‘I’ve got this mark on me that says - ‘Nothing.’ Billy Connolly.
Is it reassuring to hear such a universally loved comic idol, at the peak of his career, say these words? No. No it is not, because it assures me that imposter syndrome, once it’s dug it’s claws into me, is going nowhere. This is a subject I’ve wanted to write about for a while because it is so common and can be so destructive. I’d like to share my own experiences of it and some advice on, not overcoming it, but how to do the things you want to do despite it.
I’ve always been an imposter. It first became clear when I started university in 2000 and instantly thought, ‘I do not belong here’. For years, I resisted telling people I was a teacher. Instead, when asked, I would say, ‘I work in a school’, and let the truth come out slowly over the course of the conversation. If I just blurted out, ‘I’m a teacher’, I felt like I was lying. It’s only in recent years that I’ve stopped worrying that some important person in a suit will come to my classroom door one day and haul me out by the scruff of the neck like a small child caught playing with their daddy’s important papers.
As an artist, I can’t even refer to myself as such without feeling like a fraud. Who am I kidding? I don’t often go to galleries and have no real desire to exhibit my work in case that same be-suited important person that I used to fear would kick me out my classroom comes along and laughs me out the door. Trying to put a fair price on my artwork makes things even more complicated. As a busy mum, I’m getting slightly better at this now, as nothing is worth more than my time, so if I’ve put a lot of my precious time and effort into something, I’d like to be paid fairly for it. There’s only so much crap you can take when you’re being pulled in five directions at once, after all. Eventually, you want to be treated fairly.
Is this a predominantly Scottish thing? No, absolutely not. However I would say we’re pretty good at it here. The past generations here have been taught from an early age not to blow our own trumpets, not to get above our stations, keep our heads down… it’s always been part of the Scottish psyche, so when one of us is recognised for a talent or achievement, it can be hard to take. Thankfully, that’s all changing a bit now. We are more conscious of actively encouraging our kids to recognise all the good they are capable of and not to rule themselves out if they don’t manage something well first time. There’s room for a growth mindset now. As a teacher, one of the nicest parts of my job is when a kid shows me something wonderful they’ve done and I fall over myself to give them all the praise and encouragement in the world. All teachers and parents love to be able to do this. So why can’t we give ourselves the same level of encouragement?
How to deal with it then. I’m not over it, am actually very much in the thick of it, so I can’t tell you how to overcome it. However, there are a couple of ways of tricking yourself into dealing with it.
Firstly, remember this: you are not that important. Seriously. Although this sounds counterintuitive when I’m supposed to be talking you out of thinking yourself small, it’s actually very freeing to realise that not that many people will get their knickers in a twist if you put yourself out there. People are generally too focused on themselves to care. This realisation has been life- changing for me. There are very few people who care enough to slag you off and the few who do will only do so for five minutes before they move onto the next target in the ever-reducing circle of misery they call their lives.
Secondly, take action anyway. Quickly! Don’t think about it too much. For me, the beauty of the internet is I can communicate without face-to-face interaction which would undoubtedly give my lack of self-confidence away. I can send an email application, or post a piece of art then switch off and walk away. Sometimes it feels like releasing a hand grenade and fleeing the scene, but only to me. The recipients, remember, have their own great big important lives to worry about. Whatever it is you want to do, don’t give yourself any time think about it, just do it.
It may be of little reassurance, but it seems like everyone, even those who appear most successful, have at some point struggled to wipe away that mark of ‘Nothing’. It’s just a wee dirty mark, it’ll come out in the wash. Please don’t let imposter syndrome stop you even trying to do your thing. Good luck out there!