Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome is something I’ve been dealing with since the age of 10, when I was informed by another child in my class that I hadn’t actually passed the 11+ to go to grammar school. According to this child, the head teacher had just randomly stuck a pin in my name. In hindsight that sounds absurd, but it stuck, and in many ways shaped the person I became and am today.

Feeling like an impostor can happen anywhere: at school or university, in the workplace, at an event, or in a particular creative field.

I felt like an impostor at school – not bright enough, simply not good enough – and everything I did post-school (having left at 16 with only 3 O-levels to my name) was an attempt to prove myself. Every achievement was a kind of validation – yes, you are a worthwhile person – but it was never enough to silence the Impostor.

Helen Kitson, mixed media collage on a vintage book cover, 2023

It was never really an issue in the jobs I did after leaving school – mundane office jobs for the most part – but I took a lengthy career break when my children were young. After I returned to paid employment, I don’t think there’s been a day since then when I haven’t expected to be fired. It doesn’t matter how diligent I am, how good I think I am at my job. One tiny mistake and I’m the insecure 10-year-old again, undeserving of my place at the table.

And, honestly, it’s exhausting.

And I’ve not made things easier for myself in my free time activities. Poet, novelist, artist: all of them subjective. It’s absolutely impossible to create something that is universally liked. All artists know this, but it only takes one bad review, one negative comment, to make us doubt everything we’ve ever created.

I was an impostor as a writer because I didn’t have an MA in creative writing; I hadn’t been to a ‘good’ university (or any university at all until I studied with the Open University in my 40s). And now I’m an impostor as an artist because I’m not a trained artist. I can’t draw. I could probably learn the basics, but to be honest I’ve very little interest in doings so. I like sticking bits of paper to other bits of paper, that’s what I do, that’s what brings me joy, but I think I’ll always feel that I don’t belong in the art world because I haven’t come from an art school background.

Helen Kitson, mixed media collage on paper, 2023

It ought to help that some of the most famous and beloved artists were largely or entirely self-taught (including one of my personal favourites, Joseph Cornell) but the doubts linger and I know they always will.

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Pinturicchio Boy), 1942-52.

Photo credit: Tim Nighswander/, courtesy Glenstone. © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

So how to handle impostor syndrome? For a start, I think it’s possible to find some positive things about impostor syndrome. I think it’s definitely a factor in the need I feel to challenge myself – to make better work, to challenge myself to try different things, new techniques. It also means I don’t take anything for granted. Every Etsy sale, every opportunity to exhibit my work, is still a huge thrill, and something for which I’m massively grateful.

I think it’s also important that we stop comparing ourselves with other people successful in our field. I follow a large number of artists on Instagram, all making amazing work. I think the key thing is to admire other people’s work, whilst recognising that it’s entirely different from ours rather than ‘better’. But it’s also important to be open to learning from others, and the great thing about art Instagram, and specifically collage art Instagram, is that there is a fabulous and supportive community of collagists, and that’s something I’ve found absolutely invaluable.

The fear of failure is entirely understandable, but that fear can prevent us from taking risks. Recently I entered my very first art competition. I felt I wasn’t good enough, worthy enough, to be considered. Then I thought, what’s the worst that can happen? So I don’t win a prize: so what? There will be other competitions, other opportunities. No one is going to come round to my house and laugh at me. Entering a competition might not seem like much of a risk to take, but it felt like a huge leap in the dark for me. And now it’s done, and nothing terrible happened!

Helen Kitson, mixed media collage on board, 2022

I think impostor syndrome is something that bedevils many, if not most, of us. I don’t think you can get rid of it, and all the success in the world won’t magic it away, but you can learn to live with it, and acknowledge it as something that goes with the territory of working in a creative field.

I’m not a natural risk taker, rather the contrary, but I know that if I let impostor syndrome eat away at my self-confidence I’ll never give myself the chance to achieve anything; and I would like to leave my small mark on the world.

