Overcoming imposter syndrome
An artist asks:
How do you overcome imposter syndrome in regards to being a "professional artist" vs a "hobbyist"?
You’d be surprised how often I hear this type of question. Regardless of how much an artist has accomplished, so many of them struggle to see themselves as professionals, or even use the word ‘artist’ to describe themselves.
For example, I had a client recently who was worried that because she didn’t have a fine arts degree, she’d never be seen as a real artist. I reminded her that she had already sold several of her artworks – technically this is the definition of ‘professional’. She has a solo show coming up, meaning a gallery was confident in her work and their ability to sell it; and she runs art classes as part of her day job, meaning her students and their parents have complete faith in her standing as a ‘real’ artist. After reminding her that she’d accomplished all of this without an art degree, she was feeling more accepting of herself as a true artist. But what about everyone else?
Imposter syndrome seems to affect creative people more than people with 9-5 jobs, at least anecdotally, anyway. What is it about the creative process that makes us all feel so insecure, like our work is not good enough, and that we don’t deserve whatever success has come from our creative practice? Are we just hardwired to see the negative more easily than the positive? My own theory is that it has something to do with how much of ourselves we put into our creative work – more so than those who play around on spreadsheets all day. It’s personal, and therefore we feel vulnerable.
Like I noted above, selling work – that is, making money from your creative practice – technically makes you ‘professional’. But I know this isn’t always enough to overcome the imposter syndrome, so what else can you do to feel better about being an artist? Here’s some things to consider that might help you overcome those negative feelings:
Definitions and goals
Have a think about what your definition of ‘professional’ or ‘real’ artist is. What do these words mean to you? And, do these words really matter anyway? If making art makes you happy, then does it matter how you define yourself? It can help to set some targets – perhaps for you, being professional means making art every day, or perhaps it means selling five artworks. Be careful not to set yourself goals that you actually have no control over, like winning the Archibald. Your goals have to be realistic in order for you to accomplish them, and if you set goals that are outside your control, you are setting yourself up for failure.
It can also help to take stock of your accomplishments to date. Sales are not the only way to measure success, and formal arts education is definitely not an indication of whether an artist will be successful or not. Have you had positive feedback or reviews of your work? Has a curator shown interest? Have you been accepted into an art prize? Do you have a large and engaged following on social media? All of these things are signs that people like your work, are interested in what you are creating, and that you are on your way to being professional, if you aren’t in fact already there. Can you make a list of all these positive things, that you can pull out and look at next time you’re feeling down?
Finally, it can be helpful to examine the beliefs that are causing you to feel so negatively about your creative practice. Did you have an art teacher as a kid who told you your work was no good? Did your family discourage you from pursuing a creative career? Are there other negative, deeply held self-beliefs that you could work through with a therapist? Sometimes we have to change our habits and self-talk in order to overcome the blocks and move forward.