Imposter Syndrome - it's more common than you might think

Last week, I ran a workshop on Imposter Syndrome with my coaching partner Nicky Chambers at The Conduit members’ club. The Conduit asked us to write a blog for their website, so I thought I’d share it here too.

Dry mouth. Racing heart. Sweaty palms. Breathlessness. For many of us, this how we might feel on a Sunday night after the latest episode of Line of Duty.

They’re all common physical responses to fear and excitement. Which is why they might also be feelings that you recognise if you have ever experienced Imposter Syndrome. Because your body might well have reacted in the same way, causing you to experience some of the same physical symptoms.

Imposter Syndrome is something that we see crop up a lot in our work with clients. The Harvard Business review describes it as “A collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist, despite evidence of success”.

If you have ever experienced it, you’re in good company. High achievers from Maya Angelou and Meryl Street to Sheryl Sandberg and Albert Einstein have talked about experiencing it. It’s also much more common that you might think - around 70% of us feel it and it’s often linked to perfectionism. Both men and women experience it – although women seem to be much more open to talking about it.

And while it might be common, that doesn’t mean it’s any less horrible to deal with.

Everyone’s experience of it is completely distinct and individual to them, but in our work with clients, we’ve noticed certain common themes or “flavours” that crop up. And these seemed to resonate with the Conduit members who attended our Imposter Syndrome workshop.  These include: 

“I must not fail”

“I feel like a fake”

“Everyone else is more competent than I am”

“I’ve been very lucky”

“I’m going to be found out”

“Everyone else is more experienced than me”

“Promoting me to this role was a mistake”

“I don’t deserve this job”

 “Everyone else is cleverer than me’

“Everyone else will think I am stupid/inexperienced/lack gravitas”

If one or more of these negative thoughts ring true for you, it might be helpful to know that it’s likely that you’re being fed them by your Inner Critic (or Saboteur) – those harsh, negative voices that are designed to hold us back,  and to keep us playing safe and small.

When we are in a situation that we interpret as stressful, our brains get flooded with hormones telling us to fight, flight or freeze. This is a hangover from prehistoric times – it’s our limbic system – our reptilian or “chimp” brain. Our brains still interpret events in terms of life threatening threats or possible life-saving rewards. Also, as social animals we’re hard wired to worry about what other people think - our very survival once depended on it – so the physical response you have when your Imposter Syndrome kicks in is an entirely normal physiological response.

BUT. That doesn’t mean it’s helpful, or that it serves us well. Because the messages that our Inner Critic tell us are usually harsh, emotional, worse case scenario, catastrophising, assumptive thinking rubbish. Our Inner Critics are mind readers – but they tend to make up negative stories, rather than telling us that other people are thinking wonderful thoughts about us. 

So it can be useful to be able to see your Inner Critic for what it is in order to manage Imposter Syndrome. Even though that voice can sometimes feel like you – it isn’t. It’s your Inner Critic.

The obvious step is to ignore our Inner Critics, and to instead talk to ourselves rationally, and with compassion and kindness. This is a skill that we can all learn, but it takes practice.

Sometimes with our clients, we try another approach, and ask them to talk to themselves the way that they would to their best friend. Someone that they care about deeply, that they love dearly, and that they usually talk to with kindness and compassion.

The next time your Imposter Syndrome kicks in, rather than choosing to engage with your Inner Critic, instead, imagine that you’re talking to a good friend and have a conversation with yourself.

1.     What advice would you give yourself?

2.     What’s going on in your body when you talk to yourself from the perspective of a good friend? What’s different?

3.     What emotions do you feel?

4.     What happens to your tone of voice

What we’re inviting you to do with this exercise is to look at things from a different perspective. One of kindness and compassion – which is rarely where our Inner Critics are coming from. When our clients try this, more often than not, they discover a more rational, less emotional, more balanced analysis of a situation. Choosing to explore things from a “good friend” perspective allows them to see things differently. To know that while worst case scenarios and catastrophies are some of the reasons why we love Line of Duty, we can choose not to engage with the drama of our Inner Critics.

Lisa Quinn