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Imposter Syndrome & Musicians

Imposter Syndrome, first defined in 1978 by Clinical Psychologist Dr Pauline R. Clance, is a psychological state where individuals undermine their achievements, talents and abilities leading to the dreaded feeling of being 'found out to be a fraud'. 'Fraud Syndrome' is another commonly known definition.

In 1985, Dr Clance developed criteria for measuring and defining Imposter Syndrome. Here are the six dimensions:

1) The Imposter Cycle.

2) The need to be special or the best.

3) Characteristics of a superman/superwoman.

4) Fear of failure.

5) Denial of ability and discounting praise.

6) Feeling fear and guilt about success.

Musicians dealing with Imposter Syndrome

Many musicians suffer from feelings of inadequacy and the fear of being found out to be incompetent, unknowing, or simply not good enough. While it is true that we are our own worst critics, Imposter Syndrome is a recognised psychological pattern that can be tough to break. Musicians are highly susceptible to falling into this pattern, and it can be a confidence killer. Almost all musicians will have experienced feelings of inadequacy whether performing on stage or practicing alone.

Social media is a window into a polished 'hyperreality' where perfection is tangible and in abundance. Over the last decade, it has become a new space that blends the virtual with the physical until they are indistinguishable. Perhaps we as consumers care less and less about distinguishing the two realities. Or, maybe we value this new reality just the same. Whatever the case may be, technology allows us to witness the incredible and unattainable daily.

If you're a musician, social media will quickly have you believe that there's a child prodigy around every corner and that it's simply not worth the attempt. While it's entertaining to see or hear, we can lose our grip on reality and our passion for doing what we love. As creatives, it's hard to avoid setting ludicrous expectations for ourselves to feel adequate or 'equal' with those we strive to emulate. Of course, there's a healthy dynamic of setting personal goals and being inspired by what we see and hear. But when we fall short of these perpetually widening points, we stop paying attention to our results. That's when our confidence sinks and self-doubt creeps in.

What can musicians & other creatives do to prevent this?

Perhaps you are someone who can see yourself in one or more of these six dimensions. For me, I've experienced most of these dimensions at one point or another. Over time, I've found it necessary to adopt some preventative methods to avoid falling into these patterns. It's taken a long time to understand how to best the imposter feeling. But if you're a musician or creative who struggles to value your art and the positivity it brings, here are some tips that have helped me.

Know the routine.

Take a look at the imposter cycle diagram below:

The imposter cycle is a thought routine. Observing how it unfolds is the first step to avoid falling into it. You might start from a different point on the diagram, but recognising where your mind is concerning the related task is helpful.

I remember 7/8 years ago when I first began to receive requests for guitar lessons. I had feelings of 'perceived fraudulence' at the idea someone would want to take music lessons from me. At the time, I was still a music student and learning my craft. So it caught me off guard that someone felt they could learn from me. I vividly remember over-preparing for lessons by obsessing over lesson content and spending excessive time building educational materials that ended up being unnecessary. So logically, I found it difficult to enjoy the experience of teaching early on. The truth was that I doubted myself before the lessons even began!

In time, I recognised that I was discounting the positive feedback that I was starting to receive. Although the experience of teaching lessons became more positive, the self-doubt persisted. Once I began to change my self-narrative and identified the thought patterns that were tripping me up, things became a lot easier.

Life requires balance, and balance is an art.

Turning the tide on self-doubt can be achieved in several ways, and learning to balance self-criticism and positivity is an art form itself. It's a lifelong journey that requires maintenance on all fronts. There are times that you will notice when the balance is perfect. The motivation to be productive and think creatively feels effortless. Many creative types integrate meditation and mindfulness exercises into their everyday lives to find this balance. It's worth exploring if you've never tried it, and there are some great apps on the App Store that can help you get started (Calm, Headspace, Waking Up: Guided Meditation).

