I’m not saying that every successful artist and writer I know suffers from Impostor Syndrome. Obviously, some creatives have massive egos. Then again, some of them evince massive egos to hide from the world the fact that they don’t think they deserve their success. However, I do know quite a few people who have received and continue to receive recognition (positive reviews, regular sales, prestigious awards) and also live in fear that someday the world will figure out that they’re not really that good, and they will lose it all.
One problem is that success can be so fickle. After Robin Williams’s death, most of us probably thought first, “But he was so great, so funny.” But some of us probably thought, a little bit later, and with a little bit of guilt, that The Crazy Ones wasn’t great or funny. I had to Google just to remember the name of his last sitcom, of which, like many people, I watched a single episode before making the choice not to follow. And Robin Williams was great. He was funny. But art doesn’t work like that. The emotions Williams made us feel in Dead Poets Society don’t keep The Crazy Ones from getting cancelled. So there is a sense that no success is real success in the arts. You’re only as good as your last performance, and if you’re hesitant to schedule the next one, you’re a has been resting on your laurels. You have to keep producing, and each production has to be better than the last.
Every little success is a boost to the creative mind, but the next day is a blank slate. If you don’t sell as many books, if your webpage doesn’t get as much traffic, if your critics are a little bit less congratulatory today than they were yesterday, you only feel the negative.
Most of us (the less insane ones, anyway) did not go into the arts for the accolades. Most of us went into the arts because our weird artistic brains literally did not give us any other choice, which makes success, or lack thereof, that much more difficult to process. Even if you’re great, even if you know you’re great, our society doesn’t look kindly on those who go around explaining how great they are. You might feel bad about your success because you want your art to transcend the need for positive feedback, or because there’s something illegitimate about becoming popular. You might feel bad about wanting or enjoying success.
Many of us simply believe we don’t deserve to succeed: because we don’t think we’re good enough, because we think others are better, because we feel that we haven’t suffered sufficiently, because we feel like there could be shame is being successful. And then there are those who are afraid to succeed, because to attempt success is to risk failure, and if we don’t believe we deserve to shine, we inevitably keep ourselves in the dark.