How I Deal With Imposter Syndrome (as a musician)

When I read the term “Imposter Syndrome” in Amanda Palmer’s book “The Art of Asking,” I knew exactly what it meant.

Imposter syndrome was the name for having a voice in my head constantly telling me crazy things like:

You’re screwing your student” – simply because I realize I could have explained a guitar technique in a slightly more efficient way, or

Remove the fast part from the solo or EVERYONE WILL KNOW you’re adding extra notes to show off

Which is obviously nonsense. 

No guitar teacher can consistently teach every technique to every student with 100% efficiency. (Of course, every guitar teacher should strive for perfection, but failing to be perfect all of the time makes us human, not impostors). 

And the fast notes in the solo sounded good and at the right place. Why would anyone (let alone everyone) draw such a stupid conclusion?

Important note before we continue: I frequently use the term “the voice” in this article to refer to the inner critic. Everyone has one, not just people with imposter syndrome. This is not the same as “hearing voices,” which is experienced by people with psychotic disorders where the sufferer loses touch with reality. We do not lose touch with reality. We just have an inner critic who is overly harsh and likes to tell us we’re a fraud.

Is imposter syndrome something that only musicians and artists go through?

No, imposter syndrome can affect anyone and in different areas of life.

However artists and musicians tend to be more vulnerable than say, people who crunch numbers, or dish out code since the result of our work is less tangible.

Before forwarding their work to others, a programmer or an accountant can see objective proof that it was completed correctly. The software works. The numbers match.  

There is a lot more subjectivity in music, and we can only guess how an audience will react to our work before we present it.

If you’re a musician and a voice in your head is telling you that you’re a fraud and don’t deserve to enjoy the fruits of your work, I will show you how I went from being “severely limited” by Imposter Syndrome, to “mildly annoyed” by it over the span of around 10 years.

This will not “cure” the imposter syndrome. I’m not a therapist, and while that voice bothers me much less now, I’d be lying if I said it’s completely gone. 

Rather, it will show you the process I used since I realized I had imposter syndrome, until now, a decade later. A process that has accomplished two goals for me: 

  1. It quieted down the voice. It’s still there, but it speaks less frequently and it’s not as loud as it used to be.
  2. The way it affects me. Now I take the voice for what it is – an annoying prick. I consciously know that I’m not an imposter and every time it raises its ugly voice, I dismiss it as ill meant criticism that should be ignored.

The following are the steps I suggest you take if you think you’re impacted by Imposter Syndrome.

Step 1: Become aware of it

Reading Amanda Palmer’s book was a turning point in my life because before I knew Imposter Syndrome even existed, let alone that it’s pretty common among musicians, I used to believe what the prick in my head was saying.

Not all the time. 

Sometimes the accusations were too absurd, like: “You can play this solo perfectly but EVERYONE WILL KNOW it took you a year to learn it”.

But at other times, when the accusations were less absurd, I just took them as facts. 

After 20 years of almost daily guitar practice, I wasn’t taking the plunge to pursue my dream of becoming a professional musician and, among other things, teaching music, because the jerk was telling me, “You need to be way better than this to even think of giving a guitar lesson. What if a student asks you a question to which you do not know the answer? EVERYONE WILL KNOW you’re teaching the guitar before you’ve learned everything there is to know”

The reason I didn’t take the plunge was that I believed the voice.

Thus, the first and most important step in dealing with imposter syndrome is to become aware of it. It won’t stop the voice from speaking, but at least you now know that the accusations are coming from a compulsive liar who always behaves like a prick.

Had it been a real voice coming from a real person, you would avoid that person, but since the voice is actually your thoughts, you can’t just run away from them.

 If you are having these negative thoughts telling you that you’re an imposter (Amanda Palmer calls them the Fraud Police) as a musician and as a person it’s time to ask yourself some serious questions: 

Are you certain that the negative things you’ve thought about yourself in the past or are thinking about now are true? 

Are the things you refer to as “catastrophic failures” in reality just “minor imperfections”, caused by the fact that you’re a human being?

Have you ever felt like you defrauded people when in reality you had given them the best service that you could?

