Many of us in the freelance world are self-taught. And because we’re self-taught it’s highly likely that some of us have had to deal with the heavy presence of imposter syndrome in our work life. So what really is imposter syndrome? How do we keep it from tanking our motivation and overall joy?
Psychology Today gives us one of the most concise definitions of imposter syndrome: “People who struggle with imposter syndrome believe that they are undeserving of their achievements and the high esteem in which they are, in fact, generally held. They feel that they aren’t as competent or intelligent as others might think—and that soon enough, people will discover the truth about them”.
Imposter syndrome still rears its ugly head in my life and has done so ever since I started freelance photography. I’ve gotten a new camera and thought I was well on my way to becoming a skilled photographer. Then I saw photos produced by other photographers in my community (who actually went to school for photography) and I instantly felt defeated. I thought “It’s pretty obvious that I am not, and may never be, at their level” even after getting rave reviews from some of my clients. The more I believed that I wasn’t a professional photographer the more difficult it became for me to create freely and fully. Maybe you’ve experienced something similar.
For self-taught freelancers imposter syndrome can show up in a myriad of ways:
The more we feed into imposter syndrome’s presence in our working lives, the easier it can become to lose the excitement we have for freelance work. If we’re afraid we won’t ever measure up it’s easy to start thinking “then what’s the point in trying at all?”.
So let’s start being intentional about removing imposter syndrome’s grip on our freelance photography.
First off, you are enough. Period. Your skills are unique and valuable because they are yours. The fact that your journey looks different from other “professionals” because you are self-taught does not make you an imposter and it does not mean that you are not enough for the clients you have. The freelance journey is exactly that. A journey. You are always enough no matter where you are on that journey.
Novice, expert, freelancers of all types are always welcome and encouraged to believe in the value of themselves, their skills, and their dreams.
When you start to feel that poke of “I’m not enough”-ness showing up in your work, take some time to rest and refocus on why you got into this work. It’s probably because you enjoy what you do. It’s also probably because at some point in time you believed that you had enough skills and motivation to be successful. Get back to that version of yourself. Start repeating “I am enough” when you feel yourself comparing your work to other freelancers who might have more education than you.
When you remember that you are enough, the cloud of imposter syndrome starts to dissipate. How can you be an imposter when you know that your skillset makes you just as much of a professional as the freelancer next to you who has a degree in the field?
Continuously growing your skillset is an essential part of staying hungry in your freelance work, but it’s not a requirement for being considered a “legitimate” freelancer. As self-taught freelancers, we learn how to refine our craft in order to make our lives easier, move closer to the kind of product we want to produce, and enhance the quality of services we provide. You don’t have to grow your skills in order to be able to prove to those around you that you are legit. You also don’t have to be perfect. Take the pressure off of yourself to perfect your skills and you’ll see your capacity to grow them instead increase significantly. Choosing to expand your skillset is an act of investing in yourself and your work, not a requirement for being considered a legit freelance photographer.
Part of the imposter syndrome experience often involves trying to replicate what others in the field are producing in order to ensure that you won’t be “found out” as less than. After all, if your work seems to look like everyone else’s, then of course you’ll be considered legitimate and fully capable, right?
The problem with replication is that it removes the potential for you to fully express yourself through your work. And when you can’t express your true self, imposter syndrome will always find its way back into your life. <tweet-link>The more you prioritize your unique spin on the work that you do—which can easily stem from being self-taught—the easier you will see your own value and skillset.<tweet-link> You can start prioritizing yourself and make your work stand out by making sure your branding starts and ends with you.
One of the best ways to combat imposter syndrome as a self-taught freelancer is to dive into community. Surrounding yourself with other self-taught creators and specifically, self-taught photographers can be one of the biggest sources of inspiration and motivation. You get to share your frustrations, your wins, and your questions with people who have been there. You also get to celebrate and remind each other of your talents.
So get together with other photographers that you know are self-taught. Have a weekly/monthly meetup where you just work in the same space or vent about how freelancing is going for you. You can even start by listening to stories shared on The Moxie Podcast. There is solidarity in communal understanding and support. Start drowning out the drone of imposter syndrome with the inspirational voices of freelancers just like you.
If you’re deep in the throes of imposter syndrome, then this next tip might be extra challenging for you, but I’m going to say it anyway: start trusting that your clients aren’t lying to you and believe that you actually have talent. As the cliché goes, you are your biggest critic. This is especially true for those of us who are self-taught. If you never believe the positive things your clients say about your work you will get burnt out and lose motivation to keep going. It’s okay to be confident! Confidence is the key to removing the grip that imposter syndrome has over you. So be intentional about acknowledging your expertise and believe it when someone says you are talented. The more you believe the positive reviews and compliments you get, the more you’ll realize that you are talented and fully capable of being successful in your freelance work.
Overcoming your imposter syndrome as a self-taught freelance photographer may not happen overnight. In fact, it will most likely be a journey that ebbs and flows as you grow in your work. So be patient with yourself and have some self-compassion. Maybe work on taking the first step of making peace with imposter syndrome. Then, when/if you feel ready to confront it head-on, try out the tips listed above. At the end of the day try to remember that being self-taught in the world of freelance is an asset, not a label that means you are not enough.