Impostor syndrome: An actor's story
“Getting up on stage in front of a couple of thousand people, I’m cool with that. No big deal. It’s the one lone guy sitting staring at you that freaks me out.”
My client's story was indeed perplexing. A successful actor who found no difficulty in doing something that might fill many of us with a great deal of apprehension, namely walking onto stage at a theatre and performing in front of a very large audience, had sought my help with passing his driving test. To him, the driving instructor was a big scary monster. More pressing though was his fear of the big scary monster sitting next to him in the consulting room, namely his therapist.
I wasn’t aware at that point that I was sitting there staring at him. My client had recently starred in an independent film I’d seen and so there was a slight thrill about having this famous face sat opposite me. Ironically I was struggling to control my own nerves at that point, this being one of my first clients since graduating. But as the session progressed thankfully we were both able to loosen up a little and it wasn't too long before it was revealed that there was more to my client's problems than first met the eye.
I should perhaps say a few words about my own history at this point. My background is in the creative industries, first working for BBC and then in advertising. I am familiar with working with creative people of all descriptions, art directors, writers, actors. I love storytelling, symbolism, character development, motivation, getting a deep understanding of what makes people tick. Indeed, it was this process that led me to my more recent calling as a therapist.
Back to my client - let’s give him a name, let’s call him Alan. Alan’s immediate problem was that he felt I, like his driving test examiner, was sitting in judgement over him, watching his every move, willing him to fail. To use his own words, we could smell his fear. Wolves circling for the kill. This had quite a profound physical effect on Alan.
He would, when driving, experience tunnel vision coupled with a pressing fear that he was going to crash the car. He felt his driving test instructor had instantly realised that “a guy this useless shouldn’t be allowed on the road” and had already made up his mind to protect the general public by failing him. And indeed, to some extent, Alan had confirmed that theory by failing twice previously.
During the next couple of sessions, I was able to question that assumption and remove much of the associated anxiety. Could it really be true that both his driving test examiner and his therapist harboured such hostility? What were the origins of this thought pattern? And how did it square with the many thousands of eyes watching him on stage, (or on a film set), whose judgement he seemed to so easily brush aside?
As he was leaving at the end of the second session Alan disclosed something in a throwaway fashion that seemed of great significance and importance. It was what my tutor referred to as “the hand on the door moment”.
It turned out that hypnotherapists and driving test examiners were not the only starry-eyed creatures that struck fear into Alan. He went on to share with me that the real problem, even more serious than the one he had initially presented with, was that he always let himself down at auditions. He had achieved quite a lot of early success in a very competitive industry but felt that he had been seriously handicapped by his self-sabotaging acts during the casting auditions.
He described a very sad story about performing way below his peak, suffering exceptional nerves and adopting a confrontational attitude that he could not really explain, all of which left him with a sense of bitter disappointment and a degree of self-loathing.
One reason that I really love hypnosis is that it can be such a powerful, effective tool in these situations.
In trance, I was able to bring Alan to a more relaxed state of mind and quickly build a more trusting relationship where I felt he was able to hold my gaze in a calm way and to interpret this not as my sitting in judgement but instead wishing to “get on the same wavelength” as him, to empathise with his problem and to try and help him as best I could. After two sessions of hypnotherapy, he was able to sit in a car more calmly with his instructor, who commented on his new-found confidence.
The roots of Alan’s problem ran a little deeper and, as is so often the case, lead all the way back to childhood. Alan came from a traditional working-class family who did not approve of his chosen vocation as an actor. They did not come to see him in amateur performances, which caused him much hurt, and criticised him often.
As a young man, his blossoming interest in drama coincided with his unfolding awareness of his own homosexuality. His world quickly divided into two tribes: on the one hand, the friendly, understanding group of people who fully accepted him, drama teachers, gay friends, fellow performers. On the other hand, the more hostile group who ostracised him for his (perceived) non-conventional lifestyle.
It was this latter group that I felt were metaphorically watching over Alan’s shoulder whenever he attended an audition. There was a sense in Alan’s mind that he didn’t really belong in the room, he was an impostor, waiting to be exposed. Having been given the part, his training would then kick in, and he was able to walk into the spotlight seemingly with ease. But there was a price. When the curtains closed and the adrenaline rush had calmed, Alan would head straight to the bar, drinking heavily perhaps to anaesthetise the residual fear and feelings of self-doubt.
I am now more experienced as a therapist and have worked with many high achievers in the creative industries. Impostor syndrome seems to be a fairly common theme. The people I see have perhaps enjoyed a great deal of success but seem to be always telling themselves “I don’t really belong here”. They feel they are undeserving of the bounty of that which they have worked so hard to achieve. It doesn’t seem real to them, a house built on sand.
My work has tended to focus on reframing this idea, allowing the client to understand the unconscious forces conspiring to hold them back and to help them see that they are fully deserving of their success.
Spoiler alert: yes, Alan did pass his driving test.