Harness The Imposter

Today I’m going to begin with a caveat: imposter syndrome varies from person to person and moment to moment. There might be times that the strategy to follow won’t work—heck, it could even backfire—so don’t feel like it’s something you must try, or like you’re less of a dancer (or a person, or what have you) if you don’t.

Take care of yourself in the moment you’re in. You don’t have to do everything today; heck, you don’t have to do everything at all. It’s amazingly liberating to realize that, to be honest, a lot of things can wait, and that you’re not even the tiniest bit obligated to try ever possible approach to a problem.

Now, that being said, buckle in if you’d like to join me on a wee excursion into the territory of Imposterland.

A statue of a perplexed but adorable little dragon sits in lush green grass. They appear to also be suffering from imposter syndrome, possibly.
Imposterland: Here Be Dragons … Kind of. (pic via WP’s image library)

Okay, so earlier I was working around the house and listening to Broche Ballet’s podcast and thinking about imposter syndrome (as you do).

Somewhere in there, something reminded me of my early days in the company at Lexington Ballet, back in the Before Times, c 2018[1].

  1. Seriously, that feels like about a MILLION YEARS AGO 😱

At the time, I was grappling with a terrible case of imposter syndrome (as you do). It was a rough time. I struggled a lot. On the regular, usually when everything else was also going wrong, imposter syndrome reared its ugly head and whispered, “You don’t deserve to be here. You’re not good enough. And they’re gonna figure it out.

And every now and then, like a lifeline from the Universe, another thought would counter, “So what? Who cares? You’re here. Get to work. Prove them wrong. Rise to the occasion. Earn your spot.

My life, of course, is not a Hollywood blockbuster, so it didn’t immediately fix everything. Not by a long shot. I still had rough days. I still struggled to pick things up in class more often than I care to admit. I still frequently felt like a squid attempting to dance in size 114 clown shoes.

But at the end of the season, I was offered a contract for the following year—and that comes down, in part, to the sheer bloody-minded stubbornness that says, “So what? Who cares? (etc)” That stubborn streak, and the desire to make my Imposter Syndrome eat its words, kept me from walking out when things were at their roughest.

I’ve never thought of imposter Syndrome as an ally in my efforts to build a career as a dancer. I mean, now that I’m reflecting on it, I guess it makes sense to recognize that it’s trying to protect me, but it really often feels like anything but an ally.

But somehow, today, something went ping! and I realized that, indirectly, it has been not only one of my most faithful companions on this journey, but (at times, anyway) a helpful companion.

Imposter syndrome’s timorous whisper has served to feed my tenacity. At critical moments, it has awakened a kind of perverse grit. It has jabbed at the part of me that hates to fail.

I’m not saying this is true for everyone: it’s not even true for me all the time. With two years more-or-less on hiatus under my belt and little to show for it except better port de bras, a somewhat-more-reliable double tour, and a bit more, ahem, insulation than I had when the pandemic began, I’m staring down the barrel of a cross-country move into what is, in terms of dance, terra incognita.

You can bet your bippy that my inner imposter has a lot to say right now, and that the other voice, that stubborn inner voice, doesn’t always reply.

But now I know that I can say to my imposter syndrome, “Yo, thanks for looking out for me, but I’m not quitting. Whether or not I deserved to be where here when I walked through the door, I’m here now, and I’m gonna stick it out and earn my place.”

The funny thing is that sticking it out, in and of itself, really does help. You can do something day in, day out for years without improving at all, but only if your circumstances significantly limit the chance of improvement. Spend enough time doing almost anything with a least a little guidance, and you’re gonna improve.

Back in the fall of 2018, I was as insecure as a teacher of dance and as a choreographer as I was as a dancer.

Flash forward to today, and I’m a reasonably confident teacher: I know I’m not perfect, and that I have a lot to learn, but when I look at my students’ progress, it’s pretty clear that something’s working.

I’m also a reasonably confident choreographer: I set dances that people enjoy watching, and I don’t feel like I haven’t earned the right to do so. When I’m alone in the studio, setting a pas de deux or the corps parts for Act II of Simon Crane, it no longer feels like a pipe dream, or like a vision I shouldn’t look at too directly. Sure, setting an entire gigantic ballet is an enormous goal, and I still have literally no idea how to get there, but I no longer feel like I’m somehow not worthy to try.

I’m not as confident, yet, that I’ve earned my place as a dancer, but I’m getting there poco à poco. Opportunities are appearing that I doubt I could have imagined a few years back.

That’s where sticking it out, even out of nothing but sheer spite, really shines.

