachers expected of us. We are so full of potential we could be anything. A famous actor. The president even! When I was a kid this felt hopeful. It gave me permission to dream.
But somewhere along the way it stopped being hopeful and started being a burden. Because I wasn’t going to be a famous actor, I don’t want to be president. I’m not even sure I want to be a kindergarten teacher.
When I got pregnant in high school I had several teachers tell me they, “expected better” from me. I had “so much potential”. Even several people in my family felt the need to tell me how much I disappointed them, and how much I ruined my life. No pressure though, right?
Expectation and potential translate to a metric fuck ton of pressure to be achieving a certain thing in a specific way at a certain point in our lives. Or you are a failure. Not too long ago even the media was shaming us for eating avocado toast. No matter what choice we have someone has an opinion about how we should be acting, thinking, behaving, or doing.
Often no matter how hard we try to do our own thing we get bogged down with what we should be doing. I shouldn’t be working on my art because my house is a mess. I should be cleaning. I should be doing this…. I should have achieved this by now… Even more broadly we think should statement with thoughts like being creative is a waste of time. I won’t make any money as an artist. I am not creative.
Are those actually your thoughts? Or are they someone else you just adopted somewhere along the way?
To Combat This Give Your Self Permission to Fuck Off.
Try to take should out of your vocabulary. Don’t say I should be cleaning the house. Say, I am choosing to spend time on my art instead of cleaning my house. The meaning is the same, but in the second version you are taking ownership of your choice and setting the intention to work on your art.
A companion to owning your decisions is to stop half working. Half working is when you are sitting at your desk, and instead of working you find yourself wasting time on facebook. Pay attention for this and then stop what you are doing. Half working is a desert of should and guilt. You aren’t working, so you feel guilty. But you also aren’t relaxing. When you go to actually relax later in the day you feel guilty because you wasted so much time earlier.
3. Stop Feeding the Doubt
Changing this was transformational for me. When I learned about the truth, “you are what you think”. I took a hard look at the thought patterns I had.
What I found was that my life taught me to hope for the best, but plan for the worst. But don’t hope too much. Because then you’ll just get disappointed. So actually be realistic. And suck it up and deal.
No wonder I couldn’t accomplish anything.
I spent all my time worrying about and planning for bad results. My experiences were never close to my worst-case scenario, but they were far from my limited hope for the best abilities.
Planning for the worst does not stop the worst from happening. It focuses all our time and attention on negative energy. Meaning we are drawing in more negative experiences because that is what we are looking for.
To Combat This Repeat the Mantra I Will be ok. Everything will work out in my favor.
Repeating it isn’t enough. You really need to believe it.
A belief is just a thought you continue to think. Every time you have a worry-filled negative thought, stop. Tell yourself that isn’t true. And then repeat the mantra, “I will be ok. Everything is going to work out in my favor”. Lock this belief in by following the mantra with a moment where you focus on feeling that you can handle everything that comes your way because you are a strong smart person.
4. Stop Comparing Yourself to Others
Comparing yourself to others is a vicious cycle. No matter why you are looking at someone else’s art, or perfectly perfect Instagram feed, it is so easy to end up feeling like you are missing out. You are never going to get there. You are never going to be that good.
I often describe this as feeling like I’m at the bottom of a mountain. I can’t seem to remember or recognize how far I’ve come. I can only see how far I have to go and looking up at all the artists and creatives who are so much farther along just makes me feel worse.
But I can’t seem to stop looking.
These feelings are often followed by creative ruts where I can’t seem to make anything. Or I hate everything I make. So I start browsing online and looking at other artists “for inspiration”.
To combat this, go on a social media break.
Looking at someone else’s art does not count as being creative! How much art would you have finished If you spent half the time you waste on Instagram actually making art?
Remove facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest from your phone and tablet. Make a point to do something different, like go on a walk. Sit and draw something that is very small and pay attention to the details. Spend a week making a mess in your sketchbook.
The point is to create without the influence of other artists. Work on your creativity and remember to trust that what you create is good enough.
5. All or Nothing Is a Lie
This is a logic-based lie we often tell ourselves. Maybe you’ve told yourself you can’t be an artist unless you can devote 100% of your time to your art. Or you often find yourself giving up on your work, once you hit an ugly stage.
All or nothing is a form of perfectionism – which you very likely struggle with and don’t even know it. Perfection is what allows us to set a goal, such as painting for an hour a day, but then give up as soon as we figure out that our goal doesn’t work in our life.
Perfection is a zero-sum game. Either we operate at 100% or we quit. We secretly believe that if we can’t paint for an hour might as well quit and admit we will never be an artist. If we look at this thought pattern from a more logical viewpoint, even painting for 20 minutes is better than not painting at all.
But when perfection grabs hold quitting feels so good because it allows us to not face the reality that we aren’t as good as we imagine ourselves to be.
To Combat This: Lower your goals and learn to enjoy the journey
Lower your goal. In the above example set the goal for 20 minutes, instead of an hour. And choose satisfaction based on experience. Be proud you completed that 20 minutes, instead of only considering the session successful if you created something you love.
Remember, you can do hard things.
There are many ways to combat imposter syndrome. The most important part is to realize you can change your thought patterns. You can choose what you think and how you feel.
Look back at your life and think of all the hard things you survived.
You can do this. You can reach your dreams. You are awesome. Trust me.
Have you ever dealt with imposter syndrome? comment below and tell me how you dealt with it.