Ironically, Impostor Syndrome almost sounds like something out of an old comic book, but no such luck. It’s defined as a pattern of doubting your accomplishments and having a persistent, internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” Many creatives, in particular, carry the burden of Impostor Syndrome. The doubt the syndrome brings with it often gets in the way of their art. Frankly, it’s the biggest reason I haven’t written many more articles for The Beat. That’s why I wanted my first in quite a while to be about the subject. More people are learning about Impostor Syndrome, but it’s still a foreign term to most, so I’m literally hoping to spread the word with this piece.
Individuals suffering from the syndrome feel like they’re unqualified or that they’re just making things up as they go until they’re found out to be a hack. The secret is no one really knows what they’re doing, but someone with Impostor Syndrome can understand that to be the case yet continue to believe they’re surrounded by their betters.
Doubt like this exists in some form for everyone, but it becomes a syndrome when that doubt is persistent and unyielding. Here are some of the best explanations of Impostor Syndrome I’ve come across:
Learning to Deal With the Impostor Syndrome: A concise but effective definition with some good advice on managing Impostor Syndrome
The Impostor Syndrome: A video about the psychological pattern from The School of Life, a YouTube channel dedicated to fostering emotional well-being”
The Five Types Of Impostor Syndrome And How To Beat Them: A detailed look into the five kinds of Impostor Syndrome as categorized by Valerie Young, widely considered an expert on the subject
I interviewed four comic creators about how they relate to, if not personally identify with, Impostor Syndrome. Certainly not the largest sample size, but it helped form my interpretation on how it specifically affects artists and creators. Ultimately that’s all this is, an interpretation. But I hope it provides readers a better sense of the experience and gives them empathy towards those who deal with Impostor Syndrome. Here’s what I’ve learned through my conversations and research.
About Impostor Syndrome
The introduction provided a definition, but there are a few aspects of it of Impostor Syndrome worth spotlighting and expanding upon.
Artists Experience More Doubt Than Most
Illuminati and Mother Panic artist Shawn Crystal hosts the Inkpulp Audio podcast. Each episode is like therapy session between Crystal and another cartoonist during which they delve into the psychology behind making art for a living. I asked him if he sees traits of Impostor Syndrome in his peers. In his words:
We are wrestling with some sort of insecurity, uncertainty, some need for recognition. I can’t say this about everyone, but it’s definitely in the majority of artists I’ve interviewed.
When your work is subjective it can be even more difficult to take pride in, and there’s little as subjective as art. Others’ perspective can completely differ from your own, so it’s easier to feel what Crystal describes as “the twisted reality that our minds choose to explore.”
Additionally, a creator is usually making something out of nothing. There’s added pressure in what feels like pulling the wool over the audience’s eyes again and again until you’re caught.
It’s not difficult to find creators who deal with Impostor Syndrome. Rapper-turned-actor Awkafina gave one of the best descriptions of it I’ve ever come across, describing when she learned the term and how she immediately identified with it.
Failures Impact You More Than The Successes
Bad things make more of an impact than good ones, as much as everyone wishes otherwise. Alina Tugend wrote a thorough, insightful article for The New York Times on the topic. She explained the physiological and psychological reasons we hold on to negativity over positivity, frequently citing the widely praised journal article Bad Is Stronger Than Good. Here are a few key points:
• Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them — than happy ones.
• Bad emotions, bad parents and bad feedback have more impact than good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones
• As with many other quirks of the human psyche, there may be an evolutionary basis for this. Those who are “more attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats and, consequently, would have increased the probability of passing along their genes,” the article states. “Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes but less urgent with regard to good ones.”
Those insights explain why the fear of failing again is so powerful, especially in creative industries where the very definition of success is malleable.
Success Doesn’t Make It Go Away
Impostor Syndrome can affect a writer who’s never been published or an Academy Award-winning filmmaker. It isn’t dependent on a certain level of success. In fact, success can ultimately breed more doubt since it leads to more critics of your work. It’s oft-said to that even if only one out of 100 comments are negative, it’s more difficult to ignore the one than the other 99 combined. The more widely your art is seen, the more negative comments you’ll receive, and those are what you’ll remember.
Champions and Wayward author Jim Zub commented on this subject, stating that he and many of his peers understand that success isn’t a cure for Impostor Syndrome.
From the many conversations I’ve had with other writers and artists, everyone carries that same Imposter fear with them to some degree or another. It doesn’t matter if you’re wildly successful or rich. In many cases, the greater the success, the greater that gnawing feeling that it’s all going to come crashing down around you at any moment.
Jim Zub feels a sense of Impostor Syndrome despite his envied position making comics for major publishers like Marvel, Dark Horse, and Image, and it sounds like many of his peers do as well.
It Can Slow You Down
Do you have a favorite author who hasn’t released a book in a decade? Chances are that unless they’re retired, they’re dealing with their own Impostor Syndrome, frozen by the thought of failure. That fear can be even stronger when they’re trying to finish a series because the expectations for the world and characters already exist amongst fans. The idea of screwing it all up haunts them.
Neil Gaiman stated that whereas he wrote early issues of Sandman in about a week, later installments took months to script. He was weighed down by readers’ expectations, as well as his own, to deliver a satisfying finale to his 75-issue opus.
As a bit of an aside, Gaiman wrote on his blog about something that made him feel a bit better about his own Impostor Syndrome that’s too great not to include in this piece:
Some years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.
On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”
And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”
And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.
