It’s called the “Imposter syndrome.” Some psychologists at Georgia State University identified it about forty years ago. As many as thirty percent of the population have itand even though they may be high achievers, recognized in their fields, even famous, they constantly live under the cloud that they are scamming others. They persist in feeling that they are generally getting away with something that they don’t deserve. Apparently women get it worse than men, and it’s darned hard to shake.
Artists have had these thoughts for centuries. They’re as old as fleas — even Michelangelo had them. I first noticed these thoughts as a teenager when I spent two hours on a painting that I later sold at an art fair for $15. A lot better than mowing lawns at 50 cents an hour. That first art deal made me feel guilty. It was almost like stealing. Then I started wondering if I could ever pull off such a scam again.
Eventually my active scamming activities became so commonplace that I think I stopped worrying about it. In case you might think you have the syndrome, here’s the secret to clearing the deck: Scam once a year and it’s dangerous. Scam once a week and it’s the natural course of events. Think of Picasso — he could scam fifty times in the morning before his third Pernod. And how’s about someone paying 104 million for Picasso’s “Boy with a Pipe”? Gives an idea how far impostering can go.
“I don’t think I can pull one off like that again,” is a frequent remark heard from artists. Beginners particularly are inclined to attribute early success to luck. This is typical of the imposter syndrome. It’s an attitude, a defense system that can interfere with an artist’s growth. Seeing yourself as an imposter limits chance-taking and undermines the egocentricity that is vital to ongoing inventive production. If not a forewarning of failure, it’s muddy shoes on the path of evolved creativity.
We artists need a sense of entitlement and the understanding that we may all take our place in the sun. This is the natural outcome of imagination coupled with work. To imposters the work may seem too easy, the reward too great. In beating back your feelings of fraudulence, there’s something to be said for these three words: “Accept the gift.”
PS: “The imposter syndrome limits how high people can go.” (Prof. P. R. Clance) “I was very embarrassed when my canvases began to fetch high prices. I saw myself condemned to a future of nothing but masterpieces.” (Henri Matisse)
Esoterica: Educating yourself about the syndrome is one of the ways of defeating it. Being more open with others and building the ability to separate feelings from facts are other useful techniques. Look at your accomplishments objectively. And when a trusted friend lays a compliment on you — believe it — take it to heart.
Planning and total commitment
by Karin Richter, Calgary, AB, Canada
To feel inadequate at times, I think, is a perfectly natural thing and let’s be glad about it. It keeps us humble and determined to do better. It is only a dangerous thing when it does a number on one’s creativity. Regarding feeling guilty about charging for one’s work? I just finished doing my income taxes for last year and even though I tell myself that I had a pretty good year, I did not make a dime on my paintings. It brought into clear focus how much money it takes to produce and market one’s work and let’s not even talk about the time investment. I can’t think of a single profession that requires more long term training, hard work and total commitment. I don’t feel guilty at all! Even though the public may at times question the amount of money we charge for our work, they are usually quite supportive once they understand what is involved.
by Joseph Tany, Alhama de Granada, Spain
This feeling of being an imposter is justified. All money-transacted deals are a form of fraud. For that all businesses are same — fraud. The biggest are not Picasso or any artists, but those who sell a war plan or an Atom bomb — they are a lot more expensive… and deadly.
Still feels inferior
by Susy Boyer, Gold Coast, Australia
I’ve been a freelance illustrator for 18 years, with over 1500 illustrations published. I also paint and have sold my work, yet I still feel totally inferior to my peers (the real artists!) It has got so much worse as I’ve got older and especially since I became a single parent 8 years ago ( I have 3 boys). The constant pressure to earn enough money to pay all the bills is grinding me down to the point where some days I feel I’m all used up and can struggle no more. One of my friends summed it up well one day when she said: “I don’t know how someone as talented as you can still be struggling” …and I thought Yeah! How come? I even studied Small Business Management at night for 9 months, thinking my failure was due to bad business sense.
