Let’s be honest: an alternate title to this article is just “Being an Actor.” Impostor syndrome for actors is something that can permeate every part of our lives and careers: auditioning for roles, pursuing opportunities/networking, taking on an exciting new job. And that’s to say nothing of the courage it takes to simply answer “I’m an actor.” to the question “So what is it you do?”
Impostor syndrome can affect an actor’s opportunity to fully embrace opportunities in their career or even to feel fulfilled as an artist. It creates deep feelings of inadequacy or fraudulence in professional situations, and can lead to actors either not pursuing situations or actively sabotaging themselves. Fortunately, there are tools available to actors that can relieve feelings of impostor syndrome, as well as mental health check-ins that can alleviate negative feelings before they can fully manifest.
Here at StageMilk, we take the mental health of actors extremely seriously. After all, we’re in this business together! However, it is important to note that we are not trained medical or mental health professionals. We may have been through similar experiences or feelings, but each person is different and with different needs. If you feel as though you may need to speak to somebody about your mental health, do not hesitate to reach out to resources in your area, or speak to your actor’s union for additional support options.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Impostor syndrome was first identified in 1978, in an article about professional businesswomen. It has since been expanded beyond gender specificity, as subsequent studies have found that men and women experience it fairly equally, to describe a general feeling of inadequacy in professional situations when judging oneself in the workplace.
People who experience impostor syndrome tend to experience one or more common characteristics, such as a fear of failure, the need to distinguish oneself or be special, the denial of ability and the fear or guilt of achieving success.
Impostor syndrome is also tied to several other social, environmental and mental health factors—many of which are all too familiar to actors. These include family expectations, one’s identity (or type), low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, perfectionism and an overbearing professional life.
Recognising Impostor Syndrome for Actors
This can be harder than you think: impostor syndrome can be hidden for some actors, even from themselves. Recently, I spoke to an actor (with a long and celebrated career) who told me that often when they are approached about a job they recommend a peer rather than themselves. It’s done with no malice, or ulterior motive—simply a desire to elevate talented friends they wish to see received similar opportunities. But I questioned whether it was perhaps a subtle act of self-sabotage. Suddenly, the subject of impostor syndrome was upon us.
We often associate impostor syndrome with the feeling of not belonging in the room, or not deserving an opportunity or success. These aren’t untrue … but they’re not the whole of the truth, either. Some of the wider factors (as mentioned above) can start you on the path without you realising that you’re even suffering from it. This is why checking in with yourself and being honest about your actions and motives is so important. Often, impostor syndrome is masked extremely well by those who suffer from it. After all, the external image they project onto their professional equals suggests the exact opposite of how they feel.
6 Tools for Dealing with Impostor Syndrome
Dealing with impostor syndrome for actors is a lot like dealing with burnout. There’s not a lot that can be done without stopping and taking some conscious steps to address the issue. The other option is to continue on, and that’s often what exacerbates the problem in the first place.
Let’s start with a classic: Stop, Breath, Notice, Reassess, Respond is a classic tool for dealing with stress and related factors. It’s a great way for an actor to exercise some self control when they feel overwhelmed or upset.
- Stop what you’re doing; take a moment to pause.
- Take a deep breath, try to let your thoughts go.
- Try to notice your body, environment, feelings: anything you can to ground yourself and take stock. Your given circumstances, if you will!
- Reassess the moment, the situation: what made you feel this impostor syndrome? What set it off?
- Finally, respond with your new, calm and informed outlook.
SBNRR is a great thing for the actor’s toolkit, period. It can help you with everything from rejection after a callback, to audition nerves, to stage fright on opening night. There’s also something to be said about utilising a technique for impostor syndrome that is helpful with other mental health stresses: because it’s just another thing to address, not any larger indicator that you shouldn’t be an actor, or doing a particular thing.
It is never as simple as saying “don’t catastrophise.” But that’s not to say “don’t catastrophise” isn’t a good piece of advice…
#2 Write a List, Be Objective
Focus on your achievements: the things you’re worried you are deceiving others about. And then write a list of reasons you are competent in achieving those things. Look for solid, objective evidence—which is almost certainly there, given the position you are in. Reflect on what makes you competent rather than incompetent.
