“I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”
In 1978, psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes wrote for the first time about the Impostor Phenomenon. They had both experienced it, the feeling that their success was due to luck, or some mysterious coincidence, rather than their own hard work, intelligence and talent. Despite all external evidence to support the idea that their success was the result of ability and competence, they just didn’t feel that it was deserved.
If this all sounds familiar, welcome to the Imposters Club. I’ve been a member for about thirty years now – and so have most of my clients. It seems that nobody is actually deserving of their success. Somehow we’ve accomplished what we have through a combination of good fortune, the hand of fate, timing, and an excellent ability to fool the whole world.
Of course, that’s not really the case. The vast majority of the people that I work with are talented, smart and interesting, with something worthwhile to offer the world. The path to their accomplishments is obvious to me, and most others. Maybe a couple of them have been blessed with the ability to blag their way through a tough spot, or look more capable than they felt, but in many ways this is also a talent and deserving of some self-praise.
“Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”
I also meet a lot of Imposters in camouflage. They come across as extreme wankers, so abundantly sure of how their extraordinary talent led to their obvious achievements, and so happy to tell you ALL about it. Scrape away the layers of dickhead, though, and you reveal insecure creatives who can’t believe their good fortune and wonder when the Success Fraud Squad are going to come along and bust them.
Imposterism has many names, but they all describe the psychological experience of feeling like you don’t deserve your success. It’s not actually a disorder or a syndrome, but it can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression for people who experience it to the extreme.
You’ll know you’re experiencing Imposterism because:
- You can’t accept praise for work well done. You will point out your mistakes before taking ownership of success, and deflect any compliments about your skill or talent;
- You’ll point out other people’s contributions to your success instead of owning your own cleverness;
- You’ll only focus on the flaws of your work, not the strengths;
- You’ll get so far into a project, then start procrastinating and leaving everything to the last minute, so as to avoid the feeling that you’re not worthy;
- When it’s really bad? You’ll dodge taking on any new challenges at all.
“Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, I can’t do this. I’m a fraud.”
Imposterism is very common among creatives. It’s complicated by the fact that society doesn’t believe that our work is valuable, our parents were often not supportive of our creative professions, and our careers advisors all told us to look for ‘proper jobs’ instead of focussing on where our talents and intelligence might naturally take us. People who are breaking new ground, who might be a minority in their professional world, or who are succeeding in an area that is typically riddled with failure, can suffer from Imposterism even more.
Imposterism is ably helped by not wanting to look like a wanker. It’s easier (and less likely to piss people off) to say that luck was the reason you achieved, and not your own abilities. “I won that award because I was lucky” is easier to say, and believe, than “I won that award because I’m brilliant”.
“I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself, and other people.”
Happily, Imposterism tends to fade as we get older. I still experience it, but much less than I used to. This is simply the result of gathering evidence over time. In the past three decades I have increased my skills and maintained a level of success that can’t simply be the result of luck. Slowly but surely I have amassed proof that I’m a bit clever, and talented, AND extremely fortunate.
To decrease your own Imposterism, experts also recommend:
- Seeking out constructive compliments so you can better understand how you were able to achieve positive outcomes. This includes collecting positive feedback, learning from it, and revising it when you feel Imposterism setting in;
- Documenting the cause and effect of success, so you can better track and compare actual luck and happy coincidence with the consequences of your skill and ability;
- Training your brain to focus on the positive aspects of a successful project, rather than the negative;
- Taking a moment to look behind you and reflect on how far you’ve come, and how much influence your own ability has had on your accomplishments;
- Talking about Imposterism with others, especially creatives. Recognising it in someone else can help you to understand how it works for you;
- Sharing your concerns with people you trust. They can help you to understand that you are not a fraud or a fake, but a clever creative with every right to your achievement.
Imposterism is a shared experience. You are not alone, and you can help yourself and others to start recognising that Imposterism is unhelpful, and inaccurate.
“I still sometimes feel like a loser kid in high school and I just have to pick myself up and tell myself that I’m a superstar every morning so that I can get through this day and be for my fans what they need for me to be.”
YOU ARE COMPETENT – YOU ARE CLEVER – YOU BELONG
More resources for Imposters…
Read more about successful people with impostor syndrome, who share how they embrace it.
Read more quotes about Imposterism.
Take a look at this video of women sharing their experiences of overcoming imposter syndrome in their careers.
You can also find out more on this helpful Ted-Ed video, What is imposter syndrome and how can you combat it? by Elizabeth Cox.
Take this test by Pauline Rose Clance, the psychologist behind imposter syndrome, to see if you have any imposter characteristics or experiences. If you find that you do, then know you’re not alone.
If you or anyone you know needs help:
Lifeline on 13 11 14
beyondblue on 1300 224 636
MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
Headspace on 1800 650 890
QLife on 1800 184 527