Imposter syndrome is a phenomenon wherein an individual doubts their abilities, discounts their success, and is therefore often fearful of being discovered as an “imposter.” It is an intense and complex experience because it is uniquely tailored to every individual who goes through it according to their cumulative lived experiences. My reasons for feeling as though I do not belong in a community of successful musicians could be completely different from the reasons someone else may feel the exact same way. Talking about imposter syndrome with one another is difficult because it can have us confronting our deepest fears and our most deeply rooted insecurities; and that is why it is important to talk about imposter syndrome in broad daylight. So many of us feel it, but so few of us feel freed from it.
My imposter syndrome manifests when I sense the danger of being judged, which in the classical music world is almost all the time. When I detect the potential for my imperfections to be seen, the danger of failing, I freeze. I often do not express my ideas even when I think they are worth expressing and if I do, it’s with a debilitating dose of anxiety. Oftentimes when I make a mistake, my imposter syndrome feels proven right. It’s difficult to starve my imposter syndrome out of existence when making mistakes is an essential part of being human, of being a musician, and of growing.
Occupying space in a professional field and feeling like an imposter while doing so is a challenge to our emotional wellbeing. Musically speaking, I was taught that a “successful” performance is one where the artist invites the audience in and shares something beautiful, insightful, and unique with them. But what if I’m not feeling inviting, insightful, or unique that day? What if I don’t think I sound beautiful that day, week, or year? What if I’m actually petrified with fear and performance anxiety? Those are the moments in which we learn to perform the courage of conviction. During my time as a performance major, I learned to perform calmness, to perform ownership and mastery. In other words, I learned to fake it. I learned to convince the audience that I feel a certain way when I actually feel the exact opposite. This skill is useful when you have to deliver a performance to an audience on a schedule that does not care about when you feel capable of delivering. However, there are persisting questions that my imposter syndrome asks me before and after those performances: what if you actually have nothing to say artistically? What if you have nothing of value to offer here? How much longer can you “fake it” until someone outs you?
If I’m trying to starve my imposter syndrome, I need to adjust my retrospect. When I was “faking” it, I was in fact doing it, at least somewhat. I didn’t fool the audience into believing anything. I fooled myself into being able to convey music in that moment, to take my emotions that day and put them into the music instead of suppressing them and performing in spite of them. This is what I learned in order to combat my personal strain of imposter syndrome. Showing up authentically to a performance, a class, or a meeting with all of my humanness in tow allows me to feel like I don’t have to become someone else in order to convey music, play expressively, share an idea, or ask a question. It’s a difficult and continuous effort because it means I have to accept my own humanness, come out of hiding, and trust that good can come from it.
Imposter syndrome is inherently connected to how others perceive us. It is so individualized and personal because we walk around with beliefs based on our deepest darkest feelings and experiences that shape our self-concept. Maybe we choose to confront those beliefs head on and interrogate them. Maybe we choose to perform confidence until it becomes a habit and it becomes a part of us. Maybe we choose to chip away at those beliefs in tiny increments, one day at a time, one hour at a time, until the imposter syndrome wears away. Sometimes I walk through the world and my imposter syndrome goes unnoticed, and sometimes it demands all of my attention. In my imposter syndrome’s demanding moments, I try to remember that at some point, there’s no such thing as faking it--you’re just doing it.