Some people suggest writing a complimentary list of reasons you are actually inadequate—just to prove that this list of negatives is shorter (don’t worry, they always are.) If you feel like you need this step to attain some objectivity, then go for it!
#3 Reframe the Actor’s Life
Actors can get some in their heads as to what “success” in their life looks like. If you’re experiencing impostor syndrome, check in with what your definition of success looks like and modify it, if needs be.
Don’t feel like an actor because you didn’t get that commercial? Join the other 90% of actors at any one time in their careers! Feel like less of a performer than others in the show you’re doing because you still have a day job? Hell: see above! Every actor’s path is different; there is literally no other actor who will have the same career. Why stress that your journey resembles yours and yours alone?
#4 Get Out of your Head
When you feel impostor syndrome creeping in, break the cycle (these thoughts always circle around in your head) by speaking to somebody or even writing the bad thoughts down. Once they’re out of your head, they’re less likely to fester and build up like when they’re allowed to run un-checked.
#5 Do Something Nice for Yourself
Once you can recognise impostor syndrome starting to manifest, have a system in place when you stop and do something nice for yourself. Be kind, compassionate and understanding about what you’re going through. Imagine your best friend feeling and thinking the same things. Would you put up with it if somebody said these things about them?
#6 Reach Out to your Creative Community
This is one of the best things we can offer: reach out to your fellow actors and creatives. Talk to them about your feelings and wait for their compassion and understanding to roll in. The smartest thing an actor can do in times of strife is to lean on their creative community of people sharing the same strange goals as them—who have definitely had the same thoughts and insecurities and know how best to deal with them.
Sometimes, these people can take a little time to find. Sadly, friends and family aren’t always in this support network—especially those who might love you to bits but don’t necessarily get the pressures of the actor’s life. But your people are out there. You might even find them here with us at StageMilk’s Scene Club! (A more nurturing, supportive group of artists I am yet to find.)
Why do Actors get Impostor Syndrome?
Fair question, right? Probably not something you’ve thought to ask yourself.
First of all: actors can experience incredible, life-changing things, sometimes overnight. It can be hard to justify or process these things happening, especially when the dance of casting and career is so damn chaotic. The thing to remember in these instances is not “Wow I’m so lucky!” but “Good God I’ve put in the work for this!” Don’t focus on the fact that a million girls would kill for this job. Focus on the retail and hospo gigs you worked to pay for an acting class, the teachers who said you’d never make it. Remember that first agent who dropped you because they didn’t see you lasting. Unless you’re Faye Wray in King Kong, you weren’t discovered at a depression-era fruit stand. You’ve worked, you’ve hustled, you’ve picked yourself up and you deserve everything coming your way.
The second reason is less positive. Our industry has a huge problem with work culture. It’s a crass and dangerous fetishisation of over-working, burning out and pushing oneself to the brink. And what happens when we push back on that? Usually none of the good, healthy feelings we deserve when we put a stop to crappy work practice. We tend to think we don’t belong here—that we don’t deserve the opportunities because we don’t want “it” enough.
Bullshit. I can guarantee you the person who thought this work culture up was not an actor, but a suit who saw a buck to be made in performers’ resilience. Caring for yourself and learning to slow down, stop or say “no” is not what makes you a lesser actor. It makes you a better one. Impostor syndrome often manifests when we find ourselves pushing back against unsustainable practice that only leads to bad, not good. Identify that within yourself, if you can. And break the cycle.
Just like burn-out, impostor syndrome is something that is being far more widely acknowledged in contemporary work culture. Creative types are slow on the uptake (we often are, for fear of jeopardising our delicate arts ecosystem), but we are getting better at taking care of ourselves. If you find yourself affected by impostor syndrome as an actor, stop and check in. Have tools in place to work the problem—read beyond this article to the myriad of resources we’re blessed with in this day and age. And be kind to yourself.
Finally, remember that you are not alone in this feeling. As artsy types, we all get it, we all understand it. I, for one, have felt impostor syndrome writing this very article—the irony not lost on me in the slightest! But if I can reach the “conclusion” section right down here at the bottom of the page, you can get through those feelings the next you roll on a self-tape. Your industry, your peers, your life will always be better for it. Just as we are to have you part of our strange and wonderful community.
Be nice to yourself, y’hear?