Waging War: 5 Battle Strategies to Defeat Impostor Syndrome

Raise of hands, how many of you feel like you’re faking your way through life? Like you don’t actually know how to do your job, or people think you’re a lot smarter than you actually are?

Impostor syndrome (also “imposter”), impostor phenomenon, impostor experience, impostorism, and fraud syndrome are all terms that encompass the idea of feeling like a fraud. It’s been a bit of a buzz topic lately, especially with a few celebrities speaking out about it, like Neil Gaiman:

In addition to Gaiman, the following well-known figures also report having felt the phenomonen: Maya Angelou, Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chuck Lorre, John Green, Tommy Cooper, Sheryl Sandberg, Sonia Sotomayor, Mike Cannon-Brookes, Diana Crow1, Seth Godin2, and Amanda Palmer3. I especially love that Palmer dubs it “The Fraud Police.” It’s less impending if you name it, right?

Actually, both Palmer and Gaiman have very vivid fantasies of imaginary people coming to them in the  middle of the night and telling them, “We know you’re a fraud, and now we’re here to take everything away from you and to tell everyone you’re a fool.”3,4

What Impostorism Is

The first study on impostorism, by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, published in 1978, explains that those “who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”5  In a later interview, however (in 2015), Clance amended the definition: “if I could do it all over again, I would call it the impostor experience, because it’s not a syndrome of a complex or a mental illness. It’s something almost everyone experiences.”6

It’s a growing body of research, but the more psychologists study the phenomenon, the more they learn how universal the experience is. In fact, that first study by Clance and Imes asserted that it was only the women in academia who felt this way, but men were later included after ‘fessing up to being quiet on the matter.6

Impostorism can be defined with three major characteristics. Those with impostorism:

  1. Believe that others view them more favorably than they deserve.
  2. Have fear of being found out and then viewed as a failure.
  3. Have trouble internalizing their actual, tangible successes.7

How Impostorism Presents Itself

If you’re really down the rabbit hole of not believing your own worth, you may not know you meet any of the above criteria. One of the easiest ways to tell is if you find yourself exhibiting a behavior consistent with this mindset.

There are many behaviors that those with impostorism may exhibit, but there are four pretty standard ones that Clance and Imes outlined, and later works still agree. Someone with impostorism may exhibit one or two of these, but it’s rare for them to show all four.

1. From the belief that hard work will cover up a lack of intelligence or talent. They work hard and make sure to do so behind closed doors. This can look like someone who pretends to be playing games on the computer when a family member walks by, but they’re actually studying. Sense of approval from others reinforces this behavior.

2. From a sense of phoniness. They believe they participate in intellectual flattery by doing types of work that will please others (i.e., choosing a paper topic that they know their professor will like). If they had not flattered their superiors, they would have failed because they’re just not smart or good enough. Actual success feeds this behavior.

3. From a desire to be liked as well as thought of as competent. They use charm and perceptiveness together to win approval, like flirting with intent. And when they do win approval, they don’t believe they earned it. That if they were actually intelligent, they wouldn’t even need outside approval to convince themselves of their value. Again, success itself reinforces behavior like this.

4. Avoidance of success completely, out of fear of failing. As in, they don’t even try to win something they possibly could win because they’re afraid they’ll fail, and everyone will see, so they just avoid the situation altogether. This one can go hand in hand with depression and is fed by opportunities for success.5

As you can see, all of these behaviors feed into themselves. They encourage more of the same behavior, and it may seem like an impossible war to someone who’s been stuck in the cycle for a long time. Unfortunately, it’s not just the internal mindset and behaviors that contribute to the problem. There are also external factors.

What Irritates the Problem

Although impostorism is a fairly universal experience, it tends to be worse in fields like academia or the arts where there is a lot of competition. Instead of waning all on its own, as it does for many people, impostorism is developed by physical events.

