Getting our (collective) confidence back


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WORDS BY KAM GREVILLE AND CAILIN HOWARTH | First published in Spotlight: The Arts Wellbeing Collective Magazine, Edition 2

As many of us are doing during the COVID-19 closure period, I recently sat in on a webinar presented by The Performer’s Edge, which brought together actors, singers, dancers, and directors to discuss the all-too common challenges of confidence and Imposter Syndrome.

Cailin Howarth

Afterwards, founder of The Performer’s Edge, Cailin Howarth, and I caught up via video-chat to discuss what got her into performance psychology, the importance of defining success on our own terms, and what advice she has for all of us as our industry gradually emerges from COVID-19 restrictions.

‘This is a calling’ is the thread that ties together Cailin’s dual careers as a classical singer turned performance coach.

The Performer’s Edge aims to help creatives gain confidence and reach their potential through group and individual performance coaching. As mental health and wellbeing garners a groundswell of interest and support throughout the industry, services delivered by people with industry experience remain critical.

What motivated you to start The Performer’s Edge?

The reason I chose to study psychology and then start The Performer’s Edge was my experience working in the performing arts. I saw first-hand the struggles that came up for my colleagues and friends, and for me. The psychological side of performance is integral and at this stage, most of us don’t get any training on it. I thought that was a real gap that needed to change and I wanted to be that change to make a difference for our community.

I’m passionate about equipping people with the skills they need to practice effectively and safely.

Unfortunately, the way many of us are trained means we internalise the idea that ‘I have to work harder and put in more hours’ to succeed.
Part of my aim is to challenge this myth and help people work smarter, not harder.

What are the greatest challenges you see in your practice?

Confidence and a sense of self-belief are by far the greatest challenges that I speak with people about.

People outside the industry can get the impression that performers are super outgoing, positive, creative, and confident but performers are often highly self-critical and not as confident as they come across on stage or screen.

Perfectionism and its impact on creativity and self-expression is also a common challenge. As a recovering perfectionist myself this is a particular area of interest for me!

I also coach people on how to psychologically prepare for auditions and performances and how to manage performance anxiety to ensure that they’re putting their best foot forward.

One thing I’d really like more people to know about is the difference between outcome goals and performance goals:

  • Outcome goals focus on the result, i.e. ‘I got the role I auditioned for’.
  • Performance goals focus on the process, i.e. ‘I performed the best I could on the day’.

Choosing to focus on performance goals brings our attention back to our own actions, which are the only things in our control.

Trying to achieve things that are out of our control can lead to hurt and damage our sense of self.

What kinds of themes are you seeing emerge during the COVID-19 closure period?

What I’m seeing at the moment is that understandably people are worried for their future. The arts is an unstable area of employment at the best of times and this experience has only made that more apparent.

But what’s becomes even clearer for me – and it was clear before but COVID-19 has really brought it to the fore – is that for most people in the creative arts and in performance, we don’t choose to work in this sector, it chooses us. It’s a part of who we are. Even though it’s not an easy path, it’s a calling.

The closure period has forced us all to think in ways we haven’t had to, or haven’t chosen to previously. While it’s obviously not possible or practicable for everyone, I’ve been really inspired by the people who are using this time to invest in their knowledge and capabilities, and to work on aspects of themselves that maybe they haven’t had time for before.

This isn’t necessarily through paid services either, even the peer-to-peer conversations I’m seeing right now are really heartening. This time for introspection has been important for a lot of people.

It’s impossible to not have been changed in some way by this experience. Coming out of the shutdown, I think that performing arts workers are going to be better equipped to do great work because for so many of us, we’ve spent time connecting with who we are and what’s really important to us, and that helps us bring out our best.

I was interested to learn about confidence and Imposter Syndrome in your webinar – I think these are concepts most people will have heard of, but can you explain them a little more for us?

Confidence can be defined as a sense, or feeling, of being sure of ourselves and our abilities.

Imposter Syndrome is a persistent inability to believe or recognise that our success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of our own efforts or skills.

The two concepts are linked because Imposter Syndrome undermines confidence. When we experience Imposter Syndrome, we often look for ways to explain away or disown our successes by attributing them to external factors, such as luck.

When we seek to downplay our successes in this way, it can be a sign that we are getting our understanding of what success is more from external sources of validation such as teachers, audiences and critics than from within ourselves.

Why is important to self-define success?

Working in any elite undertaking such as professional sport or performing arts, we are required to consistently demonstrate our skills at the highest possible level. We are trained to become incredibly focussed on noticing and ‘fixing’ even the smallest issues or errors in our work in order to be the best performers we can be.

The challenge with that culture of excellence is that it subconsciously trains us to measure our successes by the amount of external validation we get: ‘how did the audience react?’ and ‘what did the critics say?’ The more external validation we get, the more successful we are – that’s how We’re trained to think.

When I ask people about their best performances or when they have felt the best about their work, the majority of the time I hear things like: ‘when I got a standing ovation’ or ‘when our show received lots of good reviews’.

The risk here is that we become so reliant on these external sources for validation, that it takes away our power to decide what success looks like for us.

This can impact anyone in any kind of job, but because our jobs are so audience-centric and so focussed on providing a service for other people, it can impact us to a greater degree.

A lot of my work is around building up an understanding of what good looks like for us and becoming more self-reliant so we can maintain our confidence and a sense of self-worth even if we don’t get the audience or critic response that we want.

Ultimately, creative work is incredibly subjective, and we can’t please everybody. What we do have power over is how we feel about our performances or creative endeavours. That’s the only thing within our control.

So much of what we define our success by comes from object-referral, which is being influenced by situations, or circumstances that come from outside of ourselves. We may think, ‘he has more consistent work than me, so he’s more successful’ or ‘she travels more for her job than I do, so she’s more successful’. This is the trap of comparison, and it happens when we mis-label someone else’s circumstances as ‘success’ in order to negatively judge ourselves.

True confidence can only come when we define our success by own standards and work towards that success for ourselves.

What would you like to say to performers and creatives as our industry gradually emerges from COVID-19 restrictions?

Your work is important – please hear that and know that. A lot of what We’re seeing at the moment in the media and in government support for the arts is distressing and it might be easy to think that what you do isn’t valued by society. But the arts is and remains such an important part of our world.

You play a major role in creating the world that I know I want to live in and that most people want to live in. In a world full of uncertainty, grief, and change, creative people are needed more than ever. People turn to art for inspiration and guidance. So don’t give up. It’s hard now but don’t give up. You matter, and what you do matters.

Cailin Howarth trained as a classical singer at The Conservatorium of Music at The University of Melbourne before performing in Australia and Europe. Cailin saw the need for tailored support, and subsequently returned to study psychology in order to be the change she wanted to see in the industry. Cailin has created The Performer’s Edge to support performing arts workers to reach their full potential through performance coaching utilising best practice performance psychology.

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