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/Imaging4Art.com, 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.
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