written by
Flavian DeLima

Impostor Syndrome: How to get past a failure verdict

self-improvement 3 min read , September 23, 2020
impostor syndrome

I always thought impostor syndrome affected everyone -- fear of being "found out" or exposed as a fraud.  Not so. A study by the International Journal of Behavioral Science found that about 70% of people can expect to have at least one episode of impostor syndrome in their lives. Two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term in 1978.  They describe it as

“phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”

I wondered if Sidney Poitier ever suffered from impostor syndrome and felt like a fraud as an actor. He was the first African American actor to win an Academy Award for best actor in 1963 for Lilies of the Field. In his autobiography, The Measure of a Man, he describes how he got his start in acting at age 18. After a short stint with the army, he found himself unemployed and uneducated in New York. Despite a thick Bahamian accent with no acting training and barely able to read, he saw an ACTORS WANTED ad and auditioned at the American Negro Theatre.

If someone says you’re no good, find a guardian angel to overcome your impostor syndrome

Early in the audition, the guy in charge angrily took the script from Sidney. While throwing him out, he shouted:

“You just get out of here and stop wasting people’s time. Go get a job you can handle"...“Get yourself a job as a dishwasher or something.”

Sidney reflected:

“I knew I had to change it, or life was going to be mighty grim. There’s something inside me—pride, ego, sense of self—that hates to fail at anything. I could never accept such a verdict of failure before I’d even begun my life! So I set out on a course of self-improvement. ”

While working at a restaurant, he struggled to read newspapers. An older Jewish waiter tutored him. Every night, in the same booth, for six months, his  “guardian angel” helped him learn to read which increased his confidence, thereby reducing his impostor syndrome.

Sidney returned to the American Negro Theatre. The theatre admitted him the second time and he began studying. Since he was uneducated, he flunked his classes but convinced the theatre to keep him in exchange for becoming their janitor.

Nothing wrong with number two

To overcome his impostor syndrome, Sidney has improved. However, he was disappointed after losing the lead role in a bigger production to a good looking Caribbean kid, who could also sing. He got the understudy role. On the first night of the production, the lead guy, who was Harry Belafonte, couldn't make it. Sidney played the lead and got a call from a prominent casting director who liked him. The director wanted him for a Broadway show called Lysistrata, with a mostly white audience.

When things get rough, stay in charge

Prior to going on the first night, Sidney was, "scared shitless."  After the performance, he was mortified:

“The word bad cannot begin to accommodate my wretchedness. I mean, I was BAD. The stage fright had me so tightly in its grip that I was giving the wrong cues and jumbling the lines, and within a few moments the audience was rolling in the aisles." ...“My career was over before it had begun, and the void was opening up once again to receive me. I didn’t even go to the cast party, which meant that I wasn’t around when the first reviews appeared.”

The critics trashed the show, but liked Sidney for his "fresh, comedic gift". Regardless, he felt like a failure and faced self-doubt. He decided he would stay in charge of his life and move forward no matter how it played out. The play ran for four days. Even though he felt like a failure, it led to his next acting job and so forth.

The next time you feel like you have impostor syndrome, talk to a friend you admire and share the doubts you have about your achievements. It’s likely they will share similar feelings of self-doubt and failure about their success. The more you do this, the less you and others will feel alone and isolated.

— Source: Clance, P.R. (1985). The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the fear that haunts your success.

— Source: Sakulku, J. & Alexander, J. (2011). The Imposter Phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science

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