In Sheep's Clothing

by YEN-RONG WONG

Like almost every artist I know, imposter syndrome runs through my veins. But honestly, I think I would have had this feeling no matter what career I decided to pursue, and this is strongly linked to attitudes that were pushed upon me when I was younger.

Jacques Hnizdovsky - The Sheep, woodcut, 1961

Jacques Hnizdovsky - The Sheep, woodcut, 1961

I was a shy, quiet, bookish child. I still am, in fact. I did well at school, and at home, I was the model child. I put my head down and did what was expected of me. I avoided confrontation when I could and I hated change. My parents noticed this, and ran with it.

They taught me that I could do anything I put my mind to, that there was no dream too big. But they also taught me that the world was relentless, that there’d always be someone else snapping at my heels. And so these invisible targets would keep rising, just out of reach, just enough for me to put my head down and try again. To try harder. It wasn’t until halfway through my university degree that I realised I would never meet the lofty standards my parents expected of me – and that somehow, I had internalised my parents’ expectations to the point where they were indistinguishable from mine.

In order to truly understand this, as well as the way in which imposter syndrome is manifest in my life and my work, I have to pay particular attention to the silences in my childhood. Silences, especially those from my parents, were plentiful when I was younger, thanks to a culture that values propriety and piety above all else. There was little to no recognition for any of my achievements, and consequently, no time for me to be proud of them. I never really had the chance to slow down, to look back at what I’d done, to reflect on what I’d achieved. It’s something I’m still trying to work on now, but it’s difficult. I imagine I will be working on it for the rest of my life.

My imposter syndrome is inexplicably linked to my depression, and vice versa. A low day can result in my second guessing every word I put down on paper, or just simply no work at all. In a similar vein, scrolling through a list of artists for a festival and feeling a strong weight of inadequacy slowly rest on my chest can lead to a lowering of my mood. Interestingly, I think all of this is also the reason why I often try to do too many things at all at once. In the back of my mind, the threat of failure reigns supreme. So if I’m busy, I don’t have time to think about it. And I also get to keep producing work, work that will somehow convince the rest of the world that I am not an imposter.

But here’s the secret (and it’s one I’m trying to convince myself into as well): you’re not going to be found out. You deserve your success, and much, much more.

This constant need for perfection is not confined to the arts, but it is arguably more prominent in this fickle industry of ours. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been socially conditioned to think of the arts as a career that is not as important as say, engineering, or any of the “hard” sciences. Personally, I find this both upsetting and fascinating as I have a science and an arts degree. The pursuit for perfection is equally impossible in research science and in the arts, and yet discussions around failure are very different. Failure is no less frustrating in the lab, but it is encouraged. It means you know what not to do the next time you run your experiment, and it certainly does not mean you are any less of a scientist. But this logic does not seem to hold up in the arts, and lately, I have found myself questioning my approach to failure – not just in my writing, but in my life in general.

Illustration by Gemma Correll

Illustration by Gemma Correll

 

For now, I know this syndrome still lurks within me, and there will be days when the imposter syndrome hits harder than most. I acknowledge that those days will continue to exist, but I’m also at a point where I am able to acknowledge that that’s okay. It’s all right to have bad days, and it’s all right to take days off. My work will still be there in the morning.

I’ve been told that it never really goes away, no matter how much you do, or how much success you have. Maybe it’s because society’s expectations, much like my parents’, will keep rising, just ever-so-slightly out of reach, telling you you’re not good enough.

But guess what? You are. I am. Now take a nap (if you need one), and go forth and make some spectacular art.


Yen-Rong Wong is the founder of Pencilled In, a literary magazine that seeks to promote work by young Asian Australian artists, and also works for Hot Chicks with Big BrainsThe FemRead Women, and Rambutan Literary. She is particularly interested in Gothic literature and its intersections with contemporary work, as well as South-East Asian women's writing. She lives with her cat, Autumn, and too many shelves stuffed full of books.