According to a recent study by the Behavioral Science Research Institute, 70% of us will doubt ourselves at some point in our career. The other 30%, of course, will be lying to ourselves. Self-doubt is a curse of the human condition — it comes with being a person. But it is especially rampant among creative people. Maybe that’s because creative success is so nebulous. Maybe it’s because so many insecure people are, for whatever reason, drawn to making art. But we think psychologist Christian Jarrett might be on to something when he suggests: “In our world there is a pervasive myth that there is a minority of super achievers who are born with a magical gift, while the rest of us mortals struggle by with our ordinary talents.” We interpret our effort as lack of talent. We see our successes as flukes.
Whatever its cause, the so-called “impostor syndrome” can be more than just a nuisance — it can be completely debilitating. It’s also just plain wrong. Ironically, feeling like an impostor might be the best indicator that you belong here among us sneaks and phonies, among us creative folk.
People who experience the impostor syndrome have a few things going for them: (1) they have a high regard for their craft (maybe too high); (2) they have a deep respect for their peers (maybe too deep); and (3) they look at their work critically (maybe too critically). People who don’t feel like impostors usually don’t have much skin in the game. The very things that make you feel like an impostor are the same things that can push you to greatness — if they don’t destroy you first.
Here are some ways to conquer your creative inferiority complex.
There's just as much humility in accepting victory as there is in accepting defeat. Both require us to look honestly at who we are and the work we're making.
People who feel like impostors often downplay their success. They assume it was either an accident or an unrepeatable burst of energy and effort. They distrust it, so they don’t call attention to it in case it never happens again. Psychologist Christian Jarrett again: “If and when, despite all this negative thinking, success comes, the defensively pessimistic Impostor, rather than celebrating, interprets his/her achievement as due to unsustainable levels of effort — and assumes that this grind was much more than anyone else needed to invest.”
The truth is, every success is the product of a ton of work, some talent, and a little bit of good luck. To assume your success is any different than anyone else’s is a little bit arrogant. Every success took more work than we’ll ever know. There is just as much humility in accepting victory as there is in accepting defeat. Both require us to look honestly at who we are and the work we are making. Celebrating your victories, in a strange way, keeps you grounded. Don’t keep it to yourself.
Hermits don’t feel like impostors. Lucky hermits. To feel like an impostor, we need people around us. We judge ourselves through them, which isn’t fair to anyone — least of all us. To quell your impostor syndrome, you have to get yourself out of other people’s heads. One trick is to set your own internal goals for your work. What do you want your films to accomplish? What emotions do you want to elicit? What do you care about? If your goal is to create incredible characters, then don’t worry about whether or not your film is pretty enough to nab a Vimeo Staff Pick. If your goal is to create incredible special effects, don’t worry about understanding Robert McKee’s essential elements of a story. Stop holding yourself up to other people’s standards. When you start making work for yourself, your impostor syndrome will naturally begin to fade. Nobody feels like an impostor inside her own home.
The great lie of the impostor syndrome is that there are people who are in, and there are people who are out.
The great lie of the impostor syndrome is that there are people who are in, and there are people who are out. It’s easy to imagine all of your favorite filmmakers getting together for drinks once a month (in some L.A. dive bar you’ve never heard of) and discussing their latest accolades, awards, and creatively fulfilling projects. If such a club exists, we haven’t been invited. But we suspect that most filmmakers, no matter how successful they are, feel some sense of isolation. Filmmaking is lonely. And when you’re lonely, it’s easy to imagine you’re the only one.
Landon Van Soest, co-founder of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective, explains: “Filmmaking can be a really isolating process, especially for those of us interested in nontraditional approaches. We pour ourselves into projects that often span several years, with precious little outside support and no guarantee that anyone will ever see our work. So it’s easy to get lost in yourself. Having a community around you to support and push and challenge what you’re doing is essential….”
If you want to stop feeling like an impostor, stop treating yourself like one. Email a filmmaker you admire. Start a conversation. You might be surprised to learn that nobody’s in. We’re all outsiders here. Might as well be outsiders together.
The ironic thing about feeling like an impostor is that you have that in common with almost every other filmmaker. Your sense of unbelonging makes you belong. This will go on forever and ever into eternity. As you get better at your craft, you will find yourself surrounded by increasingly talented peers. Their work will appear effortless. Your work will be made tooth and nail. You might as well get used to it. And you’ll be in good company.
Maya Angelou: “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.’”
Jodie Foster: “When I won the Oscar, I thought it was a fluke. I thought everybody would find out, and they’d take it back. They’d come to my house, knocking on the door, ‘Excuse me, we meant to give that to someone else. That was going to Meryl Streep.’”
Meryl Streep: “I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”
Mike Myers: “At any time I still expect that the no-talent police will come and arrest me.”
If you want to stop feeling like an impostor, stop treating yourself like one. Email a filmmaker you admire. Start a conversation.
If you’re prone to feeling like an impostor, some amount of it may linger in your system forever. There’s probably nothing you can do about that. But there will be times when the syndrome becomes unbearable. It might manifest itself as creative block. It might manifest itself as a complete creative breakdown. In such cases, drastic measures should be taken. And the measure we have in mind is pretty simple: cleanse yourself of social media, that theater of self-comparison. It is no doubt the source of the vast majority of your insecurity. Step away for a week. A month. See if that helps. But if you’re really serious about this — and what could be more serious than your creative soul? — consider letting your accounts expire. Letting your followers disperse. It will reset your creative compass in ways you don’t expect. Without everyone watching you all the time, you will have a chance to remember who you are and why you make things in the first place. Maybe you’ll return to social media at some point. Maybe not. But if you want to stop looking at yourself through the eyes of other people, take some time out of the spotlight.
In the end, it’s fitting that artists feel like impostors. In many ways we are. There are no credentials here. No certificates that prove you are a creative person. No license required to start making art. We’ve all snuck our way in here, camera in hand. We’re all impostors. You’re in good company. Welcome to the club.