In a study about academic faculty and the ways they cope with impostorism, Holly M. Hutchins and Hilary Rainbolt discovered four types of  “imposter incidents,” which they describe as “disruptive events that created doubt, shame, and questioning of who they [the participants] were.”8

These four types of events perpetuate rather than diminish feelings of fraud:

1. Moments when expertise is questioned. This can be when someone straight up asks you if you’re qualified or when you have to teach in your field, like giving a lecture or presentation. I just dealt with this myself with some suburban moms asking if I was qualified to teach their children beginner piano, and I almost said, “Even with my degree, I’m not qualified at all!”

2. In moments of self-evaluation of one’s work. The faculty members in this study spoke specifically about submitting their work for publication and applying for grants and tenure. Universally, this might look like when you’re trying to prove your worth (like in a job interview) or dealing with negative criticism or comments.

3. Competition or comparison. This one’s pretty obvious. For piano, a great example is when you’re looking up recordings of your repertoire to listen to, and you find a wonderful rendition by a four-year-old prodigy. It makes you re-evaluate why you play at all. But in general, any kind of comparison can do a lot of damage to one’s perspective of self.

4. Moments when one is asked to accept success. Winning awards, getting asked to be a judge in one’s field, and being invited to speak as an expert all aggravate the cycle because impostors really can’t internalize their own success.8

Strategies to Break the Cycle

So it is a war, not just a one-night battle. There are so many forces encouraging feelings of fraud, and this can make you feel trapped. But, all you have to do is interrupt the cycle to find a way out. Just one little bump, and there’s some hope. Each of the studies and articles I looked at have different strategies to cope,  but these five are fairly universal ideas that are easy to do.

 

1. Be open and honest with yourself.

Remember how Amanda Palmer gave her feelings a name?3 Part of the psychology of naming is that you choose to accept that the idea is a real, tangible thing. This isn’t AA, but it’s the same concept. The first step is to accept you have a problem and choose to do something about it.

I think I’m going to call mine Fred the Fraudmonger. That seems like a great villain name. Let me know if you’ve picked out the perfect name for yours. But the idea is to face it like it’s a tangible enemy. Be proactive, and let yourself feel it.

I’m coming for you, Fraudmonger!

2. Know that everyone else feels the same way.

In the same speech in which Amanda Palmer dubbed impostorism “The Fraud Police,” she had everyone in the room raise their hands if they had ever felt like a fraud. All the faculty sitting on the stage behind her raised their hands as well, and she said “If they didn’t, they’re lying.” She’s right. That’s exactly why Pauline Clance said that if she could redo the original study, she’d call it the “impostor experience.” It’s that universal. Some people just have more trouble with it than others. Palmer even says at the end of the video that the feeling never completely goes away; you just learn how to deal with it.

For some, just knowing that it’s part of being human helps them accept it and move forward.

3. Be honest with others and vice versa.

In her book, Presence, social psychologist Amy Cuddy includes a chapter solely about the impostor experience. She sums up her research and interviews with,

As I review the research and talk to people like Pauline [Clance] and Neil [Gaiman] who’ve experienced the same fears, I see the one quality of impostorism that stands out from all the others: it makes us feel alone in the experience, and even when we learn that other people have similar fears, we don’t take heart.6

Sometimes it’s really not enough to hear that all these famous people suffer from the same feelings. Because they’re actually talented, and I’m obviously not.6

The APA lists talking with people as two separate ways to deal with impostorism.9 Find someone you trust and aren’t afraid to just be open with.

In some cases, mentors are excellent to talk with, but don’t be surprised if your mentor actually makes you feel worse. I’m not trying to be mean to all the mentors out there (I mean I guess as a piano teacher, I am also one), but in different study by Hutchins, results showed that in all but 3% of the participants’ experiences, mentors actually made feelings of impostorism worse. The mentors didn’t do anything wrong, but the fact that they were so successful, and the participants in the study felt they weren’t added to the issue.10

The original study by Clance and Imes discusses the high effect of group therapy sessions. “A group setting is also valuable because one woman can see the dynamics in another woman and recognize the lack of reality involved.”5

There’s always someone to talk to. The worst thing you can do is keep it to yourself and suffer alone. You may actually be helping another person by bringing it up.

