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  • Jo Chapman

Can we stop calling it imposter syndrome! Let’s get curious…

Imposter syndrome is doubting your abilities and when you tell yourself you aren't capable of doing something. It's that inner voice that doubts you and plants seeds of doubt in your thoughts. Often, it’s connected to fear of failure – a way to protect yourself.

“Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes 1978

Imposter syndrome can show up in many ways and more often than not, as a voice inside your head saying things like:

“I’m just lucky…."

“I’m not good enough”

“They’ll find out I’m a fake soon…"

“I feel like the weak link in this team…"

(One that still stand out for me is I’m just lucky…)

Often women suffer slightly more than men in this regard, and social norms and nurture/how we’re brought up plays a lot into this. Boys are always told they can do anything; girls are told they look pretty.

How does this show up for you?

What thoughts go through your mind?

Here’s a revelation – most of these thoughts and feelings that we associate with imposter syndrome are a natural part of everyday life and come part and parcel with trying new things and pushing yourself to go that little bit further.

· If you step into that new role, you will be feeling an element of self-doubt

· If you try something for the first time, you will have some fear of failure

· If you register for a new qualification, you will notice gaps in your skills and experience

Why the phrase imposter syndrome is unhelpful

Language is important, it creates positive and negative thoughts. The term imposter syndrome emphasises those negative thoughts and focuses on the things we think we can’t do rather than those that we can.

Imposter brings an element of criminality to otherwise normal thoughts or feelings of anxiousness when in a new situation. Syndrome implies a medical condition of which you’ll never be rid of and recalls the “female hysteria” diagnoses of the nineteenth century.

Though it's mostly known as "imposter syndrome," The original psychologist Pauline Clance told Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy in her book Presence that she wouldn’t call it "imposter phenomenon" if she did the work again. "I would call it the impostor experience," she said, "because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it’s something almost everyone experiences.”

Labelling yourself with Imposter Syndrome is limiting because it activates our negativity bias and the human tendency to focus on what we cannot do, or what we do not have, rather than what is possible.

Although feelings of uncertainty are an expected and normal part of professional life, women who experience them are deemed to suffer from imposter syndrome. Even if women demonstrate strength, ambition, and resilience, our daily battles with microaggressions, especially expectations and assumptions formed by stereotypes and racism, often push us down.

Imposter syndrome as a concept fails to capture this dynamic and puts the onus on individuals to deal with the effects. Workplaces remain misdirected toward seeking individual solutions for issues disproportionately caused by systems of discrimination and abuses of power.

“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t – you’re right”

You’re probably not thinking about why you feel like that, what’s in your experience that has created these stories, whether it’s background, systemic issues of culture and societal norms that can create and amplify these patterns of thinking. You’ll be far more focused on the feeling that these thoughts bring and the actions you’ll take from these thoughts…. You might decide that the only course of action is to start overworking towards the aim of getting things perfect.

Our thinking becomes reality and we believe what we think

Much psychological research has identified the importance of recognising that our thoughts are not facts. Our thoughts are just that – ideas in our own mind, warped massively by subjective perception and, in the case of imposter phenomenon, flooded and distorted by feelings of fear and anxiety.

Our thoughts aren’t always rational or real - It’s just a thought – another one will be along in a minute. A game changer for me is when I realised, we don’t have to give all of our thought’s equal attention.

In order to break these patterns of self-doubt thinking, we need to be curious about them then disrupt them!

Curiosity: a strong desire to know or learn something

In order to create change you first have to become aware of what’s there. That’s where curiosity comes in. Curiosity is a quality related to inquisitive thinking such as exploration, investigation, and learning. Asking questions, seeking to understand the current situation or environment. Withholding judgement on whether something is “right or wrong”.

Practising curiosity:

  • Awareness is the first step – mindfulness is useful in this regard – learning to recognise thoughts and decide which ones to pay attention to.

  • Triggers and spotting patterns – are there particular situations where self-doubt crops up for you? It could be when a certain someone speaks in a certain way, flash backs to childhood or bullying etc – we react in certain ways – it’s good to recognise those.

  • Journaling is a way to do that – it’s often difficult to spot patterns in the moment, but if we get into a habit of journaling about them then we can reflect and it’s easier to spot those patterns – I spotted that I had difficulty in asking for help by journaling.

  • Talk/find a tribe – verbalising something often helps it feel more manageable and smaller that it may have appeared in our minds. Find a tribe of people to share and make sense of the world.

  • Self-compassion – please, please don’t beat yourself up! Be kind to yourself, there is no silver bullet for this.

Disruption: a disturbance which interrupts and event, activity, or process.

A word that strikes fear into many people. We’re not about disrupting for disrupting’s sake. We’re about thoughtfully disrupting in service of shifting something. Here’s some ways you can disrupt your own thoughts of self-doubt:

  • Examine the evidence – Take a step back when you have feelings of self-doubt. Ask yourself – who told you that? What evidence do I have to support it? When have I failed in the past? If the answer to those questions is no–one, none and never – then it’s probably time to toss that thought aside so it doesn’t take your attention. Look at positive feedback and wins I keep a folder of positive emails and feedback that I can refer to whenever things get tough.

  • Visualise success – What will this look like, how will I feel? Imagine the future once you’ve done it – the only thing stopping you is you!

  • Ask questions – if you’re insecure in your role – ask around! Ask your manager why they hired you – you'll soon see that it wasn't because you’re a nice person although I'm sure you are. It’ll be because you had the skills to do the job. Talking to your trusted friend is often a great way to be disruptive too!

  • Reframe your thinking – replace those thoughts with something else – some other narrative that better fits with who you want to be. Remember – thinking creates reality, and you can choose which thoughts to pay attention to.

It's about reframing how do you ask yourself different questions to get to the rid of inner critic and real reality

What’s the opposite of your negative self-talk? We can retrain ourselves and our thinking. This is why mantras can be so powerful – have you ever seen videos on YouTube or Instagram of little children repeating things their parents are saying in a really powerful way… I am strong, I am brave, I am kind…. So sweet and setting those kids up for a lifetime free from self-doubt.

We start from a position of curiosity and then disrupt our thought patterns.

What now? An invitation to you to get curious!

Next time you experience feelings of self-doubt:

  1. Write what you’re thinking

  2. Be real – examine the evidence

  3. Reframe the narrative – write it down!

Don’t worry - You’ve got this 👊🏻


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