Freeing Myself from Creativity-Related Impostor Syndrome

This post is about how I realized a traumatic event had given me creativity-related impostor syndrome, and how I’m working to free myself from my own unrealistic standards.

This weekend I completed my first big Illustration project, and I’m so in love with how it turned out. I posted it EVERYWHERE of course, and was particularly touched by the reaction received on Reddit. I didn’t realize it would resonate so strongly with some people. That sense of recognition and resonance felt really good.

To quote my FB page:

This piece means a lot to me. Not just for the subject matter, which is obviously related to my mental health challenges over the past two years, but because I was able to make it at all. As my very dear friend helped me uncover last week, I think a core, subconscious cause of my depression has been denying myself the things I really want to do, in deference to unattainable standards and distant hypotheticals.

I’m not waiting anymore. Today is good enough. And I can’t say this realization has ‘fixed’ my depression, or if that’s even possible. Only time will tell. But I can’t over-emphasize how amazing it feels to have THIS day, when I can look at a finished piece of art I made, and be proud of it.

I’m a creator. And just look at what I’ve let myself create.

One of my internal struggles has been the idea that unless I come up with something completely autonomously, it’s not ‘real’ art.

I’m very sensitive to accusations of copying other artists, after a friendship ended over similar accusations. I could trace the inception of the particular ideas involved, and they did not originate with my friend, but for whatever reason (similar age, influences, etc.) the topics of our creative ideas were often similar. By ‘topics’ I mean stuff like ‘zombies’ or ‘fairytale retellings.’ Even though the execution and details of my version of those topics were uniquely my own, and I honestly don’t believe I was copying my friend either intentionally or subconsciously, the accusation gutted me.

My work is so intimately part of me. The accusation felt like an attack on my very soul. I wish it hadn’t, but this incident rocked my confidence in my ability to be creative. It’s given me a complex where I’m very aware of where my ideas come from, and I second-guess the authenticity of my ideas constantly.

I’m now realizing how damaging that was, because most of what we create IS inspired by other people. How could it not be? One of the main reasons I wanted to be a writer was to create the feelings in others that my favorite writers created in me. It’s the same with art. But because of my incredibly high standards for myself I devalued most of my ideas if they didn’t originate in a ‘void’.

The most confusing part of it all is this: I’m REALLY good at remixing. I’m really good at learning new styles by collecting and synthesizing the work of others. I collect and collect, constantly internally refining the vague vision inside me until I’ve fleshed out the details. It’s like… using the filter of others to find what was inside me all along. Or learning to name things in my heart by seeing them in other places. Then I take what I find and run with it.

That’s art. …Right?

But I wasn’t letting it be art. Not to me. And so even the stuff I created with the tools I learned from others, I didn’t accept as ‘real’ art. I devalued my creativity. I didn’t let myself be proud, or own what I made. I didn’t fully consider it mine.

Poor spirit. I see now how I was stifling my own growth.

Let me show you an example:

When I started learning Illustrator, I wanted to create some simple images to practice with. I saw this illustration of a bear on Pinterest and thought it was adorable:
By Ciara Ní Dhuinn


Meanwhile, I’d been taking this tutorial on making animal icons and I felt ready to branch out on my own. So I made this:

As I learned more about Illustrator, the final version came out like this:

But I didn’t consider this 100% my own, original art, according to my unrealistic standards for my own art. The reasons are: I got the idea for a bear from someone else (including the background color inspiration and the ‘blush’ below the eyes), I learned how to do the eyes from that tutorial, and by examining various bear illustrations on Pinterest I learned that cartoon bears need that ‘muzzle’ to look properly bear-like.

Isn’t that so neurotic? Because I didn’t autonomously decide to do a bear — or figure out how to do cartoon eyes, or that I  needed a muzzle, or that teal blue is a good color to represent the arctic — I didn’t consider this real art. This totally discounted everything I DID do: decide to make art, do it in this cartoon style, come up with a unique pose, come up with the structure for the paws (without referencing anything else, thankyouverymuch), and — oh, yeah — actually MAKE the thing. How unfair is that to myself?

The credit for coming to this realization goes to my BFF who came to visit a few weeks ago. She was seeing my house for the first time, and admiring the way I’d set up the living room (Chris and I recently sold all our other furniture and got new stuff). Here’s the before and after:

Before: Uncomfortable couches not really in our style

After! Lounging/cuddling space! Room for all the dogs and Chris and I! Updated style! Now there’s a big black ottoman there too to put feet and stuff on!

Reading nook! This space used to be taken up with a black daybed couch thing.

My BFF was complimenting what I’d done with the space, and called me out when I tried to downplay it.

“Yeah, but I spent HOURS on Pinterest and in furniture and decorating stores,” I said. She responded with something to the effect that she could have spent weeks on it and not been able to do this. “Yeah, but I did spend weeks on it. I didn’t just throw it all together.”

“…Is that what creativity means to you?” she asked.

I considered. “It’s just… I didn’t come up with this on my own, you know? I’m not an interior decorator, I didn’t just automatically know what pieces would look good and how to pull everything together.”

And then she said something to me I’ve been clutching to my heart ever since. “I don’t know anyone else who can so consistently decide, ‘Huh. I’m going to go do that thing now’ and then actually do it and have it look amazing.”

Her words were such a huge compliment, and also the first step in a conversation that helped me uncover this strange insecurity about the authenticity of my creativity. Thus began this journey toward dismantling the unrealistic pressures I place on myself, and giving myself the freedom to create in a more free way. And I’m so, so excited to see what I can do with this freedom.

Because I’m a nerd for ‘behind the scenes’ stuff, on the next post I’ll show you the creative process behind the skeleton illustration.

Talk to you soon!

<3, Savannah

4 thoughts on “Freeing Myself from Creativity-Related Impostor Syndrome

  1. Jessica Russian Sifontes says:

    I don’t know how to say this, I think the phrase is “all art is derivative”. We are all influenced by something or other, whether in the same medium we create or others. Like, there are people that write great stories inspired by music pieces, others that draw things inspired by a person they saw on the street. The thing for me is to enjoy the process and focus less on the finished product until I have to revise it.

    I loved the skeleton, by the way!

  2. Aidan says:

    I’m so happy for you!! Look at all of this inspiration and magic you’re sharing with all of us – it’s abundant and glorious :)


    Your bff is so totally right. I have always been impressed by how you actually do the things you find on Pinterest and all the little projects and decorating so many of us never actually complete.

    Go be your gloriously creative self.

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