Identifying It is the First Step
Most are sad to learn what their ailment is, but it can help to know what you’re facing. Identifying the source of the problem tells you where to focus your efforts so that you can get better. At the very least, learning others face the same struggles as you can make you feel less alone in the world.
Jim Zub shares that perspective. I was intrigued to see Impostor Syndrome referred to in his Image series Glitterbomb, so I asked him where he first heard the term. His response:
I can’t recall the first time I heard ‘Imposter Syndrome’, but once it was explained to me it was a real ‘a-ha’ kind of moment. It was oddly reassuring to hear that there was a term for the innate fear that you are not as capable or professional as you’ve lead others to believe. The paranoia that everyone else around you has their shit together and you’re just making it up as you go along.
You Need People
Writing and drawing comics is a lonely job in 2018. There’s no bullpen anymore since most creators are hired as freelancers. Being alone with your thoughts for too long can be dangerous, breeding more doubt since you have no one to contradict your worst fears. Revival and Wonder Woman cover artist Jenny Frison explains it wonderfully:
While I find myself most productive and creative when I work alone… it really wears on me if I don’t get out of the house and do things once in a while. That’s the most isolating part of a creative job where you work alone. It is so easy to become absorbed in your work and not even realize you are lonely until you are really lonely.
Then I go to a convention and it’s overwhelming going from such isolation to so many people. It’s really exhausting. The social anxiety in a situation like that is cranked up to 11. But I also can’t express how encouraging it can be to meet people that enjoy the work you are doing. Having someone appreciate your effort is so affirming.
Seeing the fruits of your labor shouldn’t be contained to holding a printed comic book in your hand. It also involves experiencing reception to your hard work beyond what you see on a computer screen. Experiencing it can be through something as self-contained as getting feedback from a friend or on a much larger scale like meeting fans at a convention.
Treating Impostor Syndrome
Don’t forget that Impostor Syndrome is treatable, all you have to do is find the right treatment. There are too many methods to mention but here are a few I think are especially pertinent for creatives.
Set Goals You Can Control
You can’t choose to publish a comic at Marvel, DC, or Image, nor do you have the power to greenlight your own TV show or release a novel through a major publisher. The control there lies with an editor or a publisher or an executive. Your power is limited to doing work that will make them take notice, and even that is fairly nebulous. Here are indie writer Jeremy Holt’s thoughts on the subject.
I couldn’t help [comparing myself to other creators] many years ago when all of my friends were landing books at Image Central, and continue to do so. Back then, I believed that my pitches were as good as any on the shelves, mainly because my successful friends told me they were. I’ve since come to accept that there is no point in comparing myself to others. Each of us experiences things uniquely, which are not designed to be replicated. Your fortunate timing with an editor cannot be mine and vice versa. All I can do is trust the creative process by continuing to do the work. If I do that I believe good timing will eventually make its way to me. Now I feel nothing but excitement and pride when my friends announce a new series or land an exclusive contract at the Big 2.
But Holt was ultimately able to change his definition of success.
In the past year or so I have definitely changed my perspective on what it means to succeed in comics. Sure, writing full-time is and will probably always be a dream of mine, but I also know that the freelance lifestyle has never really appealed to me; especially now that I am married and have a mortgage. I work Apple tech support as a day job and have gradually become more comfortable with the notion that I might be fixing computers for a very long time. And that’s okay as long as it doesn’t totally interfere with my ability to write and create.
Conditioning yourself to have more modest expectations, especially when you aren’t in full control of meeting them, is a healthy weigh to strive towards a goal. Instead of trying to meet someone else’s standards, focus on the things that are in your power, like writing or drawing every day. Measuring success based on others’ metrics is a fool’s errand. If your version of success isn’t within your own power, your hard work will likely feel less empowering.
Don’t Isolate Yourself
You isolate yourself due to your insecurities, but being alone further disconnects you from reality, which only breeds more doubt. As Jenny Frison explained earlier in this piece, being among your peers and fans helps you step outside of your art to actually appreciate what you became an artist for.
Use Your Impostor Syndrome Constructively
The best art often comes from creators expressing their most internalized fears. Maybe that’s why Glitterbomb is one of my favorite comics in recent years. The first volume centers on a character who stops believing in herself because she relies on other’s opinions of her to make her happy. When she doesn’t get that validation, things go very, very wrong. Jim Zub channeled his apprehensions and insecurities into one of his best works to date. Follow his example!
Wish Yourself Well
Bit of a personal story here. There was someone that I held a lot of hate towards for a long time, even though I knew it was unhealthy. The thing that freed me was a tip for how to let yourself forgive someone: every time they come into your thoughts, wish them well. So I did, over and over again, to finally moved past my anger.
While in a period of particularly bad self-doubt, I had a thought. If I could wish someone else well, why couldn’t I wish the same for myself? After all, self-doubt is essentially you hating yourself. I found this trick almost as effective as when I used it to prevent myself from being angry at someone else and I’ve never stopped doing it.
There’s no tangible benefit to self-doubt. It’s your irrational self overpowering your rational self. So love who you are and, in time, the rational side will win out. That’s not to say the struggle ever ends, but the right mindset is the best armor against Impostor Syndrome. It will help you to continue making your art and maybe even enjoy the process, and wasn’t that the point all along?
Thanks to Jim Zub, Jenny Frison, Shawn Crystal, and Jeremy Holt for their contributions. If you have any comments or criticism let me know by writing below, tweeting me @matt_okeefe, or sending an email to [email protected].