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Imposter Syndrome by James Vilseck

Feb 23, 2022, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

Everyone has experienced self-doubt at some point in their lives. It is a perfectly normal part of expanding your comfort zone. Taken to a higher level, these feelings can make you feel unworthy of your success or like a fraud, almost as if you don’t deserve what you have or your achievements were complete luck. It might even be possible that you are “found out” — not fit for your position or the expectations brought upon you. This mentality describes imposter syndrome.

Coined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in their 1978 founding study, imposter syndrome is more than just extreme self-doubt. Rather, it is wondering whether you belong in the first place. It is not an official psychological disorder, but instead an extreme mindset that affects an estimated 70% of individuals at some point in their lives. Originally believed to mainly affect women, recent studies have shown that both men and women can experience imposter syndrome, though the experience seems to be more common in minorities. The main culprits of imposter syndrome are high-achieving individuals. Regardless of their success, these individuals may feel like they do not belong, feel a need to constantly prove their worth, and seek approval from outside sources. They typically discredit any actual success achieved by their own efforts and believe that any credit they deserve is due to the excessive anxiety, luck, or the kindness of others.

Dr. Valerie Young studied imposter syndrome extensively and identified five different types: Perfectionist, Expert, Natural Genius, Soloist, and Superwoman/man.

The Perfectionist: These individuals focus mainly on the “how” and create excessively high goals. They can be control freaks and rarely celebrate success because their work could have been better. Even in impressive accomplishments, a minor flaw equates to a complete failure.

The Expert: These individuals focus on “what” and “how much” they know and can do. They feel an endless need to acquire knowledge and experience, thinking that they will never know enough, even if such knowledge serves no immediate purpose. A small lack of knowledge in the moment feels like a great failing.

The Natural Genius: Measures success not only about the “how” and “when,” but mainly based on ease and speed. Like perfectionists, they set very high bars, but judge themselves upon succeeding the first time and succeeding easily. Any form of struggle leads to the feeling of defeat.

The Soloist: Worries about “who” completes the task. These individuals feel like they must be the one to accomplish each task to prove their worth. They struggle working with others and feel that the result is less stellar when they do. Asking for any help is a sign of failure.

The Superwoman/man: Focuses on “how many” roles they can fulfill. These workaholics find satisfaction while working, but not in the work itself. They work extra hours, even when all their tasks are completed. Failure in any one role means complete failure overall.

The music field is filled with highly successful individuals at all levels: students making all-state or auditioning into their school’s highest-ranked ensemble, young composers publishing their first piece, a professor receiving a reward for years of service, etc. Imposter syndrome can affect any of these individuals. It is not uncommon for those experiencing imposter syndrome to mask their feelings. Instead, they may strive to make their work more obvious to those around them.

Another group that commonly experiences imposter syndrome are those starting a new role. This may be freshmen in college or high school who are under higher expectations and feel a need to prove themselves, or graduate students who are in a unique part of their career development. As teachers and supervisors, we should be aware of those who are most susceptible to these thoughts or those displaying signs of imposter syndrome.

Musicians work in a very competitive field. Much of what we do, through auditions, competitions, proposals, etc., involve direct comparisons to others’ work. It can fuel a drive to be better than others rather than focus on the development of the self. Any time self-satisfaction and self-confidence becomes reliant on external factors, bad mental habits can be formed. Knowing that these factors can lead to a possible increase in imposer syndrome in musicians allows us to form strategies for ourselves and our students.

First and foremost, attacking feelings of imposter syndrome requires a change in mindset. Dr. Young states that “Rewriting your inner rule book is the best place to start.” Changing habits is a difficult process — especially mental habits. It requires time, patience, support, and likely lots of failure. While imposter syndrome is a mental issue, mental problems can be created by physical issues, such as a lack of good exercise, sleep, and dieting habits. Those already dealing with anxiety or depression are also particularly prone to imposter syndrome.

Talk to Someone: If you have feelings of imposter syndrome or even moderate amounts of self-doubt, talking to a supervisor or mentor is a good first step. Communication is a great way to validate accomplishments, create realistic expectations, and develop accountability. You should also consider counseling from a therapist or psychologist who can provide specific, personalized guidance.

Realize Your Accomplishments: Creating a list of accomplishments is a great way to realize what you have achieved. The list can be as big or small as needed to achieve the intended effect. Something big, such as a great recent performance of a new work, all the way to something as small as reaching your practice goals for the week all work on this list. Feel pride in each accomplishment and think about the work you put in for each one. As you work through these accomplishments, avoid comparisons to others and try to stay focused on the self.

Embrace Failure: Learning from failures is one of the best ways to grow. Failure is inevitable; it is fruitless to try to avoid failure and none of us aim for it. That said, knowing it will happen instead of allowing it to shock us can put failure in perspective. Most of the time, mistakes are minor and will not cause any major concerns. Think about what you can learn from each failure and use it as an opportunity to grow.

Achieve Your Personal 100%: With only 24 hours in a day, only so much can get done. Taking out time for sleep, food, travel, etc., provides us with even less time. Achieving your personal 100% means to have done everything in your power to accomplish your goals considering your ability to do so. For example, if you are experiencing forms of tendonitis in your wrists, you probably will not practice as much as you want to. Instead, you practice what you can, study your pieces, watch videos, etc. If your car breaks down, you probably won’t get your to-do list done at a normal rate. You aim to do what you can, but the world often has other plans. If you have an overload of tasks to achieve, it may not be possible to finish them all. Utilize what you can to achieve what you can, and if you do that, it is okay to dismiss any further feelings of shame and start understanding your limits. Adjust your commitments from there.

Take it One Step at a Time: Everyone around you is trying to get better. No one is perfect; you are not perfect. We are all a work in progress and we are all human. Find one thing you want to be better at and start working on it. You can even create a list of things you want to improve and slowly incorporate each into your daily routine. Give each item time to develop.

The feelings of impostor syndrome are common, and those experiencing them are not alone. There are plenty of online resources that can help you identify if you have imposter syndrome, which type it may be, and specific strategies to work on it. Don’t let these feelings hold you back in your career or schooling. Acknowledging these feelings and making slow adjustments will lead you away from your imposter and eventually to your real self.

“Do You Have Imposter Syndrome?” by Jannifer Tzeses.

“Feel like a fraud?” by Kristen Weir. American Psychological Association.

“5 Different Types of Imposter Syndrome (and 5 Ways to Battle Each One)” by Melody J. Wilding.

“The 5 Types of Impostors.” By Valerie Young.

The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women by Valerie Young.

James Vilseck 2022Dr. James Vilseck is Adjunct Professor of Percussion at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, where he is the Percussion Coordinator and Percussion Arranger for the Lumberjack Marching Band and the Director of the “Jacks of Steel” Steel Band. He is also Adjunct Professor at Angelina College in Lufkin, Texas and was previously Adjunct at Morehead State University. A marching percussion specialist, he is a sought-after clinician at universities and has presented at state music conferences and PASIC. His compositions have been published by Tapspace, and he is a member of the PAS Health and Wellness Committee.

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