Imposter Syndrome


It appears to be more common than the cold amongst creatives, especially women, but why? I know lots of creative people – writers, artists, potters, musicians and performers of all sorts and more. I reckon over half of them suffer with this, even though many of them are very successful in their field of expression.

So what is it this potentially crippling syndrome? The concept seems to have originally come from a 1978 study by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and  Suzanne Imes, which focused on high-achieving women. They asserted that “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

It’s come to be used across all areas where women feel like charlatans, despite their obvious skill and – often – success.  I wonder why though? I can trace my own lack of confidence directly back to a lack of encouragement at home and a lack of demonstrative love. Nothing I did was EVER good enough, especially not for my dad, and no matter how hard I tried to win his approbation, I can never remember a time when it was forthcoming.  So, I can see where my feelings of inadequacy and lack of self-esteem come from. Surely not every single person has had this experience though? I have friends who were encouraged and valued, loved and praised. Could it be a deeper malaise, where women in particular, are made to feel inadequate when competing in a man’s world? I suspect there’s definitely a classist element and snobbery in both art and literature in particular, is prevalent. There’s certainly enough prejudice to make a working class woman doubt she is ‘good enough’ to compete in those particular arenas and we know that there is certainly embedded racism. If you’re a black, working class, woman creative, the odds are even greater you might feel diminished baring your creative soul.

I’m hypothesising, of course. I’ve not researched the topic; I’ve not spoken to anyone about it.  It’s an issue which has come up in both my art and my writing and I’m aware that many women suffer from it, so I think it might be worth exploring the causes when it is so commonplace among creative ladies. Could imposter syndrome be more to do with society’s sanctioning of our roles? Could it have a deeper more ingrained cause, or are we who suffer all cases for therapy?  I’m not seriously suggesting that, but it’s not all that long ago that women were incarcerated in Victorian mental asylums for anything from ‘hard study’, ‘and ‘ obsession’ to non conformity, as well as so much else.

Do men suffer from imposter syndrome? I’d be very interested to know. It may be, as with so much else, that they simply don’t talk about it.

I have no answers here, only questions! My only ‘wisdom’ would be – if you can call it that – that we should seek positive role models in the genres we are creating in. Find those women designers, painters, writers and take inspiration from them. You don’t need anyone to validate what you do,  but do seek out like-minded people who can encourage you and provide positive criticism if you want it.

You don’t need to sell a million books to be a writer or sell anything at all. If you are putting pen to paper you’re a writer. The same goes for painting or any other creative activity. We learn as we do. We increase our skills and knowledge with practice. Make sure you’re give yourself the permission and time to exercise your creative muscle. As women we often put other people and other tasks ahead of our own creativity and can be made to feel we’re failing in our ‘duties’ if we spend time on anything viewed as ‘non-essential’. We may even perpetuate this view ourselves, feeling guilty if we’re up to our elbows in paint or clay or words instead of dinner and dishes. Value your creative time. It is as essential to our well-being as exercise, fresh air and good food. As we grow in confidence, we will be more ourselves and, hopefully, less like an imposter in our own lives.

Photo by and orginal art work by Debbie Ross ‘Wave therapy

2 thoughts on “Imposter Syndrome”

  1. Andy Basic says:

    Hi Debbie, Thanks for the post I can answer some of your questions. I can say that men do talk about it and think it applies to them – I used to talk about it to other sufferers at work – also see the Wikipedia article. Doesn’t seem to be particularly related to creative people either.

    To make my own observation which may or may not be related – I was recently reading an article on racism in sports reporting. Research had been done on the language used by not-noticeably racist reporters and found that white sports people were praised for their intelligent play more often and non-white were praised for their physicality more often possibly leading to different opportunities in leadership & management at later times.
    At a separate time I read a review of a leading female academic by another woman and was surprised (shocked) that the first characteristic identified & praise about the academic was that she was pretty. Its possible that the academic liked that praise but I wonder if it affects evaluation of her skills.

    On another thought – in some training we did at work they recognised that people are motivated by 4 different thing – doing a good job/results, being praised for your work (whether good or not), being able to influence other people, being able to influence decisions – one of the problems for people who are motivated by praise for work done is that you endlessly have to exceed your previous achievements – no one feels praised by the phrase “you’ve done as well as last time” whether spoken by others or unconsciously by themselves . I wonder if lack increasing praise leads to imposter syndrome for those who depend on praise. However, my observation is that, while it might seem likely that people from the other motivation groups like those who are self-motivated by achieving (what they think of as) good results wouldn’t suffer from imposter syndrome, this isn’t the case.

    Adapting something Sandi Torvik said – contrasting many women who have imposter syndrome with men who are completely unaware of what an imposter they are – which is worse? How many people achieve the middle ground of being aware of what they are and not feeling an imposter. She seemed to think that a large number (most?) women seemed to suffer from the syndrome.

    Not sure whether my ramblings contribute anything.

    1. Debbie says:

      Thanks for that. Some interesting thoughts and observations. I think there are definitely similarities with the way racism can be embedded.

      The Sandy Toskvig comment is telling too.

      Thanks for taking the time to read the blog and write a reply.

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