Angels and demons: balancing creative work and Imposter Syndrome

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Words by Fernanda Fain-Binda

Have you ever felt like a fraud? Worried that it’s only a matter of time before everyone sees the ‘real’ you?

This anxious feeling of constantly outrunning your own downfall, of feeling guilty for having ‘convinced’ everyone, is exhausting. It takes a lot of energy to convince ourselves that we’re rubbish, but that’s what many of us do. It’s called Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome

First identified as a psychological pattern by Dr Pauline R. Clance and Dr Suzanne A. Imes in 1978, imposter syndrome thrives when intelligent people seek external validation, but focus on negative feedback, or work in competitive environments that demand perfection.

Environments like the performing arts.

Imposter syndrome is considered a psychological experience, not a disorder, and something that will affect up to 70% of us in our lifetimes. It is natural, but deeply uncomfortable. Spotlight asked two experts for their advice, and four industry professionals explained how imposter syndrome affects them.

“My work is to increase people’s awareness and skills of how they can be the best they can be,” says Professor Gene Moyle, psychologist and Associate Dean at the Queensland University of Technology. There are several ‘cultural shifts’ that she identifies as being key to muting our imposter syndrome. 

"I support people to not think about perfection. Perfection doesn’t actually exist. You’re battling with yourself and your own self-talk."

According to Professor Moyle, the performing arts industry needs “to create the psychological safety for somebody to be vulnerable and feel like that’s not going to have repercussions.” The idea of psychological safety comes from Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson. Professor Edmondson argues that people will perform better if they feel safe at work, and that safety manifests itself in admitting mistakes, and understanding that all levels of an organisation are learning together. That’s the theory, but who wants to test it?

“I don’t feel like you could ever go to someone and say: ‘My mental health isn’t where I’d like it to be at the moment, could you cut me some slack?’” says ‘Li’, 30, a dancer now based in Melbourne. “In one show in the UK, there was a moment when I was feeling really crap, and I showed it, and I was sent home. The show must go on!”

In the performing arts industry, we often seek validation from our audience, peers, and critics, but we can also internalise every instance of bad feedback or lack of empathy. This creates a sense of shame, which convinces imposters that they’re justified in their self-doubt. “The individual doesn’t think they have imposter syndrome – they think they really are an imposter!” says Dr Jessamy Hibberd, author of The Imposter Cure (Aster, 2019).

Recently, Li contacted his dream dance studio to ask if they’d be interested in hiring him. The studio asked him to send examples of his choreography. Li stalled. His sense of not being good enough peaked when he compared himself to the studio teachers’ videos online. So, he didn’t reply.

Imposter syndrome isn’t just feeling that you’re not good enough; it’s all the opportunities you avoid, it’s the chances you talk yourself out of, it’s all the times you decide not to draw attention to yourself. 

"Talking about it is helpful because, when it’s kept a secret, there is shame attached to it."

A sense of shame, and exhaustion, resonates with ‘Sophie’, from Canberra, who finds her imposter syndrome “crippling”. She’s in her fourth performing arts career, having left the others due to self-doubt. “I constantly feel like I’m failing at things, even if I’m not. I’m always waiting for somebody to say, ‘There’s been a mistake and you don’t belong here,'” she says. Sophie has lived with this feeling for years. Sometimes it would get too much, and avoidance helped her to cope. “I found it very hard to turn up,” she says.

Currently in a job that combines authority with creativity, Sophie is overworking. “I’ve always thought that if I’m not very good, I can at least work harder than everyone else. (But) I’m extremely overtired and feel like I’m drowning… I have days when I want to say to my boss, ‘Are you sorry that you gave me this job?'”

Acceptance of what it really means to be human

The antidote to imposter syndrome, says Dr Hibberd, is “acceptance of what it really means to be human.” We cannot get over it, without understanding where it comes from. “It can be helpful to externalise it,” she says, “and understand that this isn’t your voice, but the voice of your fears.”

It is possible to talk about imposter syndrome safely, as musical theatre actress Chloé Zuel found out recently. When Chloé was teamed with Broadway musical stars for an online event, she froze.

“I had a full-blown meltdown about it. When I spoke to the organiser, he was so beautiful. He said, ‘It sounds to me like you’re having an imposter syndrome moment.'” Chloé realised that this feeling was a constant in her career, one that she could take steps to control.

“I love musical theatre, but I started to really assess whether I had gotten to where I am because I have brown skin and they needed people like me, and not (my) talent. Or whether it was luck. And I don’t have the answer,” she says. Ahead of her role as Eliza in Hamilton, Chloé employed a combination of singing classes and meditation techniques to ward off imposter syndrome. “I try and see myself from above and catch myself when I see negative patterns,” she explains. “I try to lead my brain, but it is a conscious effort.”

Chloé Zuel in Hamilton, Australia. Image by Daniel Boud

Crippling imposter syndrome doesn’t have to be a constant part of your life. Within the performing arts, self-doubt can be dialled down by leaders who normalise nerves, and who respond with empathy to colleagues who talk about it. Leaders could consider overwork as indicative of other issues, such as imposter syndrome, rather than just the normal way of working.

Actor and documentary producer Shaun-Anthony Robinson, 40, is torn between wanting to create art and feeling that he has no right to. “I still feel like I’m not good enough. You go home thinking ‘Oh my god, I f*cked up, they’re never going to ask me back.'” Shaun-Anthony is working on a documentary about Australian actors in Hollywood, and has to believe in it. “When you’re showing that you don’t have confidence in yourself, no one’s gonna have confidence in you. It’s a revolving door. Maybe we need to validate ourselves,” he says.

Shaun-Anthony making "Surviving Sunset"

“Sometimes our brains don’t work for us, they work against us,” says Professor Moyle. “You have the ability to influence and control your own thinking. I describe having a forcefield around me and only I allow what people say to come in, or to bounce off it.”

Chloé believes that we have to juggle high expectations with a certain lack of control over the final product. “It’s learning to say: that was my best in this moment. No performance is going to be exactly the same, is it? It’s okay to be human, to make a mistake. It’s okay.”

Critical feedback is part of the performing arts, but so is insecurity, and an awareness that talent can be subjective. Perfection will always be out of reach. One way of coping with imposter syndrome may be to let others know that we believe in them, even when they don’t. Because we know that doubt too.

Tips and tools to manage Imposter Syndrome

Elandrah Eramiha, Chloé Zuel and
Akina Edmonds in Hamilton, Australia.
Image by Daniel Boud
Elandrah Eramiha, Chloé Zuel and Akina Edmonds in Hamilton, Australia. Image by Daniel Boud

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