4. Look at the hard facts.

If you have a degree, you earned it. If you won awards, you earned them. Take another look at the tangible evidence of your skill. You can’t fake all of that. It’s impossible. Try looking at everything objectively, or as if you were in the heads of the people who gave all these certifications to you.

Another part of this is to say “thank you” and mean it when people congratulate you for success. Instead of shying away and mumbling something to the effect of, “Oh, no it was nothing,” or “It wasn’t my best work,” try standing up tall with a big smile on your face, look them in the eyes, and say, “thank you.” This is one of the best things you can do if you’re a performer too. This is actually one of the major points of last week’s post about Alpin Hong, who says that the “joyful expression of appreciation…cannot be overestimated.”

All in all, just own your successes. And if you have trouble, go back to number three and find someone who can help you find a way to be excited about your triumphs.

5. Pretend you’re someone who can.

In a commencement speech to the University of the Arts Class of 2012, Neil Gaiman spoke a little bit about impostorism. The advice he gave was that if you still don’t think you can do it, pretend that you’re someone who can do it. The full quote is wonderful.

Be wise because the world needs more wisdom. And if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.4

So pretend you’re someone who did earn those degrees, someone who truly deserved those accolades and awards, and just act like that person would. It helps.

There’s a lot of debate in the psychology world about how much acting actually contributes to changing your thought process, but it’s worth a shot, and there are plenty of people out there who defend this idea.

Nudge Forward

The key to any of these strategies working is to expect it to be a slow process. We’re fighting a war, not a battle.

Realize it won’t happen in a day, but little nudges (apparently it’s a real psychology term) will weaken the cycle. Over time, it just might break!

Nudge theory explains why most New Year’s Resolutions don’t stick (these goals are way too big). It is the idea that to change your behavior (and your thoughts), you have to do so in small steps that slowly build up over time.

Governments all over the world actually have their own “nudge units” to encourage people to make better eating choices and to recycle. And all they do is start placing healthy food at eye level, and putting junk food where it’s harder to get to.11

Just thinking deeply about your specific type of impostorism and how it affects your behavior is a great start. Here’s a recap of five strategies to break the fraud cycle:

  1. Be open and honest with yourself.
  2. Know that everyone else feels the same way.
  3. Be honest with others and vice versa.
  4. Look at the hard facts.
  5. Pretend you’re someone who can.

If you found any of these sources interesting or helpful, there is a list of recommended resources as well as the works cited in this article below. Check either or neither of them out. Just remember to pass the ideas on. I don’t lay claim to any of this. I’m not a psychologist; I just enjoy research. Cite studies where applicable, but carry the ideas on forever if they help you.


Recommended Resources

Amy Cuddy, TED Talk  and Presence (Amazon Goodreads). Both are excellent resources. I recommend watching the TED Talk first, and if you want to dig more into the scientific studies and read more interviews regarding how the body shapes the mind and the idea of “fake it ’til you become it,” then the book is for you.

Neil Gaiman’s Commencement Speech to the University of the Arts Class of 2012 (also embedded above).

Amanda Palmer’s Commencement Speech to the New England Institute of Arts Class of 2011 (also embedded above).


Works Cited

1. Wikipedia. “Impostor Syndrome.” (2018, July 30).

2. Richards, Carl. “Learning to Deal With the Impostor Syndrome.” The New York Times. (2015, October 26).

3. Palmer, Amanda. “The Fraud Police.” Commencement Speech to the New England Institute of Arts Class of 2011.

4. Gaiman, Neil. “Make Good Art.” Commencement Speech to the University of the Arts Class of 2012.

5. Clance, Pauline Rose, and Suzanne Ament Imes. “The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice 15.3 (1978): 241.

6. Cuddy, Amy Joy Casselberry. Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. New York: Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Company, 2015.

7. Leary, Mark R., et al. “The impostor phenomenon: Self‐perceptions, reflected appraisals, and interpersonal strategies.” Journal of personality 68.4 (2000): 725-756.

