How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome
Updated: Jan 24
In this post I aim to guide you on how to be confident, rise above rejections and gain or maintain self confidence as artists.
Imposter syndrome is a curse!
You might find it strange to make this as my last post for the year of 2022. Nevertheless, I believe it is a subject matter all artists are familiar with, though perhaps unable to verbalize exactly what it is, which is why it should be discussed more. In fact I began to feed thoughts and reflections about this topic long ago and at the time of writing this Blog, I was scheduled to deliver a speech about the long way to success to high schoolers in my former Alma Mater. As I sat in front of my desk with piles of books, untouched paints and brushes—basically procrastinating on my actual projects I wondered, “Who the hell am I to talk about success?”
Experts in human behavior call this persistent and combined feeling of insecurity and unworthiness the "imposter syndrome." Head over to TedTalks and there is a plethora of speakers encouraging everyone that it is possible to overcome imposter syndrome. Almost every prominent personality, especially women, on the world stage attest to this phenomenon. It is real and it is a shared experience by everyone employed in any industry especially evident in women. In my own experience, it is a curse on every artist. It gets even worse the more successful you become.
"People with imposter syndrome are convinced that they are frauds, and that they do not deserve what they have achieved. They usually attribute their success to luck." - Lisa Congdon, illustrator extraordinaire
Do you agree that the life of an artist has a lot of ups and downs? One moment you are super inspired and then the next you are drowning from frustrations. Then you are in cloud 9 again because your clients loved your work while you worry because you have not booked any projects yet despite the inquiries. While your clients rave about your work, you wonder what potential clients are saying about your portfolio? Are you really as good as your last job? That my friends, is the reality of a freelance artist in a global setting. You win some. You lose some.
However I am not here to wallow on this profession's unpredictability but rather to give you some insights on how the mind of a full time artist works like a roller coaster and how to find ways in overcoming this so called "valley of despair."
I celebrated my 42nd birthday in November. Flip those numbers and I am taken back to my best and worst year trying to become a filmmaker. I got promoted and then fired, by the way, for being young and female and that was a humbling wake up call.
If you are now midlife like me, you are likely experiencing anxiety over your image, your health, relationships, family, career, future and just about anything. I could blame my erratic to non-existent hormones, but that could only be a trigger to a deeper inner conflict. If you are in your twenties or thirties like I was, you are also likely experiencing anxiety over your image, your health, relationships, family, career, future and just about anything. At any age, women have the same issues in different circumstances.
Vulnerability and leadership expert Brené Brown beautifully defines midlife as not a crisis but rather an unraveling of "a series of painful nudges strung together by low-grade anxiety and depression, quiet desperation, and an insidious loss of control" enough to make you crazy and question your very existence.
"Midlife: I’m serious, you’re half way to dead. Get a move on." - Brené Brown, vulnerability and leadership expert
Midlife is also rebirth. On the one hand I am losing my mind and on the other I am still ambitious. I have the same drive to succeed just like my 24 year old self but this time more equipped with experience with equal amounts of cynicism and idealism. I might have at least 25 years left to try and achieve more things. What if I did not get there—have I failed? No. I would not have failed because I have at least tried. I have no regrets!
Your best contribution in any endeavor at any age is your courage. Be brave enough to take one step and then another to reach a point where you will be asked to carry on or not. Much of what will happen next will not be under your control anyway. Get a move on!
Making art is work
How to get over the imposter syndrome? Stop romanticizing the tortured artist or any mental illness related to creatives. Most creative professionals are normal healthy people. Art history, the art world, media and the movies love the idea of a tortured artist because it makes their oeuvre more attractive and therefore sellable but the truth is mental instability is rarely the driving force in creation. It is an impediment. How can you function 100% when your head is unclear and your face is on the floor all the time? What if you think of making art as a job that needs to be done?
The difference between an amateur and a professional artist is that a pro pushes forward despite the creative blockage or inhibitions of negative thoughts to meet requirements. You have no excuse to act like babies anymore. Contracts and deadlines are great motivators to finish the work. When I was just practicing and relearning the craft six years ago, I treated my day as a typical work day that starts at 10am until 7pm with ample breaks in between. I aimed to finish at least one artwork a day. Those weekly online course assignments further pushed me to work more efficient and faster.
The difference between an amateur and a professional artist is that a pro pushes forward despite the creative blockage or inhibitions of negative thoughts to meet requirements.
If you are a hired artist, remember also that your clients chose you out of hundreds of artists to work on that project, which already means a lot. They saw something in you that convinced them you could do this job. So do it. Prove them right. The good thing is, you already love what you are doing no matter how challenging or pressured with time. That makes your job much easier.
Although... it is always nerve-wracking while waiting for a feedback and you begin entertaining thoughts of your clients finding out that you are not what they expected. Once paranoia starts to creep in...