Not a fraud
by Susan Easton Burns, Douglasville, GA, USA
While working as a freelance industrial designer, I had a client that was a small business. One day he asked me to do a job at no cost and felt he was justified because I “enjoyed ” my work. After counting to 10 in silent rage, I responded, “I work for money, just like you, not for fun. I have bills and need to eat just like you” I kind of laughed it off, but I realized something. Why was it easier to justify doing industrial design for money, than doing painting? When we say we’re going to the studio to work, we are really working. Even though it may only take one hour to produce a great work of art, there are years of nurtured vision and feeling in every stroke. I always refer to painting as “work” to my neighbors and friends that think I’m home having fun. It helps me to take it more seriously also. When I meet someone that appreciates or maybe purchases a painting, I always feel like I’m meeting a higher life form. We are not frauds, just a little more honest with ourselves than many.
Job loss killed confidence
by Mary Jean Mailloux, Oakville, ON, Canada
Holy moly, I had no idea it actually had a medical terminology. I feel as though this letter was directed to me personally. Because I lack a university degree and letters after my name, I undervalue my accomplishments. My ascending to the art-director position in a large wallpaper company, I always attributed to luck, being at the right place at the right time etc. Not my 20 years of commitment, and self-teaching while on the job. When the bottom fell out of the industry and I lost my full-time job, I also lost a lot of my confidence. It has taken many, many painful years to re-establish my confidence and feel like a worthwhile person. Rudyard Kipling comes to mind: “If you can keep your head when all about you are loosing theirs. If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you.”
“Not good enough” syndrome
by Sandra Sauer, Costa Mesa, CA, USA
A related issue you may identify with is the “I’m not good enough” syndrome. I’m only 50% so I must work 200% to be 100% and in doing so we miss the opportunity to relax and let ourselves be in the moment. We are chasing perfection rather than allowing our natural perfection to flow from us and if we could only just stop for a moment it may catch up to us and fill us up. It’s an ironic, catch-22 thing, like so many of the secrets of life, much like what John Steinbeck said of that quest for love. I believe he wrote, “Some men hunger so much for love that they lose everything that is lovable about them.”
Worse for self-taught artists
by Kristi Bridgeman, Saanich, BC, Canada
The imposter syndrome is worse for us self-taught artists. Taking credit for talent that is inherited or molded from past experience, (depending on your take) gives us nothing very tangible to take the credit for, even though some pieces require a “degree” in sweat and tears. I had to have a friend make an emergency trip over here to confirm that a piece that I was working on was indeed good enough to send out into the world. One more reason to find art critics hard to read… they have ‘imposter-vision’ and can see right through us.
Bad boy having splendid day
by J Bruce Wilcox, Denver, CO, USA
Thanks for telling Sarah Ann Smith she can reprint your entire Archetypes letter to both Quiltart and the Myths and Legends list. I was partly responsible for the full title to Myths and Legends, adding Past, Present and Future to the title after my friend Anne Copland told me what she was working on, and (evil bad boy that I am) I got thrown off the Quiltart list last year for being too confrontative with “the ladies.” But today I’m a happy camper and having a simply splendid and lovely day, as Venus moves between the Earth and Sun for the first time in 122 years!
Snake oil salesman?
by Curtis Long, Austin, TX, USA
I am a painter working in a contemporary style and I make a living selling my work primarily at outdoor art festivals. As such I have much more contact with the buying (and not-buying) public than most artists, who sell through galleries or other more traditional venues. Just this past weekend at Summerfair in Cincinnati, I had numerous people walk into my booth (attracted by the bold colors and pleasing images) who took one look at the price tag next to a piece and reacted with surprise that it should cost so much. Stereotypically it’s one person in a group of people that bops into the booth, notes the price of the largest piece, and hurries out to tell their friends/family in a hushed voice just how expensive it is, as they react with a knowing nod of the head and continue down the line of booths.
