Defeating Imposter Syndrome as a Woman in Comedy

I have a horrible habit of thinking that in most social, academic or professional situations I somehow slipped in without anyone realising I have no talent or credentials which would warrant my spot in that particular group. I sit there, whether it be in a fourth-year class I thought was a first-year class or in a new extracurricular club I joined, and believe everyone else in the room is more qualified than I am to be there. This type of thinking has a cosy seat next to success in my brain. Every time I accomplish anything, I feel pride for a split second and then I jump to the conclusion that it was a mistake, coincidence or accident.

Elizabeth Cox discusses this way of thinking in a Ted-Ed lesson. She describes this experience through many names: imposter syndrome, imposter experience and imposter phenomenon. The video explains how Pauline Rose Clance first examined this thinking with her colleague, Suzanne Imes, by studying a group of female students and faculty at Georgia State University in 1978. They found most of these women experienced feelings of fraudulence in their academic settings. Later studies confirmed experiences of imposter syndrome are not limited by the various intersectional social identities that people hold but rather it is pervasive across all groups. These experiences of fraudulence, impostorism and feelings of inadequacy are not an abnormality, but a universal way of internalising success.

I joined a sketch comedy group through Ryerson University called Riot and was instantly thrown into this feeling of imposterism. The group is made up of 11 members: seven returning and four new. Everyone in the group is welcoming and assures the new members no one knows what they are doing. This helps to subside my self deprecating thoughts temporarily, but part of me doesn't believe them. After observing the group's dynamic and banter and concluding they are funny and that I am not, I once again spiral.

Similarly to the rest of the comedy industry, Riot’s comedy troop is also mostly male. Emily Pasqua, a comedy writer for Gold Comedy, states 10 per cent of the comedy industry is female. 

At Riot, I instantly feel a sense of competition among the group; not only do I have to be as funny as the men, but I also have to out-do the existing female competition.

Although imposter syndrome is known for its universality, experiencing these thoughts can feel exceptionally lonely. According to Valerie Young, an internationally recognised expert on imposter syndrome, the first step in overcoming feelings of impostorism is to talk about it. Therefore, I kickstarted the dialogue with fellow female members of the sketch comedy group to see if they have shared similar experiences.

Taylor Palmer, a third-year student in Psychology at Ryerson University, is also a new member of Riot this year. Palmer says before her time at Ryerson, she was part of an all-female comedy group. “Everyone was very cognizant that it was an all-female space ... we made sure everyone was heard and supported," she says. 

While transitioning to the comedic space at Riot, Palmer also fell back on a competitive tendency while performing alongside men. She expresses how there is a constant need to compete for "punchlines, stage time and a well-rounded sense of humour."

How do we as women in comedy steer away from notions of feeling less than our male counterparts? Valerie Yonge suggests "the only way to stop feeling like an imposter is to stop thinking like an imposter." Meaning, if I adopt fabricated confidence in settings where I feel a sense of impostorism, eventually that belief will manifest.

Another female member of Riot shared her thoughts but chose to remain anonymous for the interview.

This member says comedy is entirely subjective. ‘For a show, if I have fully prepared for it and do well, I consider it a one-off thing,” she says. “It doesn't give me confidence." In comedy, it's the performer's job to give themselves confidence because an audience's comedic preferences will change with each show.

When beginning her journey in Riot, this member says it took a long time to build up the confidence to admit to herself she belonged there. It seems like impostorism and risk-taking go hand in hand for most people. She says she "never used the language of imposter syndrome before, but that learning more about it is beneficial,’ since it's a step towards heightened self-awareness.

I take inspiration to defeat my imposter syndrome from the wise words of Gina Linetti, a character from the NBC show ​Brooklyn 99​. "Life is chaos, success is completely arbitrary, and confidence is everything," Linetti says. To conquer imposter syndrome, we must appreciate success for what it is - an accomplishment we have earned. It's hard to admit when we have done something right but it's a necessary step in achieving self-confidence and rejecting the nagging feeling we somehow don't deserve our successes.