The Caffeinated Flutist, Vol. 6: Handling Imposter Syndrome by Mary Hales

Hey there, flute-trepreneurs!

This column is going to be over another subject that’s very personal to me, and I’m sure it’s something we’ve all felt at one point or another in our lives - the nasty feeling known as impostor syndrome. This is the time in the semester when students are starting to struggle to find the motivation they had in August or September, at the beginning of school. You might start feeling like you may not be cut out to be in your degree track, that you may not be as good as the people around you, that you may not deserve to be at such a good school, or studying with such a good teacher;  the list goes on and on…

I can speak to every single one of those feelings, because I still struggle with all of them almost daily, and I have since I was eighteen. This kind of thinking is what makes up imposter syndrome. So for this column, we’ll break down what it is, how it manifests, especially for musicians, and what we can do about it.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), imposter syndrome (or the imposter phenomenon) was first openly discussed in the 1970s by psychologists Dr. Suzanne Imes and Dr. Pauline Rose Clance. Imposter syndrome typically occurs among “high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.” (Source: http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud.aspx) Imposter syndrome also goes hand-in-hand with perfectionism, and generally creates feelings of deep anxiety, and sometimes depression.

Does that sound like you? You’re not alone. And if you feel “too different” from your peers on a fundamental level - for instance, if you’re a person of color - these feelings can be heightened even further. Most students in higher education, especially in the graduate world, which is an odd stage of professional development, struggle with imposter syndrome due to the enormous pressure we - and our society - put on ourselves to achieve. Our feeling of self-worth then hinges on how much we can do, or how good we can be, which is an incredibly unhealthy cycle we often find ourselves spiraling down.

My own experiences with imposter syndrome have been lengthy and difficult. I remember sitting in my dorm room in my freshman year, just barely embarking on my journey as a music major, and asking myself if this was really what I was meant to do. I felt like the smallest fish in the big pond that was college, surrounded by fish that were all bigger and better musicians than I was. Practicing was agonizing for fear of being heard and judged by passersby in the music building; I was by no means used to feeling so exposed. How am I supposed to measure up? I remember thinking. Will anything I do be enough to solidify my place here, or in the world? What if I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing?

Those feelings came and went constantly for the next four years, especially as I got closer to graduating with my Bachelor’s. I wish I could say that my experience at the University of Missouri as a graduate student has made things easier. If anything, being a graduate student has made me feel more precarious as a musician. I keep continually raising my expectations of myself past what is actually reasonable, and I feel like a fraud when I find myself unable to reach them. This year, I’m learning to set more reasonable expectations of myself, and to be gentle with myself when I miss a goal, rather than berating.

That kind of self-talk is another common manifestation of imposter syndrome - the kind that goes hand-in-hand with perfectionism, like we talked about earlier. So how do we overcome the feelings of imposter syndrome? (This list comes from the APA article cited earlier, but with my own commentary.)

  1. Talk to your mentors. Your professors, TAs, and peers are here for you, more than you may realize. If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome, they can be great people to talk to - especially as your peers probably feel the same way you do! Bounce thoughts and feelings off of each other, and also talk to the adults in your department who have been where you are. They will absolutely have valuable life advice for overcoming your struggles.
  2. Recognize your expertise. If you’re in college and you’ve declared a major, you’ve chosen to become an expert in your field. Hopefully, it’s something you love, and that you’re good at. (Obviously, this is not blanket advice. I wish I could give that, but every situation is different.) The APA recommends tutoring younger students as something that can help - realize how much you’ve learned and how far you’ve come in the last year, the last five years, the last ten years, etc.
  3. Remember what you do well. If you’re in college and struggling to declare a major, you might feel like even more of an imposter. Take a deep breath, think about the things you love, and that you’re good at. Is there something that falls into one of those categories that could also make a college major? If so, try that. It can be a frustrating cycle, but remember, you’re not alone. (See Tip #1 for extra advice.)
  4. Realize no one is perfect. In addition to this, I would also say “Realize everyone around you is also (most likely) dealing with imposter syndrome.” This is something I’m still struggling with almost every day. Too often, I catch myself getting focused on doing everything perfectly - in reality, I need to think about doing things well “enough”. This doesn’t mean I don’t work my hardest at everything I do, because I absolutely do. Graduate school is the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. However, when I  know I’ve done my absolute best on something, I work on letting it go - turning in the assignment instead of trying to refine it even more, or slowing down the metronome even more if it means getting a passage of Nielsen right. I’m learning to celebrate small victories, and it really does help.
  5. Change your thinking. This one is a lot easier said than done, but it can be done. Unfortunately, it’s not something anyone else can do for you - you and you alone have to reframe the way you look at your life and the things you accomplish. You can take this in small steps - the APA suggests letting someone read a draft that is not perfectly polished yet, or cutting yourself off after a certain number of hours of work where you would normally keep working. That goes with self-care, which I will be discussing more in a future post.
  6. Talk to someone who can help. If this means individual therapy, go see a therapist. I went to counseling for a year and a half of my undergraduate career, and without the advice of my therapist, I might not be in graduate school today. If this means something else I suggested in Tip #1, schedule a time to talk to a professor, a parent, a peer, a sibling - someone who knows you, loves you, and is invested in you.

If you take nothing else away from this post, I ask that you remember this – you can always talk to someone. You’re never alone when you struggle, and you never have to go the hard way alone.

Until next time!

Flutist Mary Hales is a native of Conway, Arkansas, currently studying under Alice K. Dade at the University of Missouri School of Music for her Masters in Flute Performance. Follow more of her writing at maryhalesflute.wordpress.com; find her on social media with the handle @maryhalesflute.

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