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.