Imposter Syndrome – the Bane of Performers (and Instructors) Everywhere

There’s a particular feeling I get when I sit down to write a blog here. It’s not necessarily the same as stage fright, but I’m of the opinion it comes from a similar place. Putting something creative or opinion-based out into the world always comes with a level of nervousness, and from what I understand that doesn’t ever really stop.

A stunt coordinator by the name of Rick Skene recently enlightened me to the pit-of-the-stomach feeling that is accompanied not just by going on stage in front of an audience, but specifically by working in front of your peers/mentors.

He calls it “imposter syndrome”. Ok, to be fair, a lot of people call it imposter syndrome, it’s a pretty widely accepted concept in psychology.

Imposter syndrome, at its core, is the feeling of being a “fraud” or imposter among high-achieving or successful individuals.

The longer you look, the worse it gets.

If you have ever walked onto a set or into a rehearsal hall, especially maybe a first rehearsal right after casting decisions, and thought to yourself “Oh wow, why’d they pick me, I don’t deserve to be here, today is the day I’m going to get found out!” – that’s imposter syndrome.

Well, it’s imposter syndrome presuming, of course, you got the part fair and square. We’re going to make that assumption from here on out, actually, so a bit of a disclaimer – yes, sometimes people who feel like a fraud, feel that way because they are. Let’s just do our best to find the fraudulent folks (or, for fairness, folks who believe they’re qualified but are just wrong, not lying) and get them some better training, while holding the industry of performance and physical movement to the high standards we all believe in.

There, that’s out of the way. We can already see how difficult this can be to try and discuss, though! We don’t want perfectly qualified, hard working performers to feel like they are constantly just getting lucky or don’t deserve to be where they are. Not only is it unfair to their mental state, but it generally diminishes the quality of work they put out. Conversely, we don’t want people who do need more training to be encouraged to continue up-selling themselves to get more work and ignoring their conscience telling them they are being dishonest.

So, let’s rely on what we’re trained extensively in as performers – context.

Although not considered a mental disorder, imposter syndrome is a far-reaching phenomenon found in successful people from a variety of demographics. It crops up at a significantly above-average rate when we’re talking about quantifiable success in an environment where skill or technique isn’t necessarily quantifiable as well. This is why it so disproportionately affects performers.

The context of your experience is one of the best ways to make sure what you’re feeling is a spell of imposter syndrome you should overcome, and not your brain trying to remind you to stop writing checks you can’t cash. Try to approach previous experiences objectively through hindsight and watch for patterns. Did you do the thing? Did you do it well? Did you do it as well as you said you would, and as well or better than people expected you to?

“Well, I certainly think he’s a cat, Jim. I’m kind of the expert.”

Huh, guess you weren’t an imposter at all, then. So why does that feeling crop back up the NEXT time?

Because we’re hypercritical of our field, and we happen to also be in said field. A composer I worked with explained it to me like this:

  • A large majority of the time, what sparks an interest in an art form is good taste – you see and understand the things that make a piece good, and start to understand the form
  • When you start working in the form, your taste doesn’t go away; and of course, since you’re new, nothing you make stands up to your grueling criticism;
  • This gets worse for a while because your taste continues to refine as fast as your skill level improves, but eventually, it levels out;
  • Eventually, you’ll make work that you’ll love as much as your favorite pieces, and not out of egotism, but out of understanding

This is why objectivity is so important – being destructively critical of your own ability or work is just as damning as fanning the flames of your ego, especially early on.

What helped me the most? Recognizing that everyone else is feeling this way, too. Every director you’ve ever auditioned for has, at one point or another, felt the exact same way you’re feeling when you walk in the room for your read, callback, etc. They might have even woken up that morning nervous to audition people all day. Maybe they’re worried about the opinion of a casting director or a musical director who is sitting with them, maybe they’re auditioning people with more experience than them, maybe none of these things – maybe they’re just feeling like today is the day they get found out.

This good boy has indeed faked it until he maked it.

Imposter syndrome’s universality in the performance sphere is, ultimately, the best thing about it. We’ve all been there, so there’s really nothing to be afraid of. Imposter syndrome is “fearing fear itself”, in a way. We often seek out performance art as a way to share our experiences with each other and with an audience – sharing the experiences of the process, like those dastardly feelings of fraudulence, should be an equal priority and will yield equally as impressive results.

Be genuine, be mindful, be open, be reflective, and be human – no “imposter” can practice those things in earnest.