The fact is: my prices are still quite competitive when compared to other artists’ works of similar style, subject matter, and quality. I’m always researching my competition in galleries and festivals — I know what I should be getting for my paintings… “what the market will bear,” as it were. But that doesn’t keep me from sometimes taking to heart comments of surprise (or disgust) about my prices, particularly when I get several such comments and have made no sales.
After a series of negative affirmations, when somebody walks into my booth and plops down a couple grand for a piece without negotiating, I begin to wonder if maybe I am an imposter! Have I just duped a person of means? Surely those without means — the ones who pooh-poohed my prices earlier in the day — are more down-to-earth and realistic about the value of something. After all, they’re more like me… I’m not wealthy. Am I a snake-oil salesman traveling from town to town selling my concoctions?
I am getting thicker-skinned on the one hand and more accepting of the rewards on the other. Most of the time the comments about my high prices bounce off me like pellets off rhino skin. As I said, I know the value of my work… and I know that those who question it know nothing about the real value of art. As the prices of my work continue to escalate and as my patronage includes more and more people of means, I’m learning to accept the “sense of entitlement” as you put it.
This is my due as a cultural shaman, right?
“Do not stop thinking of life as an adventure. You have no security unless you can live bravely, excitingly, imaginatively; unless you can choose a challenge instead of a competence.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)
Going to sit in the sun
by Patricia Kyle, Kelowna, BC, Canada
Your signature “Robber” made me chuckle. I wonder if you aren’t just checking to see if we’re paying attention? I enjoyed this letter, and suspect it’s true of many of us, regardless of what art form we engage in. I notice it in myself in regards to my healing practice, and will discount a person’s gratitude and compliments. So, taking a pointer from your letter, I will practice the feeling of entitlement, and I’m going to go sit in the sun right now. Thanks.
Guilt from Christian upbringing?
by Elfrida Schragen, Victoria, BC, Canada
Thanks for those words about feeling like a con artist rather than just accepting that one’s art actually takes skill. Maybe it’s all mixed up with Christian ethics — anything that gives us so much pleasure, consumes our time and passions — is bound to be highly suspect. I frequently find my inner reaction to praise follows along the line of a thank-you on the outside and an inside grimace of “What’s the big deal, anyone can do this, what would they think if they knew this only took two hours instead of two days.”
Believing in your journey
by Kurt Kellogg, MI, USA
Good God! Michelangelo thought he was an imposter! I’ve heard and seen some revealing things about artists before, but this one takes the grand prize. It really diminishes his accomplishments. Personally, I would have no problem accepting ten million dollars for one of my paintings because I do have a natural born gift that the world should pay well to possess. I believe in my artistic vision. I also paid my dues a long time ago. I deserve success. It’s all about the artist’s self-esteem. If Rembrandt thought his paintings should be hung in an outhouse — then that is likely where they would end up being hung. If he thought he was a great artist and that his paintings belonged in museums — then it is a high possibility the paintings would be hung in museums. I’ve seen tons of mind-blowing art by unknown artists with low self-esteem who never believed their art was worthy — who did not adapt the correct attitude necessary to become rightfully successful. It’s all about the artist’s perception of his or her self. It’s not about ego. It’s about believing in your journey as an artist. If this statement about him is true — I’m amazed Michelangelo was a success with such a defeatist attitude. It greatly changes my perception of him as an artist. It should also be argued that as a collector — who should buy art by an artist who thinks of himself as an imposter? That is a very strong statement. By saying it — the artist invalidates his or her own work.
(RG note) We know from Michelangelo ‘s frequent notes that his life was a yin-yang between positive attitude and self-doubt as well as guilt and worry about his perceived status. “I am no artist …please come and help me,” he wrote to one of his assistants. For some reason the imposter syndrome particularly attacks “stars.” As many of our writers have noted, the movie industry, as well, is particularly rich in self doubt: “I think most of the people involved in any art always secretly wonder whether they are really there because they’re good — or because they’re lucky.” (Katharine Hepburn) When asked about it in an interview, Robin Williams said, “Hey, no pressure here.”