8. Hutchins, Holly M., and Hilary Rainbolt. “What triggers imposter phenomenon among academic faculty? A critical incident study exploring antecedents, coping, and development opportunities.” Human Resource Development International 20.3 (2017): 194-214.

9. Weir, Kirsten. “Feel like a fraud?” American Psychological Association. (2018).

10. Hutchins, Holly M. “Outing the imposter: A study exploring imposter phenomenon among higher education faculty.” New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development 27.2 (2015): 3-12.

11. Wikipedia. “Nudge theory.” (2018, June 11).

4 Aspects of a Great Performance from Alpin Hong

“The power to affect how people perceive you gives you the ability to transform the world around you.” Alpin Hong, TEDx La Sierra University, July 1, 2015

It starts the moment people can see you. Whether it be a stage, the boss’s office, or a high school hallway, we are constantly performing. People evaluate you according to how well you present and choose to listen to or ignore you.

Performing is a skill that turns you into an effective communicator; it encourages people to hear you out. And it’s not just for stuffy classical musicians and theatre nerds.

In his entertaining and insightful TED Talk at La Sierra University in 2015, classical concert pianist Alpin Hong illuminates four simple ways to have a great performance in any field.

1. Project confidence (even if you’re dying inside)

It’s just as good as confidence itself, and it will put you at ease.

Stand up straight and steady but with relaxed shoulders, arms hanging by the side. Turn your arms so that your palms and forearms are facing forward, and then rotate only your palms back to face your sides. In this position, your body is more open but also flexible.

Eye contact is also important. Pianists typically can’t really look at the audience while they’re playing since they’re facing sideways, so this goes with the outer parts of the musical performance: the entrance and exit.

In my undergraduate days, most of my vocalist friends were taught to close their eyes to start and look at a point just above the audience to help with nerves. But after some experimentation, a lot of us found that we actually became more comfortable when we were able to make eye contact with people. We created connections with the audience members, and it was easier to feel like these strangers wanted us to win.

Finally, the bow. There are so many tricks to “do a proper bow.” My high school choir director had us recite, “Do I have my shoes? Yes, I have my shoes” as we tilted our heads down and bent to the correct angle from the ground.

But Hong puts it as, “You go down, you go up, and smile.” He says, “That last step, the smile, cannot be overestimated.”

Expressing joyful appreciation reinforces the good feelings you gave the audience, and they’ll take that home with them. They may not remember what you played years in the future, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.

All in all, someone who projects confidence and isn’t afraid to laugh at themselves is much more persuasive than a stiff perfectionist (oops called myself out!).

2. Be smart in your preparation

Hong notes that most musicians prepare in the same way: they learn their songs from beginning to end and don’t delve into the theory of it. But, understanding the basic structure and knowing the piece inside out and forwards and backwards is one of the best ways you can prepare.

He compares it to a speech: if you remember the basic concepts of each paragraph, you can have a successful presentation, even if you forget the specific words you wrote down.

That’s why music theory is important! If you know the chordal structure of your piece, you can find your way if you get lost (and it’s bound to happen at least once in your life).

The way you learn the music should also be under scrutiny. Most musicians learn the beginning of their songs and add on the subsequent measures each day. This means that the beginning is strong, and it weakens as it goes. A good way to combat this is to learn pieces backwards: start with the last four measures, then last eight, and so on until you’re at the beginning.

This actually puts in little memory structures or anchors as you go, and that alone is beneficial to memorization. But it also means that the song gets stronger as it goes. You always end on a triumph!

Since watching this talk, I’ve started doing this (actually a lot of professors also told me to do this, but I didn’t listen), and it has helped tremendously. I don’t have substantial evidence, but I do feel like I’m getting a lot more efficient practice done as well.

3. Find the right mindset

A lot of anxiety comes from the assumption that the audience wants your performance to fall apart. Instead, make connections with the audience with your eye contact, give them stakes in your performance, and then you’ll know that they want you to succeed. You’ll have auditoriums full of people cheering for you.

In any other situation, you can do the same with your posture and with your attitude of graciousness, like in the first point.

But we all know that no matter how well we do at number two, preparing, there will always be mistakes. We can have a healthy attitude with number four.

