I Don’t Belong Here: A Primer to Impostor Syndrome and Why it’s Probably Lying to You

Remember that Talking Heads song, ‘Once in a Lifetime?’ You know the one – it starts with a long monologue telling you that you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife – but, the Talking Heads explain, we might find ourselves thinking that this isn’t our beautiful house, nor our beautiful wife, and frankly, how did we get here?!

That’s kind of what imposter syndrome is like. No matter how astronomically talented a person is, they’re also a human being, with all the funny little nuances and quirks and insecurities that come with it, and everyone – no matter how successful – has a tiny voice in their head that expresses all their innermost doubts. Many people learn to control and supress this voice, but it’s still there like a little heartbeat, beating its drum:
‘you can’t. You can’t. You can’t.’

In spite of this little voice – or perhaps to prove it wrong – you’ll soldier on, working hard to create the life you want and establish yourself in your chosen field. After a while, other people will start to notice your hard work. You’ll begin to gain a following – a small one at first, and then, maybe, a much larger one. Now the voice isn’t saying ‘you can’t’ – it’s
saying ‘pretty soon they’ll all figure out that you’re winging it.’

How do you know if you’ve been afflicted with this pesky phenomenon? Think about these statements – if any of them apply to you, you’re part of the gang:

I often attribute my successes to luck.
I worry that people will find out I’m a fraud.
I’m not comfortable chatting openly with other industry experts, in case they realise I don’t know very much.
I worry about sharing my work publicly in case people think it’s rubbish.
I don’t think I deserve the accolades or praise I receive.
I struggle to justify my prices.

One or more of those sound familiar? You’re certainly not alone. Imposter syndrome is an enormously common phenomenon, and the annoying thing is that it doesn’t go away, necessarily – instead, you just learn to work it to your advantage and laugh it off. (Really, you’re in good company – between all of us here at the Training Barn we’ve won plenty of awards and picked up amazing contracts, and we all still have it!)

“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find out.” – Maya Angelou

Studies show that imposter syndrome affects over 85% of working adults, but only about 25% have ever heard of it. Interestingly, it’s found to be more prevalent in women, particularly high-achieving ones – so if you’re still working on your 2020 resolutions, may we suggest conducting yourself with the blind confidence of a mediocre man? (Gents, we’re only kidding – we love you really!)

There’s a pretty consistent cycle that imposter syndrome follows. You’ll be presented with a task – for example, a shoot with a new client – and after that initial buzz of booking it in, you’ll suddenly feel the self-doubt creeping in. How can you come up with enough exciting ideas to fill the shoot? Will you be able to capture the emotions? What if you don’t find a single nice location?

Then, you’ll do one of two things: you’ll either avoid that self-doubt by procrastinating, and ignoring the prospect of the shoot until the last minute, at which point you’ll have to do all your prep in a last-minute panic. Or, you’ll overprepare like mad, driving yourself insane by covering every possible eventuality.

In the first case, you’ll then attribute the success of your shoot to dumb luck. In the second, you’ll reason that you got it done because you worked hard. In neither situation will you praise yourself for simply being bloody good at what you do. In effect, you’re cheating yourself out of that great feeling of pride in what you do.

Another common symptom of imposter syndrome is trying to be a total superwoman in everything you do. You’re so desperate to prove a point that you’ll take on a million jobs, trying to balance so many plates that you burn yourself out. This one’s not great, either  you might wow people with your diligence, but you won’t enjoy it. And photography? Well, it’s meant to be enjoyed.

So how do you fix it? Look, we won’t lie to you – there’s no one-step process. It’s a slow burner, and it’s all about changing your mindset and attitude. But there are some sure-fire ways to get yourself on the right track.

Stop comparing yourself to other people. By pitching yourself against someone else, you’re internalising the idea that they’re in some way better than you, that they’re closer to perfection. Perfection doesn’t exist. You have a vision that is totally unique to you.

Embrace that.

Realise that taste is subjective. The harsh truth is that some people will love what you create, and others won’t – that doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means that everyone likes different things. Variety is the spice of life, baby – just stay true to you.

Keep positive feedback for when you need it, but don’t fixate. Imposter syndrome is at its worst when we allow ourselves to really live in our own brains. Get out of there – it’s exhausting thinking about yourself all the time! Take some photos for fun, donate your services to an animal rescue, or snap some pictures of a friend’s kids – they’re all great ways to get out of your brainspace.

Feeling really down in the dumps? Read back through some testimonials and then go for a walk.

Fight back. When those doubts creep in, quite literally tell your imposter syndrome where to go. Say it out loud! Suddenly, it’ll seem a whole lot less overwhelming – it’ll probably feel a bit silly. Treat yourself like you’d treat a friend. You probably say things to yourself that you’d NEVER say to another person. Be kind to yourself – and if it helps, assign that voice in your head an alter ego that you don’t respect at all. I like to imagine my imposter syndrome is a tiny Donald Trump – suddenly, I really don’t care what he thinks of my work.

Remember that failure doesn’t define you. You can spend your whole life waiting for something to go wrong so you can say, ‘I told you so!’ to yourself. But what a waste of time and fun that would be! Everyone misses shots sometimes. Everyone gets it wrong sometimes. That doesn’t mean you’re crap – it means you’re about to learn something new and be even better than ever.

Keep a support system around you. Friends and family are great, but you’ll always think of them as biased. Instead, find a group of fellow creatives to meet up with for coffee, brainstorming, collaborations, and laughs – they’ll keep you feeling positive. Remember that nothing lasts forever. Bit morbid? Maybe – but none of us will spend the rest of eternity photographing horses. We all have an end date. Make the most of the time you’ve got and stop worrying what people will think of you.

What are we leaving in 2019? Self-doubt. How are we doing it? By embracing our strengths AND our weaknesses, because they make all of us totally, wonderfully unique. Go do your thing, without reservations – you’ll surprise yourself with your own greatness.