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In the last week or so, I’ve seen this term used several times in social media posts. While intuitively I kind of get what it means, to me anyway I wanted to figure it out a bit better so I decided to do a little research and found it to be quite interesting. To me, just reading the words, I suspected it was all about a fear of being “caught” impersonating someone who knows what they’re doing (ostensibly when you actually don’t know). Close…very close.
What actually IS Imposter Syndrome?
According to Wikipedia, Imposter Syndrome is “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Despite external evidence of their competence…”. In the context of overall mental health, this syndrome can affect many areas of life; work, interpersonal relationships, and even with regard to mental health (in this context they believe they are not mentally ill and therefore do not seek treatment).
But that’s a little farther than I want to go…
For this, I am concentrating on imposter syndrome as it relates to VO and acting. You know, that feeling when you walk on stage or get behind the mic that today is the day everyone around you is going to find out you don’t know how to act. Today I’ll talk about imposter syndrome as it relates to the performing arts.
It aint stage fright…
The first thing to know is that imposter syndrome is NOT stage fright. Stage fright is extremely common for anyone who needs to speak or perform in front of a group of people. That group can be anywhere from 2-3 people right on up to 10’s of 1000’s of them. The size of the group is not important. Stage fright is the “butterflies” in your stomach as you are preparing to “go on”. It’s important to realize that anywhere from 40% to 80% of people have it. It’s common, and typically it goes away sometime after the performance begins.
But let’s park there for just a moment…
As long as we are on the topic of stage fright, let’s take a look at it since it is so common. Stage fright is a form of anxiety. As a matter of fact, it is considered to be the most widespread form of social anxiety. Most people will experience stage fright as a result of having to perform some type of public speaking, such as giving a briefing at work. And you usually KNOW those people! Stage fright manifests itself with several different physiological responses such as dilated pupils, sweating, rapid heartbeat…you probably already know the symptoms. Essentially it is the same as a fight-or-flight response.
Don’t feel like you are all alone…
The truth is some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry continue to suffer from stage fright throughout their careers. The singer Ozzy Osborne of Black Sabbath, in his autobiography I Am Ozzy, wrote: “To say that I suffer from pre-show nerves is like saying that when you get hit by an atom bomb it hurts a bit”. There are many others, you can google them yourselves and some of the big stars with stage fright may surprise you. The key takeaway here is that stage fright, or pre-performance jitters, is common and you CAN be successful in spite of them. Don’t let stage fright hold you back.
Back to imposter syndrome
Well, if it isn’t stage fright, what is it then? Merriam Webster defines imposter syndrome as:
“a psychological condition that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success”. The phrase was only added to the dictionary last year (April 2020) but has been around a lot longer than that.
My research uncovered that the term was coined by American psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in a 1978 article titled “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” (BTW – Imposter Syndrome was previously called Imposter Phenomenon). Initially, this syndrome was thought to be more prevalent in women than men. If you’ve been around as long as me, you’ll note that the 1970’s was a time when more and more women entered the workforce, so it is no wonder they drew this conclusion since that’s what they were studying.
But that was a wrong assumption
By 1993, the same psychologists revealed that:
The impostor phenomenon was originally thought to be particularly pervasive among females (Clance & Imes, 1978). Surveys of several populations, however, have found no differences between the sexes in the degree to which they experience impostor feelings. (Merriam Webster)
It’s actually pretty common, believe it or not, and some would assert that it is not a syndrome at ALL, but just a part of living life (insinuating EVERYONE suffers from it to some degree or another).
According to The Recovery Village there are 5 types of people with imposter syndrome:
- The perfectionist – They strive to be the best no matter the cost to their mental health
- The Superman/woman – They may feel inadequate in relation to colleagues and push themselves. You may call them a “workaholic”.
- The Natural Genius – Not only a perfectionist, but also not satisfied unless they achieve success on the first try.
- The Soloist – Has a lot of trouble asking for help.
- The Expert – Never feels good enough despite their obvious knowledge and skill
Do you relate to any of the above five?
If you do, you may be suffering from imposter syndrome. Or maybe not. Since it is not a recognized mental disorder, it is likely going to be tough to figure that out. But – if you ever feel like it is just a matter of time before you are “found out” or “revealed” for the fraud you are, then likely you suffer from this to some degree.
Here’s the kicker though
A LOT of people feel like imposters from time to time. Have you booked a really high paying national VO gig and wondered how in the world you did THAT? Did you think it was just “luck” and not your skill that got it for you? Ever felt like you didn’t actually DESERVE the gig (but cashed the check anyway!)? That’s what imposter syndrome feels like. Same goes for people who book a role in a big feature film, episodic show or stage play. If you got the job but didn’t feel like you deserved it and it was just a matter of time before the director, producer and all the other cast members figured that out – Imposter syndrome!
Why is it bad?
There are likely a host of psychological reasons that feeling like an imposter is bad, but I’m no psychologist, or psychiatrist so I’m not going to worry about that (so take everything I say with a grain of salt which you should be doing anyway). From where I sit, it’s bad because it AFFECTS YOUR PERFORMANCE!
It’s a vicious cycle
In both VO and acting, the performance, if you want it to be stellar, requires you to be relaxed, natural and confident. How can you be confident if you don’t believe you deserve (or are good enough for) the job? The short answer is: You can’t. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You don’t feel worthy, lack confidence (which shows up in your performance), your performance suffers and the Director wonders why they cast you. You can see how this belief can cause you to spiral down out of control, right?
How do you overcome it?
Sad news is you probably can never completely get rid of it. From time to time everyone is going to feel like their success is “stolen” or “undeserved”. As I mentioned, some people think it is just part of living life. But you CAN overcome imposter syndrome if you just remind yourself that:
- You are your own worst critic. Chances are pretty good you are far more talented than you think you are.
- You didn’t hire yourself, someone else did and then after you auditioned. THEY saw something good there, even if you don’t.
- You remind yourself of all the training, all the rehearsals and all the blood, sweat and tears that got you to where you are. You didn’t “fall into” this, you worked HARD to get it.
And, yeah, there is a bit of luck involved too…but luck is NOT why you got cast. Luck is why you saw the casting notice or got the audition – your audition, your talent and skill – gets you cast.
I believe one of the biggest things to remember about imposter syndrome is that the feeling is pretty common, or at least not very UNcommon and that you are not alone. Chances are, every actor you ever worked with, every VO you ever hear, ever director, casting director, producer, agent and manager has felt the same way you did. Maybe luck brought you the audition, but your skill got you the job. If you sucked, you’d never get cast. Remember that!