4. Improvise: Learn to roll with the punches

Improv troupes are at a severe advantage with this one. With the idea of “yes, and,” they choose to accept whatever the situation throws at them and keep moving forward. When the inevitable mistake occurs, you can either freak out or make the best of it.

This is where understanding the structure of your performance (number two again!) helps you get through. If you get lost in your piece, you can then get yourself back on track, even if it’s not exactly how the composer intended it. Hong actually quotes Thelonius Monk here, “There are no wrong notes; some are just more right than others.”

A mistake actually created Hong’s most-requested piece, “Twinkle Twinkle Death Star.” He was playing the Mozart’s 12 Variations on “Ah vous dirais-je, Maman”, K.265 (Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) and lost his place, so he played what he knew in the key, which just happened to be the Imperial March from Star Wars. And he kept going with whatever he could think of, Zelda, James Bond, Harry Potter, and so on until he found the end. If there’s only one part of this TED Talk you watch, I suggest it be the performance of this. It starts at 14:14.

Performing doesn’t have to be as daunting as it is, especially because we all do it everyday. It’s a lot easier to think of it as four small pieces, and I’m thankful for great performers like Alpin Hong who love to share their expertise with the world.

What do you think? Do you have any great tips or videos on cultivating a great performance? Share in the comments below!

Truth Under the Stage Lights

Stage lights possess magical qualities. Under their glare, performers sweat and burn while pretending not to. They to act like they’re the best at the talent they represent, whether it be acting, dancing, or music-ing. The tricky part of dealing with stage lights is that they always reveal the truth.

In a small city’s largest concert hall, a girl with perfect posture stands behind a curtain. Her clammy fingers caress the strings of her violin, and phantom tones escape into the dense air. Onstage, the main sponsor concludes his announcements.

“Thus, it is my pleasure to present our very own Alexis Hoffner.”

The space erupts into the throes of white applause. Alexis grips her violin and crosses into the light. Instantly, the truth pulls at her, staying her steps for a moment. When she regains composure, she joins the sponsor in the center of the stage for her bow.

He pats her on the back and says, “Break a leg” as he makes his way out of the light.

Every person’s gaze points to her. She can feel them, like laser points coating her body. More than that, as she poises her violin upon her shoulder, she can see them. Spider-silk thin lines of intentions stretch from the audience before her to coil around her fingers, her neck, her heart. Suspended in expectation, they glimmer in the hot light.

With a deep breath, she prepares to fight them, as always.

A quick downbow begins the saucy tune. She tosses her hair, a challenge to all who seek to force their will upon her. The strings of influence begin to writhe.

“You must be great,” they say to her. “You must do better than all who come before.”

She continues the tango, twirling about the stage in a match against the invisible invincible threads. For a while, she dodges each one, leaping above and diving under as they coil around her. Now pulsing in shades of scarlet, they swing their full weight against her. Back and forth they spin, no side truly gaining ground, but there are more strings than there are of her.

They wrap her in a cocoon of blood, the tango becoming her requiem. Tangled in their web, she thrashes, yearning to be free. The only movements they allow are the ones that keep her playing. The weight of their influence forces her down.

The song ends.

She leaves the stage, her breath heavy. Away from the stage lights, they barely reach her. Her thoughts clear, and she knows what she must do.

“One more song,” she tells herself as she marches back to the stage. The moment the light hits her, the cocoon crashes back down on her. Mere breathing is a chore. Perhaps she’ll die instead.

After her bow, she faces her captors.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to take a moment to thank everyone who has made tonight possible. Our sponsors, my teachers, my parents, and especially you all. Thank you for making my final performance so meaningful. I couldn’t have asked for any better.”

The cocoon slithers and chokes at her announcement. That is not a part of their plans, and therefore it is unacceptable. She almost falls to her knees. The show must go on, for one more song. She prepares her violin and realizes breathing is no longer an option. It’s amazing how strings so thin can possess such strength.

Small notes whisper across the strings. The threads tighten again, and the audience leans forward in confusion. This is her declaration of freedom, a quiet folk-tune?