Do you attribute your successes and abilities in both life and music to luck rather than your effort?

Take some time to answer these questions; you might be surprised at what you discover! 

Step 2: Look at the evidence

If you’ve been serious about music for long enough, there will be evidence.

The evidence can be found in a variety of places, including your musical abilities, recorded music, songs you’ve written, and feedback from others if you’ve ever performed your music for an audience.

When looking for evidence, keep in mind that you’re not looking for proof that you’re the best, or that you know everything, but rather that you’re a genuine musician who deserves to reap the benefits of his efforts.   

Step 3: Keep building the evidence

I found that constant self-improvement – as a guitarist, musician, teacher, and person – was the best antidote to imposter syndrome.

How can you possibly be an imposter if you’re always working on getting better?

The more you work on yourself and on your musical skills, the more evidence you will have that you’re not an impostor. 

The evidence alone is not enough though. Since absolute perfection cannot possibly be reached, you still have to deal with imposter syndrome every time you fail to reach it.

The next two steps should help you deal with this.

Step 4: Answer it

Sometimes it felt stupid, but actually answering my accuser in my head helped a lot. 

Sometimes I answer it politely:

I got your point. But I my giving this student the best guitar lesson he can get, to the best of my abilities. That is not what imposters do. Now let me continue

Sometimes less: 

Shut up. I’m giving a lesson here”.

Don’t get dragged into arguments with your accuser though. You can never win an argument with a prick. Just show yourself the evidence that the he is wrong, and move to the next, crucial stage.

Step 5: Do what you want to do anyway

Nowadays, I look at Imposter Syndrome like this:

If ignore the prick and do what I want to do anyway (ex. giving my first guitar lesson, starting a blog, teaching an advanced student, publishing my first piece of music, playing a different style of music etc.), I win.

If I don’t do what I want to do because of it, I lose.

Over time, you will start having more wins than losses.

You will also improve your ability to distinguish between rational caution (for example, not teaching a student who wants to specialize in a genre in which I am not fluent, such as classical guitar or jazz) and complete nonsense, as in the examples above.

The last time I had to deal with Imposter Syndrome 

Imposter syndrome does not go away, at least not unless you seek therapy that addresses the causes, which is beyond the scope of this article. 

Sometimes, as Amanda Palmer accurately puts it, “the Fraud Police pay you a visit” 

The last time the Fraud Police visited me was while writing this very article. 

See, when you do something repeatedly, such as teaching music, recording it, or writing articles about music, you will accumulate so much evidence that you are not a fraud that the voice begins to quiet down, even completely. 

Since writing this article didn’t entail teaching musical concepts, but confronting my most embarrassing thoughts and sharing them with you, I felt out of my comfort zone and started getting thoughts like:

Will they think I put in more notes in my solos, to show off?”

And, even worse:

Do I have the right to say I play fast notes in my solos? Can I play that fast? What if you hear me playing on Tik Tok and EVERYONE WILL KNOW I can’t play as fast as I gave the impression I do?”

The fact that you can read this article indicates that I’ve just had another victory over my accuser, and that the voice has become a little quieter. 

The Good News

I will end this article on Imposter Syndrome, the internal accuser who takes away the pleasure of well deserved reward, with some good news for you, who have read so far:

  1. If you have Imposter Syndrome, you can exclude the possibility that you’re actually a fraud. People who are comfortable being imposters do not bother about it, so the very fact you’re reading this article suggests that you’re the real deal.
  2. If you do some deep thinking you will find that there were past situations, in music and outside, where you thought you were a fraud, but actually weren’t. If you revisit those situations, and think about people you think you haven’t given a fair deal, you may find that this is completely untrue. Those people were actually satisfied with your service, your music or your friendship. 
  3. The Fraud Police may pay you visits at times, especially when you get out of your comfort zone. But if you’re aware of Imposter Syndrome and work on yourself, both as a musician and as a person, the voice gets quieter and speaks less frequently over time. 
  4. If your musical abilities are far from where you would like them to be, this is NOT an indication that you’re a fraud, if you’re working towards acquiring them. Whether you’re a fraud or not, has nothing to do with your current musical abilities.

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