CEARA LYNCH: MONETIZING IMPOSTER SYNDROME

I recently saw that Ceara Lynch obtained tickets to this year’s Burning Man festival. Seeing those tickets reminded me of an incident that occurred when I was attending in the mid 2000’s. It was my second Burning Man, and lot’s had changed since my first – more art, more people, more anarchy, just a whole lot more of amazing. Period.

I was walking around with an artist friend just taking it all in, and we got to talking about how she did her art. Her answer struck me as odd, not because it was so unexpected but because it was so familiar. The way she did her art – her creative process – was exactly the same way I pretty much had done my job. And I just retired from the military. Which isn’t exactly know as a place for artistic expression, if you catch my drift. Anyway, what she said was, “Nowadays, I pretty much just make shit up as I go along.” I mean, she had been doing her artist thing for over 20 years. She knew the advanced techniques of her craft, and she had lots of experience (meaning she had made lots of mistakes along the way.) She had arrived at that point in her career where she trusted her skills and experience. And she also knew that if she made a mistake or two or ten, the world wasn’t going to end. As she said, “Dude, it’s just wood and metal.”

I had heard that “making shit up as you go along” mantra many times during the course of my 27 years in the service. The first time was in the 1980’s. I was still a pretty junior officer, and my eight men and I had been assigned a job that, if we failed to get it right, could potentially cost people their lives. We did all the planning, red teamed our plans, prepared contingencies, and went over all the “what ifs” we could think of, but still there were a lot of things that could go wrong. It was hardly the perfect plan, it was based on imperfect intelligence, and as the saying goes, “No plan survives the first contact.” Just before launch, my boss pulled me aside, “If the shit hits the fan and things falls apart, just trust your training. Trust your equipment. Trust your men. And use your initiative. It’s okay to make shit up as you go along. Just get the job done.” “And keep me informed.”

To our good fortune, the shit didn’t hit the fan that time. And things went according to plan. But I had learned that “making shit up as you go along” was okay. Even encouraged in the right situations. It was okay to get creative. In fact, as I got more senior in rank and gained more experience, I found myself “making shit up as I went along” far more often than I did back in the day. Fact of the matter was that some of the stuff we were doing later on hadn’t been done before. “Making shit up” was what we were expected to do.

Like my artist friend, I had learned to trust myself and my abilities. For her, it was a lot of trial and error and making mistakes that were, in the larger scheme of things, not very consequential. For me, it was training, training, and more training. It was failure when it didn’t count (during practice) so that we would be successful when it did.

Not everyone has that sort of training regimen or, like my artist friend, the freedom from unforgivable consequences if they make a mistake. When it comes to confidence building in the normal workplace, those sort of conditions are luxuries. So some people find it unnerving when they’re required to “make shit up as they go along.” And even if they’re successful, they aren’t comfortable that their success is based on a requisite level of skill or knowledge. They feel like a fraud. And they’re afraid they’ll be found out.

The Impostor Syndrome …

Back in the 1970s, researchers coined the term “impostor phenomenon” which describes what happens when you feel like a fraud and fear that you’ll one day be exposed. Common symptoms include worrying that your success in life has been the result of some kind of error and thinking that everyone around you is more intelligent than you. For years, the scientific community believed that the phenomenon was largely confined to high-achieving women. But many of those same researchers are beginning to realize that feeling like an impostor is a more universal experience and that it could be even more problematic for men.

Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy describes this shift in perception of the impostor phenomenon — also known as the “impostor syndrome” or “impostorism.” After she gave her TED Talk on power posing in 2012, Cuddy said she received thousands of emails from people who reported feeling like a fraud — and about half were men. Meanwhile, other researchers were discovering that men struggled with impostorism just as often as women. In private practice, men were generally unwilling to talk about it. But when asked anonymously, men were expressing it to the same degree as women. Cuddy explains that “men who deviate from the strong-assertive stereotype — in other words, men who are able to express self-doubt — risk experiencing what psychologists call ‘stereotype backlash’, a type of punishment which often takes the form of harassment or even ostracism for failing to conform to societal expectations.” As a result, men end up hiding their fears, unable to unburden themselves and seek help.

The problem with impostorism isn’t simply psychological discomfort: It can lead directly to failure. Cuddy writes that impostorism causes us to self-criticize constantly, to “choke at the worst possible moments, and to disengage — thereby virtually ensuring that we will under perform at the very things we do best and love most.” Unfortunately, achievements don’t necessarily alleviate impostorism. In fact, Cuddy says, they may just make the experience worse, because you have new opportunities to feel like you don’t deserve your success.

If impostorism exists in the workplace, it almost certainly exists in the bedroom. Measured against culturally-exaggerated expectations of ‘typical’ male size and sexual prowess, a man could easily feel inadequate; a man could easily see himself as a fraud. Not really a man. Something less. An impostor. And thinking that, as Cuddy points out, leads to feedback loop of failure and under performance which just reinforces the notion of being a fraud.

Enter Ceara Lynch …

Now I don’t know if there is any therapeutic value in sharing these insecurities with a woman like Ceara Lynch. But it only takes a cursory glance at Ceara’s extensive clip catalog to see that male sexual impostorism makes up a large part of her customer base. As Ceara often says, “We don’t chose our fetishes.” But our fetishes do come from somewhere. Perhaps fetishes like small penis humiliation, feminization, and sissy training have their roots in impostorism. As I said, I don’t know.

What I do know is that Ceara Lynch has found a way to monetize male humiliation and impostorism on a mass scale. And I think that’s pretty cool.

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