15 responses to “Impostor Syndrome”

  1. It is a big risk to open up and share this in a blog/website. I think many of us, me included, that haven’t formally studied art at school feel the same way to varying degrees. Thank you for sharing your journey with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know so many people who really struggle with this, and I did take a big breath before sharing, but I think I’ve finally reached an age where I care much less what other people think of me! It’s just a shame it took so long. I’m grateful that I’ve been bloody-minded enough to push through the ‘not worthy’ barrier, but I do wonder how many people – more talented than I – have felt unable to because of the fear of failure and sense of not being good enough.


      1. RUTH KNIGHT-BOWES avatar

        So true! Aging does give us a certain freedom from so many worries. I love your art. Keep on pushing through those worries!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The more new risks you take the less risk averse you will become – which is important. I gave up painting for years and wasted a great chunk of my productive life which I’ll never get back, so push through! Be brave!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you’re right! I find myself doing these now that I would never have dreamed of doing 20 years ago. I wish I’d had more courage when I was younger, but you live and learn!! I want to take the risks now, because if not now, then I never will!


  3. avatar

    Hi Helen

    Thanks for your thoughtful writing. It struck a chord with me. Interestingly, I also had an impactful interaction with friends my age that has haunted me all my life. (I’m now 66!! 😊)

    May I just say, that I find your collages inspiring and I love ephemera and altered books and your work fits in so well!!

    Thanks for writing and being vulnerable. You encourage us all!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for commenting!

      One small throwaway comment can make such a huge impression, can’t it? (And of course these can be positive as well as negative, but the negative ones can do a lot of damage!)

      I’m so glad you find my work interesting. I think vulnerability goes with the territory of being creative, and it can be a tough thing to accept!

      Thanks again for your lovely comments – much appreciated!


  4. Thanks for putting into words how many creatives feel and sharing your story with us. For what it’s worth I absolutely love your art and am always inspired by your work. It’s stunning!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Julianna!


  5. Charlene Reeder avatar
    Charlene Reeder

    Hello Dear Fellow Artist

    This writing resonated in so many ways with me on a personal and business level. Just wanted to take the time to say thank you for sharing its contents and delivering its message in a valuable way.

    When I look back in my own walk, I see art very early in my life. I also see a number of ways it was shut down, not encouraged and being told to “tone it down, your light is outshining others and making them feel inadequate.” Mariann Williamson, years and years later, would point out how very wrong that was for someone in my life to do.

    By the time I realized the damage done along the way, I was married, working a full time legal career and raising two children. Art came in the form of helping them with school projects and still very little for myself.

    That all changed through circumstances I won’t bore you with; however, the changes that were meant to destroy me, brought the light back in full force and now I am working to create fiber art through needle, thread and several mediums, including fabric. Based in cross stitching combined with journal art and quilting. It’s like I am alive again. It fuels my soul and even at the ripe “mature” age of 66, I am finding my base and moving forward.

    I have printed your article and inserted it in my journal for reading again and again when I get discouraged or others try to put out the light (again or still).

    Thank you so much.

    Charlene Reeder Paraclete Designs LLC P O Box 10456 Phoenix, Arizona 85064

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Charlene. I’m happy to know my article has struck a chord with so many people. I think for a lot of people art is something that finds us in later life, but I think those earlier life experiences all go into the mix and make us even more determined to make that space in our lives for art.


  6. As an older person in this day and age it’s rather scary to be posting things on social media when you’re not quite sure if you’re doing things correctly. Add imposter syndrome to the mix and I totally understand why we do what we do. All I can say about you Helen is bravo and thanks for putting yourself out there not only with your art but now with your writing. You are a great inspiration to me and every time I see your art I want to create something. Keep up the great work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Janet! I’m still quite clueless about how much of social media works, and I’m not even sure if I’m using this blog correctly! But if I can inspire people and reassure people that they’re not alone with these feelings of being an impostor or a square peg in a round hole, then I’m happy!


  7. Michelle Donnelly avatar
    Michelle Donnelly

    Oh my gosh! I could have written your very words myself!! Your description of your school years and always fearing being fired were way too familiar to me! Thank you so much for sharing this and making me feel a little less alone in these things!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Michelle, Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply! It’s actually quite a relief to know this post resonates with other people – I think it is something that should be talked about more, because I do think it affects large numbers of people who probably don’t realise that most of their co-workers/fellow students/practitioners/creatives feel much the same way!!


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