Imposter Syndrome

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Ever receive a compliment, or an accolade for your work and respond with something along the lines of “oh, I just got lucky”? Ever look around at where you are in your circus career and feel that you have somehow “tricked” people into hiring you or moving you up to the next level? Ever shy away from being evaluated, or from learning something hard because you’re pretty sure you’re not good enough, and have just been hiding your inadequacy? Congratulations (not really) ! You may be suffering from “Imposter Syndrome”.

Imposter syndrome is characterized by self-deprecating thought patterns, feelings of having fooled others into accepting us, feelings of being a “fraud” and fear of being “found out”, all against a backdrop of objective success. Imposter syndrome is not a mental illness, it’s a collection of thought patterns that seems to plague many humans, especially folks who have high expectations of themselves, tend toward perfectionism, and may have relatively high baselines for anxiety and self-criticism.

Here’s an example:

Janelle trains very hard for several years and develops some skills. Based on an audition, in which she performs said skills, Janelle is cast in a show. Janelle looks around at the other folks in the show, and feels she is not nearly as good at skills as they are, and that somehow she has fooled the director into casting her. Janelle has the same number of acts in the show, and is paid the same amount. She is included equally in the choreographic process, and receives the same amount of praise and critique as other performers.

Because we can see the objective measures of success: casting, feedback, compensation, stage time, we know Janelle is NOT actually much worse than the other performers. Her thought patterns do not reflect reality.

Here’s the thing about imposter syndrome and circus though...most studies of imposter syndrome are conducted in academic or traditional professional fields. These arenas have many objective measures of success: grades, pay raises, titles, promotions etc. The arts are relatively bereft of objective measures of success, which can make it harder to know if we are experiencing imposter syndrome, or if we are really in over our head! If you find yourself experiencing any of the self-deprecating thought patterns discussed here, and ESPECIALLY if you find that your thinking is preventing you from taking opportunities to learn or receive feedback, stop and check with a friend or colleague! Get a perspective from outside of your head. A good coach will also be able to give you a more objective sense of how you’re doing.

The good news is, it doesn’t really matter!

The tools to combat imposter syndrome are also part of a healthy mental approach to life, training, and growth anyway! So whether you can objectively determine if your self-doubt is imposter syndrome or not, replacing self-deprecating thoughts with the following thought patterns will help you out:

  • I have worked hard to get where I am now.

  • I don’t have to be “the best” to be worthwhile.

  • If my work is not up to par, my coach/director/manager will let me know so I can improve.

  • I am always improving.

  • I’m amazing and unique in my work, and no one else is quite like me.

Another way to think about it: If imposter syndrome were sapient, what would it want for you?

It would want you to be isolated, to avoid new things, to feel inferior, to feel like you don’t belong. Would you ever listen to a “friend” who wanted those things for you? I sure hope not! So you can combat the imposter syndrome by taking action to become more connected to others, by challenging yourself to learn and try new things, even if you aren’t AMAZING at them (remind me to tell you about the time I learned a bunch of Samba choreography!), and by celebrating your achievements and successes!

You are where you are for a reason: to learn, to grow, to change the world for the better, and to be changed!