Another one of these ways is to grow a more positive mindset when practicing your craft. It is all too common to finish a practice session and beat yourself up. Sometimes we mentally defeat ourselves before we get the chance to practice. Therefore, growing a negative headspace whenever we next sit down to play or write. Learning how to develop a positive mindset when practicing is often overlooked and rarely addressed in music schools. As musicians, we constantly compare ourselves to what other players on the bandstand/at the jam/on the record are doing. Much of the time, it's from an unhealthy place and, when we can't match up to the example, we view ourselves as failures.

A practical way to address this issue and begin changing our self-narrative is to keep track of your practice sessions through the week. Making a note of what you worked on, what you enjoyed and what steps you made to improve. The beauty in journalling your sessions is that you can look back on them as evidence of positive affirmations. Making progress with practice is about establishing some constructive criticism. So, balance everything out with some features that you feel need some attention in future sessions. Try not to overburden yourself before your next session, as practice isn't a rush. This way, you'll be reframing practice as an opportunity to discover things that you like while also remaining constructive and progressive. Over time, you will begin to notice a newfound confidence creeping into your playing, performing and practice.

Building yourself up is a counterintuitive process.

Dr Clance talks about Imposter Syndrome as being a heightened 'defence mechanism'. Although we are literal beings, the mind's defence mechanisms prepare us for the worst hypothetical situations, which rarely (or never) occur. There is a certain irony to that.

It starts as a simple doubt about our abilities, preparation or qualification. Dr Clance also explains that there can be specific environments that activate this feeling. Most commonly, academic settings, a new environment, or in the workplace. We can include the world of social media on this list. It's not to say that we should avoid those places or never present ourselves in challenging environments. But it's necessary to know that your surroundings can affect your confidence for different reasons.

When we allow those imposter feelings to overcome us, we begin to transmit those feelings to others who will then start to believe them. There is a kernel of truth in the adage "fake it until you make it". We are social beings that look for validation from those we wish to be around or emulate. The truth is that without self-validation in our personality, our skills or confidence, others will only believe what you show them. Imposter Syndrome arises from the misunderstanding that people are mind readers and see through you. The reality is that we are all searching for validation and our hyper self-awareness is very likely to be a mutual experience. Becoming more self-assured can feel incredibly counterintuitive. We might feel it's immoral to do things that boost our self-confidence. Or we fear that our ego might become so inflated that it floats off like a rogue balloon at a birthday party. Having the right people around you can help give you that desired balance of confidence while keeping you grounded. It's good to lean on people from time to time. Friends and family to who you can talk truthfully.

Gathering Evidence

Another method for combatting these feelings of self-doubt is to gather evidence of personal achievements or events that instilled you with confidence. It might be a compliment that someone has paid you in the past via text or YouTube comment. For some, this is an uplifting way of knowing that others see value in what you do. Being around positive people who bring out the best in your abilities and raise your confidence is great and cannot be overlooked. But no amount of external praise will help you beat Imposter Syndrome if you don't accept yourself first.

Seeking out a mentor can enforce lots of positive, new pathways. For musicians, it might be an older musician that you met while studying. Or a teacher that you connected with away from the instrument. A great mentor can provide you with specialist advice if you have specific doubts or queries. They might even be able to relate to your experience.

Closing Thoughts

This post was intended for any and all musicians who have had this experience.

The truth is, that I still struggle with these negative thought patterns like Imposter Syndrome on occasion. Whether it's at band rehearsals, in the studio or during periods of success.

I've learned that you must be proactive in order to build a positive mentality. Sitting in negativity is easy. Being positive requires work, but it's incredibly worthwhile.

One of my favourite quotes that helps me break out of negative thought patterns comes from Mike Tyson's autobiography, Undisputed Truth. Mike talks about the quote on his podcast, you can find the clip here. "Your mind is not your friend. You have to train your mind to be your friend. Train your mind to say beautiful things about yourself".

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