Thursday, December 17, 2015

Imposter Syndrome

I came by this great article in the NY Times by way of Slate about something that has a ton of relevance for me as a burlesque performer.

Those of you who are already familiar with "Imposter Syndrome" will know exactly where I'm going with this.

To summarize, Imposter Syndrome is a term coined by American psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes which is characterized by feelings of "phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” While these people “are highly motivated to achieve,” they also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”

"Guys, you should know that I'm not really a pilot, and have no business flying this plane."

Professionally (as in, when I'm not doing striptease), Imposter Syndrome is heavily rooted in my day-to-day. I sit expectantly at my desk, waiting for a supervisor to come by and tell me that they found out that I'm not actually any good at my job, and that I'm fired. Also, it isn't enough that I can't work there anymore, I have to also sign a form blackballing me from any other gainful employment, and oh yeah, everyone in the company is lining up outside my cubicle to punch me in the face for deceiving them.

So I need to periodically glance backward in time and remind myself that as an introvert, I've managed to scrape together a decent living introducing myself to and having conversations with people who typically want nothing to do with me. I've met with high-level business folks in New York City, shaken hands and done presentations and demos, and somehow came back with closed deals and signed paperwork. I haven't just gotten by, I've sorta thrived and gotten actually pretty good at something, got myself a nice apartment and a cool car, and one bad day every now and again won't cause those around me to see that I'm just a child in grown-up clothes pressing keys and saying words in meetings to maintain the illusion of productivity before I'm taken into custody and thrown in liar jail for being the giant con artist that I feel like I am deep down in my soul.

Burlesque is a more intense version of this.


There are a lot of elements that contribute to this state of mind for me, all ingredients in the "doubt stew" that's been simmering on the back burner for as long as I've been performing. For starters, I'm one of a handful of male performers in a city where there isn't a lot of male burlesque. I've gotten a lot of work in the last 6 years based on the fact that I'm one of very few who is willing and able to fill roles as needed--I'm fairly certain that I've gotten gigs simply because I have blonde hair. The fact that burlesque is not predominantly a male artform has given me a lot of privilege towards landing gigs that might be better suited for a more capable performer, if only one was slightly more available.

Add to that the fact that burlesque is not a kind of performance that has a high level of professional recognition. There aren't all that many burlesque performers that have a self-sustaining career supported by their work in theatrical striptease. I've covered this idea in previous blog posts--while burlesque might be more mainstream than it's been in many decades, it's far from a way to make a comfortable living in the way that a great singer or actor might have the means to do. The point here is that we don't judge our own or each others' performances by any professionally accepted standard, save for feedback from the people we hold in the highest trust. Due to the way the burlesque environment is constructed, "being the best," in a nutshell, might just be low-hanging fruit.

Somewhat related to that is that the burlesque community tends to want to support its strongest members through blind encouragement rather than through objective criticism. I wrote about the worst act I've ever done a little while back, and while I could point out every reason why it wasn't a good performance, I still had plenty of people lining up to tell me how much they loved it.

"Sooo, what did you think of m--mrrrghhuuuugff..."

Mix all these together and introduce the result to a performer with my specific personality type, and it becomes pretty clear why I have a tendency to doubt my creative abilities. A big reason why I write this blog is to carry out the practice of being grateful, as gratitude is an extremely important counterweight against feeling generally undeserving.

My fellow Sir Danny Drake reminded me of how important this was earlier in the year. He was telling me that it's easy to feel like you're not doing well and to not recognize when you're making significant progress. And that's why it's important not to dismiss the compliments from others, but to simply acknowledge and say "thank you." Knowing that my instinct in these situations is to be dismissive towards compliments, I can confirm that he's absolutely right.

As with anything, practicing relentlessly creates the illusion of effortlessness. There have been times where I've performed an act so many times that, "dammit, I'm just going to go up on stage without having practiced and just do the damned thing," and it's turned out well. This happens on occasion despite my best efforts to rehearse thoroughly, and I always envision a scenario like this being the final straw for an audience already on its last nerve, exclaiming "Yep, it looks sloppy and unrehearsed. I knew that Dale Stones was a lackluster performer and now he's gone and ruined my evening. I'm going to hurl a tomato at him to express my dissatisfaction."

But you know who else feels this way? Don Cheadle.

Pictured; Imposter Syndrome in a straw hat.

For performers, I feel like some of it comes from a place of healthy humility. I realize that what I do is not a serious art form. Burlesque is fun, and it's entertaining, and it's enjoyable for so many people--but it's not life or death. If I mess up a reveal or if my dongle pops out, I probably won't do 15 years in prison.

But we MUST keep creating new art. While it's true that our art is unimportant in the grand scheme of things (this fact helps us not have an ego so big that we become impossible to be around without everyone hating you and wanting to punch you in the taint), it's equally critical to remember that what you're doing is just as important to somebody else. That burlesque act where you're dressed up as a bar of soap and are doing a partner striptease with someone dressed as a loofa? Someone out there is waiting patiently for you to do that act for them, because they've waited their entire life to see it.

So give it your best, because you absolutely deserve to be on that stage. If you weren't, you wouldn't be there. So go where you're going, and be where you are.