Impostor syndrome: that unsettling suspicion that you are not qualified enough to be where you are, and that your abilities and achievements must be mere strokes of luck. Often triggered by perfectionism, it is an identity-level problem that exacerbates self-doubt and negative thinking patterns. Or if you’d like a catchy way to recognise it, there are the “Four Ps” that indicate the presence of impostor syndrome: perfectionism, paralysis, people-pleasing, and procrastination. Sound familiar?
The term was devised during a 1978 psychology study of high-achieving women and has since been estimated to happen to as many as 70 percent of us at some point, particularly among high achievers in occupations with stressful performance environments. Prominent figures such as Michelle Obama have spoken about their struggles with impostor syndrome. As it exists within the context of a larger social structure and all its inequalities, impostor syndrome disproportionately affects women, people of minority genders or sexual expressions, and people of colour, who are often sent messages implying that they do not belong in certain industries or positions of power.
I have personally struggled with anxiety and self-confidence issues throughout my dance career, and I have come to recognise that imposter syndrome likely plays a significant part in my thinking.
However, it comes as no surprise that impostor syndrome is so prevalent in the dance world, where achievements so often depend on subjective external validation and overwork is highly valued. In dance training and professional company environments, the default mode of automatic dissatisfaction with oneself often leads us to internalise critiques and dismiss compliments. Self-deprecation is confused for humility, and a lifetime of pre-empting our flaws leads to a lot of unnecessary anxiety. Dancers suffering from impostor syndrome experience a warped sense of self-perception and get stuck in negative thinking loops. Of course, a certain pursuit of perfectionism in dance is useful, acting as an energiser and motivational driver, but absolute, all-or-nothing perfectionism with no room for failure can obstruct potential growth and lead to burnout.
Impostor feelings can surface at any time, although individual triggers will depend on a particular situation. Perhaps in training, where the word of teachers is gospel, you perceived yourself as an impostor next to what you saw as more talented classmates. In the middle of a stressful audition process, you might be feeling insecure about how you could possibly convince somebody to employ you amongst the other two hundred people at the open call. Perhaps, in a company, you are unfairly comparing yourself to your colleagues, or automatically assuming negative judgement from others. Dancers a few years into a career might question their achievements thus far and wonder whether they might not succeed in precisely the way they had imagined. They might also experience a negative impact on their dancing due to the anxiety, paralysis, and stage fright caused by impostor syndrome. Lastly, dancers thinking about the next step in their careers may feel like impostors as they attempt to navigate new career paths, having convinced themselves that they are “only” dancers and lack real-world professional skills. I have personally experienced every one of these feelings.
Although we can’t get rid of these thinking habits overnight, there are a few things you can try doing to manage your impostor syndrome. I have put together a few helpful pieces of advice from researchers and psychologists, and outlined how they might be deployed to help you in your dance career and beyond. I also spoke to a couple of dancers about their experiences with impostor syndrome and their personal ways of confronting it.
(Please be aware that these tips are not a substitute for professional advice; if you are experiencing impostor syndrome to a debilitating extent, you should seek help from a mental health professional.)
Opening up to others can help you realise that you are not alone in experiencing impostor feelings. Expressing these thoughts out loud may also help you see that they are objectively exaggerated and unfounded. Dancer Alba Sempere Torres, for example, talks of finding support in her friends and colleagues: “You feel that you’re not alone, and that it’s really common”, she said about impostor syndrome, adding that this feeling, to her surprise, was shared by some “amazing” dancers around her. “It used to be taboo, but now people are talking about it more often”, she adds.
Also, asking for help is not a sign of weakness; form a support system (ideally outside your dance bubble) to give you some positive input from a different perspective.
Dancers aren’t great at accepting compliments, but it can be hugely beneficial to our mental messaging. Know that it is possible to truly accept praise and intentionally acknowledge your talents whilst remaining humble. Also, when we keep records of our accomplishments and remind ourselves of past successes, the brain releases dopamine, that feel-good neurotransmitter – it’s a win-win. Self-compassion can be as simple as saying “thank you” to yourself and to your body for physically getting you through the day’s rehearsals and performances.
