With one metre’s distance between the chairs and a corona capacity of maximum 30 people, the Levin Hall was full as bass player, composer and psychologist Jo Fougner Skaansar began by giving a presentation of impostor syndrome. It often starts with a challenge, he argued, with having to perform a piece of music. Anxiety, self-doubt and worry about your own performance creep in, which in turn leads to over-preparation or procrastination. Positive feedback on the performance is put down not to your own achievement, but to hard work or luck. Mistakes, on the other hand, are ascribed to your own incompetence. This way you keep feeding the feeling of being a fraud.
- Success does nothing to solve the problem; instead it turns into a cycle of self-doubt and fear of making mistakes. If you have a taste of success, you fear that it will lead to higher expectations and greater risk of being exposed as an impostor. Fighting it is hard work. It also means that those experiencing these feelings are rather good musicians, Fougner Skaansar explains.
Those afflicted by impostor syndrome are often perfectionists who chase ambitious goals and therefore also set themselves up for a greater fall.
- It is as if you have an attic and a basement with no stairs in between. Either you make it to the top, or you’re a failure. Impostor syndrome leaves many people struggling with stress and anxiety, the psychologists tells the audience.
Fougner Skaansar has spoken to several musicians battling with impostor syndrome to varying degrees. It might be useful to know that the condition has a name, that it is normal and that you are not alone, according to the psychologist and musician.
- That, and acknowledging the feeling. Instead of thinking ‘this is it, now they know’, try to think ‘here comes the feeling of being exposed’. There is a distinct difference.
A recognisable phenomenon
Fougner Skaansar’s introduction was followed by a panel discussion with Are Sandbakken, professor of chamber music at the NMH, and student Annie Eline Lundgreen, classical saxophonist and chair of the NMH student committee (SUT). Lundgreen spoke about how she has felt uncertain about her own capabilities when performing, but that she eventually managed to find a language to describe it.
- I’ve thought and written a lot about my motivation for doing music. I can’t measure my inner desire against others. I’ve created a blanket on top of me, a justification of why I play music. Nobody can take that away from me.
Sandbakken was initially unfamiliar with impostor syndrome, but he believes that most people can recognise the aspects of the phenomenon in their own life – himself included.
- I was suddenly given a title when I was still quite young. I thought to myself: what? Am I expected to spearhead an entire discipline? Still, I like receiving praise. If I receive regular praise, I often start to believe it, says Sandbakken, citing music therapy as a field from which musicians can borrow techniques to great effect.
- Classical musicians are sometimes scared of making mistakes. It would be a dream to take a group of musicians to a cabin in the woods to share their stories, try some liberating exercises and bring them out of their shells like music therapists do. I think that would be a fast-track approach to something fruitful, be it this particular topic or generally.