Simple antidote defeats syndrome
by Liz James, Kent Town, Australia
I suffered the imposter syndrome for years, even after I was selling well and getting regular prizes. But I have the antidote and recommend it highly. It’s quite simple. Help a beginner. You don’t really know your true worth as an artist until you put what you know out to someone with less experience and watch them grow in confidence and as an artist. Money doesn’t do it, but helping someone else does. I’ve been in this business for almost 60 years and recommend it.
“Shame” for the easy job
by Gretta Van Someren, Appleton, WI, USA
I’ve always felt guilty when pricing and accepting money for my work, as well as receiving awards… and have even spent numerous years in therapy trying to uncover the reason behind feeling guilt (or “shame” as some have put it) for making a living at a job I find comes quite easy — and is, in most cases, very enjoyable. I can’t tell you how many nightmares I’ve had that I’ve graduated without completing my expected credits toward a degree, or that I’ve had to forge an accepted commission under an alias. It was truly refreshing to read that these feelings are not uncommon among artists. And most importantly, as your last few words so perfectly state: in beating back feelings of fraudulence, there’s something to be said for these three words: “Accept the gift.”
Tiresome dance of doubt
by Susan-Rose Slatkoff, Victoria, BC, Canada
Regarding the Imposter syndrome, I think I walk into that ugly little black cloud each time I finish a painting I’m pleased with. There’s a wee, nasty voice saying, “Well, enjoy it while it lasts, it may very well be your last good work.” It’s particularly busy after I have done something everyone is calling “wonderful.” The result is that I choke up and find it very difficult to get the next piece started. Then follows a procrastination festival, some serious self-talking-to, and eventually a return to sanity — “Hell, it’s just canvas and paint, and aren’t you doing this because you love the process girlie girl?” I’m in that space now, but I think the timing of your letter can bump me out of it. Does anybody have suggestions for ways to avoid this tiresome dance of doubt?
by Marie Louise Tesch, Black Hills, SD, USA
Your “I’m a fraud” letter really hit me in the solar plexus. I had returned this morning to read it for about the 4th time. Then I went on to the clickbacks and found many references to The Dreamway. Thanks to the instructions on the bottom of the clickback, I read the entire “Dreamway” this morning. I will never be the same. I have been jotting down notes and sending e-mails to friends to tell them of this wonderful writing. Somehow, there is this wonderful yin and yang of the two. On the one hand, I definitely feel that I am an imposter with this “art thing” I do — despite the fact that I have successful shows and sales. On the other hand, there are times when I am absolutely sure, right down to the end of my navel, that I am doing the right thing and that others are speaking through me and into the art. #268 — You have a connection with a special person who has connections, and he travels right along with you — expresses the sense I have deep inside me.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.
That includes EA Moore, who wrote, “This is a letter that speaks to my fears. I thought I was alone feeling that I was an imposter as my pieces sold and compliments rained. It’s nice to know that I’m neither unique nor alone in these beliefs. Thanks for the freedom from the burden guilt.”
And also Betty O’Neill, who wrote, “When I am asked for the price of my own painting, I’m tempted to give them away, because I know that I will feel guilty if I charge something, no matter what price I choose.”
And also Brad Greek, who wrote, “I don’t believe I’m suffering from this syndrome at all, due to the fact that I believe in what I’m doing. I understand what it is, but from the other end of the spectrum. I always felt that the buyer got the upper hand, as I sold my paintings for next to nothing. I was the one that felt defrauded.”
And also Tania Bourne, who wrote, “Boy, do I agree! I thought I was the only one with the imposter syndrome. My case is different, however. I really am an imposter.”
And also Gijs van Riel of the Netherlands, who wrote, “The whole of life is more or less a business of impostering. Take yourself by the hand, at night when you cannot get the sleep, and think about all the people you have met that day and spoken with. Ask yourself — have you been every minute quite (100%) honest? Didn’t you trifle in any minute? What about your own handlings? And now I mean going to the deep with your thoughts and my dear be honest!”