It’s kind of like learning to ride a bike: you fall. You get scraped up. You kick the curb, the bike, and especially yourself. You get back on. You crash some more. You keep getting back on because like heck some stupid inanimate object[2] is going to beat you. And then at some point you’re sort of tottering along, and you start to pick up some speed, and the air moves over your skin like the breath of G-d moving over the face of the deep, and YOU ARE DOING IT!

  1. As a cyclist and lover of bikes, I am willing to certify that bikes are only inanimate objects in the loosest sense. Every single bike has a soul, and that soul is the soul of a pony that goes like a dream for a skilled rider with quiet hands, but will dump a N00b in a puddle STAT and then stand there laughing about it: not malicious, exactly, but perhaps a bit cynical, with a keen sense of the Order of Things. Every horse person on earth has met some version of this pony. So has every cyclist.

And then, of course, you crash again. You tend to crash a lot in the beginning, because that’s how beginnings work. Heck, if you’re a baby wood duck, your first experience of flight is being shoved out of the nest to crash in the underbrush, presumably so when is time to learn to fly, you’ll already know what crashing is like, and you won’t let it stop you (or possibly because some distant ancestor long ago decided that eggs were safer in trees, and here we are).

But, anyway, wood duck, cyclist, or dancer, you get up and dust off and get back to it. You’ve started, so you might as well keep on going.

And if you keep going long enough, you might just figure it out. You might discover, after all, that while you were looking elsewhere, you’ve earned your spot.

I used to think every other professional dancer I knew could see all my flaws. Now, I know they can: but most of them also choose—and I’m immensely grateful for this—to see my strengths.

The strength that is a spiteful refusal to give in to my imposter syndrome—or, seen from another angle, the conviction to endure through whatever trial arises—may or may not be invisible. I suspect my AD at LexBallet saw it plainly from time to time.

But, looking back, it’s a strength that I guess I can see.

One last thing: I know that privilege is a part of this. Opportunity is unequally distributed, especially for male ballet dancers, who are still pretty thin on the ground and who thus enjoy a far greater chance of finding a spot. So is the kind of financial security that affords both good training and the ability to absorb the financial challenges that come with being an artist. So is health.

Likewise, I have done exactly none of this on my own. Dancers are unicorns not only in that we’re kind of rare, but in that we—like Peter Beagle’s Last Unicorn—need others to see us; to believe in us; to know what we are. We’re a communal concern, whether we like it or not.

The thought of exactly how much artistic potential goes untapped either through lack of opportunity or through lack of recognition[3] and support is, quite frankly, staggering.

  1. Not recognition in the public, award-receiving sense, but in the private, “I am your teacher and I see that you have a gift and I’m going to tell you about it, along with anyone I know who can help you develop it” sense

Please know that if lack of privilege, of opportunity, of means, of health, of recognition, or of support—or, really, anything else: life is full of obstacles—stands in your way, I am not saying, “Just pick yourself up by your bootstraps!”

Imposter syndrome is a mirage, but there are plenty of real obstacles in the world, and imposter syndrome can make it even harder to overcome them.

If you’re in the woods, if you’re in the country of obstacles, I hope you’ll find your way clear (and I’ll help any way that I’m able, though I have no idea what that might look like).

I hope also that you might be able to harness your inner imposter. Maybe even make friends with them.

I’m not really there yet, but why not?

About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Neuro-atypical. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2022/04/26, in #dancerlife, ballet lessons, balllet, learning my craft, life, mental health, reflections and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Today I’m going to begin with a caveat: imposter syndrome varies from person to person and moment to moment.

    Hmm. Sounds like a dodgy pre-emptive excuse to me.
    Do you really have imposter syndrome or are you faking it?
    Is this really asher, or someone who hacked his blog?

    TBH, I’ve never been sure why imposter syndrome is a problem. You are what you’re doing right now, not some label or accolade based on past achievements or lack thereof.

    Yeah, I can imagine those who think they should be recognised and rewarded for what they’ve done might be more susceptible to being gypped out of what they consider their due if deep down they think they don’t deserve it, but I’d have thought that’s inevitable if you build your self-image on what you were, last year, last week or an hour ago. Really you should be paid for what you’ve done, but recognised for what you are; at least by yourself.

    Being bipolar has helped me understand my abilities and capacities change from day to day and I should try to take stuff on according to what I can do, not what I have done or will hopefully be able to do.

    But am I really bipolar?
    Maybe I’m just too focused on certain aspects of my past moods and behaviours and that fools the diagnosticians.
    Does it matter?

