Be Smart About Art

Is your career flying or are you a fraud?

written by: Susan J Mumford June 3, 2018 1) RECOMMENDED-> Susan's weekly blog post 1072 views

Is your career flying or are you a fraud?

If you, like many other human beings, sometimes have a voice in your head doubting that you were correctly chosen for an opportunity (examples: show, commission, talk, job, etc), you are likely experiencing the Impostor Syndrome. 

Here’s a quick summary of Impostor Syndrome from Wikipedia*: 

“Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud". The term was coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes.[1] Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. While early research focused on the prevalence among high-achieving women,[1] impostor syndrome has been found to affect both men and women, in roughly equal numbers.” 

The point about men and women experiencing it in roughly equal numbers is fascinating, as you’ll probably find that the majority of people still think that women suffer from it more than men. According to reporter Shana Lebowitz in businessinsider.com, researchers have been finding that men are more afraid to talk about feeling like a fraud. This is presumably owing to societal expectations of men and, the research finds, only prevents men from getting the help that they need. 

What’s Imposter Syndrome got to do with an art career? Everything, as long as you have a healthy mind. I’ve been know to get a laugh during talks, saying that having such doubts goes to show that your mind is in good health. Yet such internal self doubts can have detrimental impacts on professional life, and should therefore be addressed to not get in the way of success. 

An example in my own life was a grade I was given at the end of the first term at university. I was fortunate to have a fabulous professor for a course that was required of all freshers: Western Intellectual Traditions (WIT). I still recall learning of St. Francis of Assisi, whose values and treatment of others immediately resonated. Yet despite much fascination, study and resulting academic work, when the end of term grade turned out to be a B+, I was certain that this was only given because the professor was being nice. And after all, our families knew one another, I thought to myself. 

It was only years later when I’d discovered Impostor Syndrome and had become a teacher of sorts myself that I internally corrected my response. The professor was a professional who certainly would not have given a grade to “be nice”. I’d just been doubting my ability and thank goodness it didn’t stop me from continuing to the second term of the class with the same professor, for a lot was learned. 

What’s wild is to discover that success won’t necessarily help a person experience this phenomenon less. Amy Cuddy**, a social psychologist known for a TED talk on the subject who has since written a book titled Presence, says that increasing success presents more opportunities to doubt that you’re deserving. In the Business Insider article, she adds that the best way to address such internal feelings is to be aware of them and also to communicate them - hence the title of her book. 

While a bit of self-doubt still lingered about the grade received at university, I decided to take Cuddy’s advice and confess this feeling to my other half. His immediate take? I was definitely deserving of the grade! I cannot tell you how helpful it was to talk about it with him, alleviating a private suspicion that had been developed over a period of decades. 

When you next find yourself doubting that you’ve been correctly given an opportunity, assessed and more, catch the internal dialogue and address it. This subject should not be underemphasised, for, if not addressed, it can lead directly to failure. 

Whenever this thinking occurs when performing, for example by giving a talk or workshop in front of an audience, internally recognise what’s happening and rely upon experience to help you get through. Just like the seasoned pilot who knows how to take off, cruise and land, you know what you need to do and can walk yourself through the steps, one by one, to see yourself through and land intact.  

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* See the Wikipedia page on Impostor Syndrome: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome

**See Amy Cuddy’s Wikipedia page: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amy_Cuddy

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