Drown out the negative thoughts
Listen to other people’s cure to negative thoughts. Watching TedTalks or some famous person’s graduation speech or Lisa Congdon’s audiobooks are my antidote against self pity and flagellation. I also discovered Jerry Saltz, Pulitzer winning art critic and advocate of artists, and began reading his books. SCBWI also has been conducting a series of interviews of their member illustrators, who are beacons of hope for all aspiring and professional children's books illustrators. Keep them talking in the background while you work. Note down parts of the speech that struck a chord. Write it on a Post-it or hand letter it later. It will be like having invisible cheerleaders egging you to keep on moving. There is something reassuring in listening to people who are doing and going through the same thing. You are not alone.
Turn off the faucet
Stay away from Instagram, Pinterest, Make Art That Sells Facebook groups, your picture book collections and every site where beautiful art is on display even for just an hour—longer if you can. When you are running out of ideas or inspiration is drying up you naturally turn to these visual platforms and sometimes when you are already feeling inadequate, you tend to gloat even more or get jealous of all those eye-candy art. You begin to ask yourself, why can you not make something like that? The brutal answer is you cannot because the only person who could make that piece is the one who created it. Yours will always look different because you have your own style, your voice, your brush stroke, choice of medium and so on. Focus on your own abilities, the subject matters that you like, or your favorite colors and try to create from these core ingredients that make you a unique artist.
Look at yourself in a mirror
Which brings me to this question: what is it you are really good at? Be specific. For example, I love the way I paint trees, which I dreaded making before but now is indicative of my own style. As a maximalist, I love details, which makes stories come to life. I also love my whimsical ideas that inspire my picture book illustrations. I can laugh at every mistake I make. I sing while I work that gets me always in high spirits. I am a functioning introvert who does not shy away from people so I could build meaningful relationships. I flaunt my talents and therefore I show up with my good and bad art. I am resourceful, adaptable and confident that makes me find solutions to any problems. My curiosity is insatiable and I am a fast learner, which allows me to have a wider world view on things. I could go on.
Now can you list down attributes about yourself that you really like and how it helps you move forward? How about the tools that you love using? What stories do you like reading or movies that you have memorized? Who inspires and influences you? Can you make something out of those? The point here is to learn how to appreciate who you are and what you can naturally do.
Write an inspirational speech to students
Now this was effective. I was invited to deliver a speech twice at my former schools. Though I procrastinated writing the motivational speech because I was battling this creative rut the whole time, I finished eventually and was surprised that I talked myself out of the negative thoughts. I am not kidding! You do not even have to be on stage in front of an audience. When you write about your life and how you overcame every obstacle, you also begin to appreciate your resilience, your strength and your humanity in such a way that you do not idolize yourself or romanticize your life. In fact you see yourself as a human, who makes mistakes and ultimately learn from them. Suddenly you want to pay forward to the next generation all the things that you have learned to assure them that they will be fine as long as they keep on going.
Optimist Simon Sinek believes in the reverse bucket list. Make a list of what you have done and just remember how impossible it seemed back then to accomplish them. If you just list the things you want to do, most of the time life happens and you overlook or forget about this list. Or it becomes too burdensome that you fill pressured and may even sabotage yourself in the process. Who wants to carry a bucket all the time, anyway?
"What a bucket list does is a long list of things we haven’t done, and it reminds us of all the things we’re missing – and it neglects gratitude. And I would rather we look at all the things we have done and be grateful for the fact that we’ve lived rich lives up until this moment... what’s more fun to do is go through the list of things I have done, and the things that I never thought I would be able to do that I was able to do, and it’s a nicer feeling than the things I’m missing out on." - Simon Sinek, motivational speaker and founder of The Optimism Company
At the start of this year I wrote about the things I wanted to accomplish for my art career. You may review it here. I was able to tick off a few of them like becoming a member of a local art club and joining a group exhibition, learning about working as an artist in Germany via seminars and workshops, adding a Wacom tablet in my toolkit, finding an ob-gyne/endocrinologist in Stuttgart who cares, and most importantly getting paid for my art. I took small steps and let the chips fall where they may. Hey, I also debuted as a children's books illustrator with three books published one after the other. That is something I never thought would happen nor even aspired to happen when I was younger!
Change your perspective
Imposter syndrome keeps you on your toes—you do not get to relax or be complacent about your work. It can drive you to push your limits. Just remember that your point of comparison is your own work and not others. Ask yourself how you can improve on the last work you did but remember also to be kind to yourself.
"When I'm not feeling my best I ask myself, 'What are you going to do about it?' I use the negativity to fuel the transformation into a better me." - Beyoncé
To survive as an artist, you need a dose of self confidence. But you can only do that if you know you have the skills to back it up. Own it. Own your experiences. Tell your story. Take up space. When people called me weird, I owned my weirdness. There is no one like me out there in the same way that there is no one like you.
I was a victim of a fake account in Instagram. Me? Why me? What I learned from that experience was that, first, no one is spared from scamming in the Internet. Second, your identity is volatile and it can be stolen by anyone. Lastly, you need to fight for your place in this world. I had to prove to Instagram that I am the only Michelle Carlos, artist, out of the billions of their users and hundreds with the same name. The fake account was deleted within 24 hours. I also learned that your true self will win over supporters who will also help you fight this injustice. People will choose authenticity above popularity.
Believe in yourself. If you do not then who will?