We’ve all been there. You’ve been hired for the job, cast in the role, or published in a magazine. You feel giddy with excitement and are actually beginning to feel yourself begin to swell with well deserved pride for all the hard work and energy you put into your goal, which has now been realized.
Woohoo! You did it! Cue the confetti raining down from the heavens, the red carpets being rolled out, and the dance party music turned up loud. It’s definitely time to celebrate.
Then? The music comes to an abrupt end and the red carpets dissolve. Now you’re just stuck with leftover confetti bits in your hair. You feel anything but festive. A voice starts to talk to you inside your own head.
“Boy, did I fool them. I made them think I was a writer (actor, painter, dancer, etc.), and they fell for it. Does this make me a liar?”
“I can’t do this. I’m not (qualified, smart, creative, experienced, etc.) enough.”
“They made a mistake, and when they find out I can’t do this, it’ll be so embarrassing. They might even be angry.”
You thought the Imposter Monster you had hidden in your closet was hibernating for good, but it turns out that she was just taking a cat nap. She’s out in full force now, ready and willing to help you understand that you don’t have what it takes.
Has anyone else heard these things before? Not only do these voices shut off the fun immediately, they can be downright cruel and toss us head first into a shame spiral that feels like it may never end.
Imposter syndrome is real. And it affects most of us, whether you are an actor in a community theatre production or award winning writer Maya Angelou. No matter who you are or how many successes you have been recognized for, it seems to follow us around and haunt our creative spirits until we think we might go mad. The sense of not being good enough can wear on our souls in a very specific way, one that can leave us questioning why we ever thought we belonged, how we ever could have believed we could do the thing we really want to do, and how we might gracefully bow out of the game altogether.
During one of my most recent shame spirals that only Imposter syndrome could conjure up, I tried to describe this spiritual tug of war between my self-worth and my doubts to my therapist.
“It’s so hard to walk into a room to teach or to perform and feel like I don’t know everything I should. I hate having these worries all the time. I’m sick of feeling like an Imposter. I want to be able to walk in and have everyone know that I know everything and that I am the best.”
My therapist did what therapists do, and simply acted as a mirror to reflect back to me what I had just said.
“So you want to be able to walk into the room, and say ‘Hello, I’m Melissa. I know everything and I am the best.’ Does that sound like what you mean?”
“Exactly!” I said. There was a pause. She went on.
“So, let me ask you an honest question. If someone who was teaching a class you were taking or directing a play you were in, walked into the room and said ‘Hello. I want you to know that I know everything and that I am the best’, are you excited to work with that person?”
My face spoke before I got the chance to. I actually laughed out loud.
She wasn’t going to let me get away with a two word answer.
“Why don’t you want to work with that person?” She asked.
“Well… that person actually sounds like a jerk.” I admitted this reluctantly. “I mean, I want to work with someone who really cares about the project, who is invested and has experiences to share, but that also admits that they don’t have all the answers and that they will be learning something, too.”
“Hmm... interesting.” My therapist didn’t have to say any more for me to realize that my fear of being an Imposter meant holding myself to an impossible standard that I didn’t even admire or seek out in others. What did this mean for my own Imposter Monster?
Now you try it. Take something that your Imposter Monster tells you and turn it right back around on yourself. Afraid of making one single mistake, for fear that it will discredit you completely and unmask you as the Imposter you believe that you are? Turn that right back around and ask yourself, “Do I want to work with someone who never, ever, makes a mistake?” Not really, right? If someone doesn’t ever make mistakes, how do they ever learn anything new? Make something new? Without mistakes, are we even human?
Is this little question trick a cure-all for those nagging self-doubts that creep in? No. Does it mean that we don’t have to continue to put the work into being proud of who we are, just as we are, in this moment, allowing ourselves to celebrate how far we have come? Not at all. What it DOES mean is that we have the power to try and practice this simple but effective line of questioning with ourselves whenever we start to believe that we’ve faked it all along and that we have nothing to offer. What if it’s not our creative soul that is lying to us, but our anxious Imposter monster? Get to the truth of what’s really there before you start writing yourself off.
You have stories to share. You have lessons to impart. You have gifts to give. We all need your creativity and imagination to help us build the kind of world in which we want to work and play. None of these acts of service require you to have achieved perfection or infallibility, and in fact, it can be argued that it’s the mistakes and awareness that we always have more to learn that keep us moving forward, seeking the next adventure or challenge.
The next time you find yourself telling yourself who you need to be (and who you can’t be) in order to be taken seriously or be successful in the creative arena, be your own mirror and reflect your own values back to yourself. I can’t promise you that the Imposter Monster will go back into your closet forever, never to return, but I am confident that the next time she ventures out and threatens to rain on your parade, that you will be able to see through her a bit sooner, and with a whole lot more self-kindness and grace along the way.