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The fear of being an imposter

Everyone around you is telling you that you are a good musician, but you cannot stop doubting your own abilities. When will everybody realise that you are a fraud? Imposter syndrome was the topic of CEMPE’s Student Talks #7.

Doubting one's abilities

Impostor syndrome was first described by the American psychologists Pauline R Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in a research article in 1978. The psychological phenomenon refers to someone who doubts their own abilities despite being seemingly successful in their studies and careers. These people believe that they have tricked others into thinking that they are competent. And with that comes the fear of being exposed as a fraud.

- I experienced it myself when I was accepted onto the course. I thought it had to be an administrative error, explains Susanna Yttri Solsrud, a classical singer and master student in music education at the Norwegian Academy of Music (NMH).

Together with bass player and music education student Ole Martin Solberg, she is serving as a student partner at CEMPE in the period 2020-2022. The pair were behind the first discussion forum for NMH students of the academic year, Student Talks, which addressed impostor syndrome.

- Everyone in a high-performance environment will recognise it. We thought it would be a good idea to tackle it now at the start of the academic year when there are so many new students who might be experiencing these very feelings, Solsrud says.

Rejecting praise, absorbing self-criticism

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.

Instead of thinking ‘this is it, now they know’, try to think ‘here comes the feeling of being exposed’. There is a distinct difference.

Jo Fougner Skaansar -

Revelation and relief

When the term impostor syndrome was first coined in the 1970s the focus was very much on high-flying women. More recent research suggests that men and women are equally susceptible, something that the response from the auditorium confirmed. Many of those in attendance, irrespective of gender, were relieved that the issue was being raised. One spoke of their fear of not loving music enough.

- You’re told that you have to give everything for your music. That has created a fear in me that I’m not feeling it enough. It’s not about ability but about underlying things. That I perhaps don’t love music enough.

Lundgreen nodded in acknowledgement.

- I think we humans often think in black or white. You must put your music before everything else, or you might as well give up. Of course you have to enjoy performing, but there are grey areas. You don’t have to love it every single day.

Preventive measures

The first Student Talks of the academic year concluded with group discussions among the students in the audience. What can be done to prevent impostor syndrome? And if you do feel like that, should you mention it to your teacher or peers?

Fride Nøstdahl Hjelle and Joachim Mørch Meyer are in their fourth year of the jazz and music education programme at the NMH. The description of impostor syndrome resonated with both of them.

- The most difficult thing is to accept yourself and not compare yourself with others. Talking about it is good, although I also feel that it makes me turn into ‘that guy’, the one people feel sorry for. That’s why I haven’t said anything, Mørch Meyer explains.

- For us music education students, I think a lot of it is about what we do in terms of prevention as well. We should accept that failing can be a good thing, says Nøstdahl Hjelle. She continues:

- We had a music education lesson where we talked about performance anxiety in pupils but where we ended up discussing each other’s personal experiences instead. That was a massive relief. I wasn’t able to tell my teacher until I realised that others were feeling the same way, says Nøstdahl Hjelle, who is crystal clear in her feedback on the event:

“I wish they’d done this in our very first week here.”

Student Talks #7 took place on 22 September 2020 in the Levin Hall at the NMH.

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