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Are You for Real? The 'Impostor' Challenges Event Creatives Face Today

Event pro Kevin Molesworth examines the crippling anxiety many event creatives are facing in today's "isolation" environment.

Take heed of the artist who is left alone with her/his brain for too long. While this isolation may prove to be a time of significant productivity for some--new ideas, concepts and strategies--there is also the very real potential that home confinement is inconspicuously dangerous: an emotional pathway fraught with self-doubt, anxiety and depression. As individuals adjust to this “social distancing” paradigm, they may find themselves vacillating between these extremes of triumphant revelation in one moment and mental instability in the next.

Why are stay-at-home advisories proving so difficult for us? Between our cell phones and laptops, we have access to everything we need: internet, video conferencing, food deliveries (including alcohol in many cities), and our new best friend, Netflix. The wonders of modern conveniences have made this remarkably comfortable. Comparatively speaking, we are far better off than those that endured the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920.

For an industry full of people who have spent the better part of the last decade complaining about a lack of work/life balance, one would think this should be the staycation that we have all been dreaming of. (Setting aside, of course, that whole unemployment thing and/or the looming specter of bankruptcies. Careful what you wish for, right?)

This is an opportunity to re-engage with our partners and families, or learn a new language, or clean out the garage, or any number of things for which we never have time. And yet, so many of us are not doing any of that. While surely there is anxiety about our personal and collective economic futures, that does not seem to be the element that is driving us to the edge of madness. So, what is it?

I think I have the answer. Our work is gone. Was our work the reason for our existence? Was it the thing that gave our lives meaning? Our purpose? No. Our work was our armor. What happens when that armor is removed and you are forced to stand there, unguarded against the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism? Suddenly thrust before a mirror of inhospitable judgment, be it real, inferred or wholly invented in your own mind.

This industry demands so much of event professionals--physically, emotionally and certainly our time. A career in live events all but guarantees that you will miss some milestone events in the lives of your loved ones: birthdays, holiday celebrations, etc. And yet, it is our “out.” It is our excuse to avoid anything and everything because we are “too busy.” And if there is one thing that we are masterful at sidestepping, it is introspection.

Too many of us hide behind the armor of work because it affords us the ability to ignore our own insecurities and self-doubt. We pack everything away in tiny imaginary boxes, and we store them on the highest imaginary shelf in the back of an imaginary closet.

For as long as I can remember, this is the strategy I have employed during times of great personal stress. Everything in its right place, perfectly compartmentalized to be dealt with at a later time. … and by "later," I mean "never." For better or worse, it has been a rather effective means of self-preservation.

I have spoken with scores of my fellow event professionals over the past several weeks, and they acknowledged their closets, full of boxes, and the things they have recently been forced to reexamine. Some bad memories were barely consequential, their potency diminished over the years, but others were altogether soul-crushing.

We have spent these many lonely hours binging nine seasons of “The Office” and all of our quarantine snacks, and we have run out of distractions. Our work, our armor, is gone and now we are alone with our minds. If self-awareness were a dog, this pandemic is our “release the hounds” moment.

Years ago, David Bowie revealed in an interview, “I had enormous self-image problems and very low self-esteem, so I hid behind obsessive writing and performing. I really felt so utterly inadequate. I thought the work was the only thing of value.” Who among us is guilty of this same behavior?

If you have ever found yourself struggling with feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt or the fear of being exposed as a fraud, perhaps there may be some comfort in knowing that you are not alone. These feelings are not unique to our industry and they are certainly nothing new. The term "impostor phenomenon" was coined by two psychologists back in 1978 and was defined as an individual experience of self-perceived phoniness. It's estimated that 70 percent of people have experienced these feelings at one time or another, including innumerable prominent figures. Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Lady Gaga, Serena Williams, Howard Schultz, Jennifer Lopez and Maya Angelou have all expressed feeling like an impostor.

Our industry is image-obsessed. That would be fine if it ended with our desire to portray an appearance of wild success, unparalleled innovation and unbounded creativity to our clients. Unfortunately, our need to impress extends to how we are perceived by our peers. The depiction of ourselves that we proffer to our colleagues is a portrait of stability, a deliberately and carefully crafted mythos, when in reality we are about as sensible and sober-minded as Nikki Sixx on a three-day bender circa 1987.

The whispered voices in our heads are spoon-feeding us a vicious and damnable nightmare. “This will be the moment when I will be exposed for who I truly am. My life is a disaster--I am a disaster and people are going to figure it out. Not only have I been lying to everyone for years, but even worse, I have been lying to myself. I am lazy. I am not as smart as I pretend to be. I am not nearly as successful as my social media would have everyone believe. I am not the living highlight reel that I present to the world and the confidence I exude is merely peacocking, a mask that I wear to hide my self-loathing. I am a fake, I am a fraud, I am an impostor.”

If you have had similar thoughts, congratulations and welcome to the club. Now, let us teach you the secret handshake and you will be officially inducted as a member of the group. We are great in number and some of the stories from our best and brightest might surprise you.

Quotes from some famous “impostors:”

Sonia Sotomayor, associate justice, U.S. Supreme Court: “I have spent my years since Princeton, while at law school and in my various professional jobs, not feeling completely a part of the worlds I inhabit. I am always looking over my shoulder wondering if I measure up.”

Maya Angelou, writer, U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom winner: "I have written 11 books, but each time I think, 'Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'"

Tom Hanks, actor, two-time Oscar winner: "No matter what we've done, there comes a point where you think, 'How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?'”

Emma Watson, actress, model, activist: “When I receive recognition for my acting, I feel incredibly uncomfortable. I tend to turn in on myself. I feel like an impostor. It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just thinking, ‘Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved.’”

Kate Winslet, actress, Emmy/Grammy/Oscar winner: "Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, ‘I can’t do this. I’m a fraud.’ ... I’m there thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m rubbish and everyone is going to see it.’”

Kevin Molesworth, CSEP, is the president of Brass Tacks Events and Celadore Creative, based in Portland, Ore. He is an international award-winning producer and designer who has traveled the globe speaking on topics from creativity and innovation to ethics and event safety. He is currently the Western Region vice president of ILEA International.

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