She smiles at their dismay. “This is me.”

Spots dance around the edge of her vision, and the heat of the stage lights begin to melt her. She struggles not to cough in seeking more air, but one sneaks in and interrupts the lullaby. The threads pull harder, and she sees red. If she doesn’t finish the song, her final performance will not end, and they win.

“You must,” she begs herself.

The lights around her grow dim, and her violin sounds far away though it sings directly in her ear.

“One more page, just one more page.”

Tighter they coil, sensing the end. Desperate to keep their prized prodigy, they hold with all they have. Yet, she plays on.

“Sixteen measures.”

The end is so close, but Time draws slower as her consciousness fades. A few notes slip. Her captors squeeze, sensing their victory.

“Eight measures.”

No more lights line her vision. Her fingers operate on their own. She feels them fade away in the dark. She could lie down right where she is.

“Four measures.”

One more phrase in the darkness, and she can see the end. It bears its own light. Gentle, unlike the stage lights, they lead her where she must go. She no longer feels the need to breathe and wonders why it should even be a difficult task.

“Two.”

Almost there, she smiles at herself. Is she still playing? She can’t tell. It feels that all might be lost. That might be all right. At least the gentle glow is still with her. It feels like a friend. She reaches out to it.

“One.”

In silence, her hand grabs the edge of the light, the last thing she sees before the dark takes over.

“No.”

With one final downstroke of the bow, she releases the light, and it rings out to fill the auditorium with a flash of cooler light. As it fans out, it cuts the strings from her body. She gasps.

The audience sits in silence.

Shaking, she rises from her bent-over position. Tears fall from her eyes, and she faces her former captors. Applause rings out, and she smiles.

No nearly-invisible threads shimmer in the stage lights. Only dust fills the air. She is free.

A Little Bit of Math and Magic

Music. It hovers around us every day. Some say that it is a fundamental part of being.

At its base, music is a collection of sounds in the air. (Some old-fashioners would say “organized sounds,” but we have John Cage to thank for a more inclusive definition.) Once the air molecules cease to vibrate, the music ceases. It wisps away as if it never happened, and all we have left is the memory of the sounds that came before.

It is the most present of all the arts.

Perhaps this is why it’s also one of the most stressful creative endeavors. Seriously, little kids have some serious guts to play in front of their peers, and even more to play for their parents. Great job, kids with musical extracurriculars! Expectations of excellence fill those environments, and I’m glad I started piano late enough to avoid much of that.

Even into college years, however, performing live music is terrifying. You’ve got one shot, one four-minute slot in a departmental recital, to prove your worth (while hopefully also creating something worth listening to). How you approach that moment can make or break you. And that’s why so many musicians have anxiety.

It’s the hours that turn to days, to weeks, to months, and to years of preparation that culminate into one moment. If you mess up, you think you didn’t practice enough. You should’ve slept less and practiced that one passage a billion times more. Sometimes that’s exactly what you should’ve done. Other times…not so much.

At some point in their musical careers, the pros learn to just let it happen. Those months and years of preparation are the best they can do. Freaking out in the moment does not help at all. So they let go. (To be clear, pros still have performance anxiety, but they approach it in a much more graceful way than I’ve yet figured out. If you’ve got that part down, then go you! Also, teach me!)

For a musician, the moment they walk onstage is comparable to stepping calmly (or not so calmly) off of a high-flying aircraft, no parachute in tow. They have two options: 1. Flap their arms like a crazy person trying to take flight and die in pile of tired anxiety, or 2. Accept it and make the most of the time between them and the ground.

This is where the magic comes in!

They don’t really have to die from walking onstage.

Musicians are silly. They always forget what happens when they choose option number two: they learn to fly. That ability is somewhere inside them, probably from all the practicing. Musicians are at their most vulnerable when they perform, and watching them find the magic and learn to fly is one of the most humbling and beautiful experiences known to humanity. It’s why we keep coming back.

So, while all the mathematics and theory on the music itself is equally important, most of us stick around to watch ordinary people learn to fly.