    • Yep, it’s me. I put the caveat there because there are a lot of people who have experienced a lot of possibly well-intentioned, but nonetheless boneheaded crap surrounding how they face their own challenges, a lot of it framed in “if I can do it, so can you!” format, and it seemed worth stating up front that this isn’t intended to be that. I’m not sure I managed to convey that point effectively, I guess?
      Either way, the point you make about how being bipolar has helped you is basically exactly what I’m addressing there. “Take stuff on according to what you can do” is it exactly, with an added side of, “And please know I’m not judging you if you’re not in a place where this idea is helpful.” I didn’t want to take that idea for granted, because I know too many people who aren’t there yet. In short, I’m trying not to inadvertently give anyone the impression that i think this is something anyone should be able to do just like that, because that can be pretty hurtful.
      For me, imposter syndrome isn’t about labels or accolades, etc, that come from outside.
      It’s not about wanting someone to confer a title, but quite the opposite: about the part of me that is convinced someone will show up any minute to stop me; to tell me I’m not allowed to do this thing.
      It’s not something I choose to think or feel; rather, something I’m slowly learning to acknowledge without getting stuck in. Likewise, something for which I’m slowly learning not to be judgmental towards myself.
      FWIW, Idk where this comes from for other people, but for me, a lot of it owes to the huge swath of my life in which I failed all the time at basically everything. Rationally, I get that a lot of that, in turn, comes down to the life equivalent basically not having figured out how to drive very well, but also not having the option of getting off the road (or taking a different route or something).
      Anyway, when I’m not failing at something—especially something I love—I guess it probably still feels like an aberration, and like at any moment someone’s going to come along and tell me that, oops, I *am* actually failing, but I’m just too thick to see it.
      Not exactly literally, of course: it’s more of a vague, constant fear that at any moment the rug will be pulled out from under me due, in some way, to my own incompetence.
      This might be particularly a problem for dancers: there’s a lot of extremely explicit gatekeeping that goes on, and even more implicit gatekeeping. The dance world in general, and especially ballet in particular, has long operated on a kind of scarcity mindset: like there can only be X number of “real” dancers in the world at a time, so we need to really strictly control who has access to even the idea of being a dancer. A lot of us are working to change that, but we all carry the scars, even when we’re actively working to change things.
      There are still people who will tell you, in so many words, that unless you are or have been a professional dancer, you don’t even get to call yourself a dancer at all.
      If you manage to become a professional dancer by an unconventional route, there are people who will go out of their way to make sure you know they think you don’t belong there and aren’t good enough.
      The reality is also that a lot of these people have the power to decide whether you get to continue working as a dancer, which doesn’t help ether.
      It’s easy to say, “If you’re dancing, you’re a dancer,” but in reality, you also most do the work of undoing the damage done by the gatekeepers. And a lot of that is simply working on yourself; on overcoming the part of you that thinks someone is going to come and make you stop dancing.

      • Yeah, I guess I understand a bit better where you’re coming from.

        Most of what I’ve done for a living (or for sociopolitical reasons) has been on the science & technology spectrum where what you do is judged primarily on whether it works or not, with little in the way of subjective judgement coming into it.

        Art is a heck of a lot more subjective (despite the efforts of art critics to pretend otherwise), so I guess authority through seniority and cliquey status is going to have a more serious impact on popular opinion and the career prospects of artists. You could put in a performance that everyone in your troupe recognises as brilliant but if an influential critic in the audience sneers at it then I guess that’s where it lands on your resume.

        But I’d always imagined imagined imposter syndrome as being to do with donning an identity label you didn’t really feel entitled to, like how I feel referring to myself as ‘autie’ while realising I have no idea what it’s like to live a life similar to those who were considered autistic when I first heard the word. (The bloody shrinks screwed me over again. I was perfectly comfortable as an aspie, then they went and abolished Asperger’s Syndrome and rolled us into the autism spectrum). Likewise, I despise being introduced as an ‘expert’ during media interviews when I know I’m just a loud-mouthed dilettante who has been mentored by real experts who receive no such public recognition.

        I can’t say I’ve ever been worried about others calling me out for inappropriate self-labeling unless it’s been bureaucrats trying to meet their quotas for kicking people off benefits, so I’d never thought of imposter syndrome that way before. Of course others trying to paste inappropriate labels on me is another matter …

  2. PS: i managed to hit the stupid “publish” button halfway through writing this reply, so I hope it’s a least somewhat coherent. I had to go back and fix it, and doing that in the WP android app is kind of a mess

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