Otherwise known as “cognitive distortions”, thought traps affect many of us and often come hand-in-hand with impostor syndrome for anxious, high-achieving individuals. They are called traps because they are made up of such ingrained patterns of negative thinking that they occur almost automatically and keep us locked in a negative mindset. These traps can include catastrophising (expecting the worst), filtering (focusing on a single negative detail), and ruminating (obsessive worry about past or future events). Dancer and choreographer Lucas Valente, for example, shared his tendency to filter or zoom in on specific “little details that ruin everything”, even down to an unwanted shift of the foot in partnering work. Here it helps to remember that anxiety is not a reliable source of information, and that your memory of your version of a performance is also often flawed. Keep the logical facts of the situation in the forefront of your mind and deploy this objective realistic thinking to quieten your inner critic.
We have often been told that dancers are replaceable and that there’s always somebody waiting in the wings to take over, which has created a destructive set of messages and a diminished sense of self-worth for many of us. Impostor syndrome sufferers end up making “should” statements about themselves: “I should be in a certain company”, “I should look a certain way”, “I should be dancing certain repertoire”, or “I should already have my next career planned out”. This “should” framing damages motivation and leads to frustration when unrealistic goals are not met. We then punish ourselves for these failures, set new unrealistic goals, and the vicious cycle continues. Try giving yourself a different set of messages and reconsidering your narrow definitions of success. Instead of “should” messages, try a less demanding “I’d like to”, and work patiently towards that goal. In other words, create the conversation inside your head the way a non-impostor would; the only difference is the way of thinking. Also, double check to see whether your definition of success might have changed, and that it truly reflects your current desires, and not those of your colleagues, ex-teachers, director, or family.
We have heard enough about the negative impacts of social media by now that this one should come as no surprise. Negative online comparison with others – the Insta-famous competition dancers, those with an amazing dance resume for a feed, or the ex-dancers experiencing a seamless, immediate career transition – we know that what we see online is only the curated surface of others’ lives, and yet we forget. If social media is sending you into a negative spiral, take a break or unfollow your triggers. Pivot Pointe founder Kay Tien, for example, has come to recognise the benefits of an online detox; she once took a year’s break from social media and found that on returning, her relationship to it was infinitely healthier. Also, try reframing any jealousy as curiosity: if you see somebody doing something online that you would truly like to aim for, consider what you might implement in your life to work towards that goal.
Those with impostor syndrome tend to have an all-or-nothing mindset, where there is perfection or failure and not much in between. By replacing that or with an and, and accepting that any experience will involve a mixture of good and bad, we can move towards a much healthier growth or “learning” mindset. As difficult as it seems, practicing this acceptance has helped me avoid getting neurotically worried about my work or spiralling into obsessiveness.
As mentioned above, impostor syndrome doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and how we have been socialised through gendered or racialized beliefs filters through to our organisations. Therefore, impostor syndrome can also be tackled as a systemic problem on this organisational level. Are you a leader or representative in the dance world, or do you have the potential to push for change? Ask whether your organisation is doing enough to combat bias and cultivate a sense of belonging. If you are transitioning into a different career, how do those organisational structures encourage their employees? Can they learn something from the dance world, or vice-versa? Lucas, for example, in his work as a choreographer, believes it is responsibility to build choreography on a baseline of openness, joy, and communication, working with dancers’ specific abilities and what they feel comfortable doing, instead of imposing obsessive requirements on the dancers which could create “little traumatic wounds” and hinder their performance experience. If those in positions of power in the industry start engaging with these practices and managing impostor syndrome systematically on this level, we could collectively prevent dancers from experiencing debilitating self-doubt.
These practices might feel unnecessary or even silly, but we cannot change our feelings without first changing how we think. Plus, the benefits will stay with you for life; Alba, who is on the cusp of transitioning to a new career, says she feels “mentally overprepared for anything that may come”, thanks to the discipline and strength that come from dealing with the complex emotional pressures of a dance career. Ultimately, learning to manage and prevent impostor syndrome will benefit your dancing, your further career choices, and most importantly, your mental health.
Harvard Business Review Special Issue Summer 2023
Top Image: Photo by Stefano Pollio