We all have our good days and bad days, and are generally used to the highs and lows of modern life. But sometimes do you feel like those bad days can start to build up, running into weeks, months, or even years? Self-doubt, or what has newly been termed ‘Impostor Syndrome’, can creep in and take hold. And when it does, it can be a tough mindset to get out of.
It is normal to worry. Everyone does – even the most confident person in the room. In fact, an estimated 70% of people experience these impostor feelings at some point in their lives. Impostor syndrome affects all kinds of people from all parts of life: women, men, doctors, lawyers, business people, executives… no one is immune to its touch.
But when impostor syndrome is acting like a naughty little Jiminy Cricket, feeding you negative thoughts at every turn, it’s time to take action. Don’t give self-doubt the chance to overwhelm everything you do, be it professionally or personally. If you have reached a point where a mental shift needs to be made, then read on, friends.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Wikipedia describes impostor syndrome as a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’. Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve all they have achieved.
Individuals with impostor syndrome incorrectly attribute their success to luck, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be. While early research focused on the prevalence among high-achieving women, impostor syndrome has been recognized to affect both men and women equally.
How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome
I wanted to share some wonderful advice I heard firsthand at an event for professional women I attended, where Dr. Sian Beilock, President of Barnard College, spoke with brilliance and grace about how to overcome self doubt, impostor syndrome and avoid choking under pressure.
The fact that I heard about this at a women’s conference is also very telling. Impostor syndrome, or “feeling like a fraud” is a common topic of concern amongst women, though is often not defined or clarified as to what it actually is and how to deal with it.
One of the first steps to overcoming impostor syndrome is to acknowledge the thoughts and put them in perspective. Allowing yourself to reframe your mental state, and seek out the very real elements that got you where you are – i.e. the years of study, hard work, grit and grind. If you’re really honest with yourself, you know you didn’t just “get lucky”. You earned it.
Understand Your Triggers
If you’re anything like me, just knowing you are being evaluated changes your performance, and your body’s alarm system goes off. Even if you are ready for a performance review or meeting, if you are too worried about messing up, you will mess up.
Dr. Beilock talked about how this can be particularly true if you are the only woman or minority in the room. This can have the added feeling or pressure of “all eyes on you”, which can literally change the way your brain functions.
In their lab, Dr. Beilock and her team tested responses from students who suffer from math anxiety after telling them “You are about to do math problems”. She showed how the brain lights up and you can physically see their worry on a brain scan. This chemical and physical reaction disrupts your ability to focus, and then you actually do worse on the math problems.
Techniques to Help Combat Impostor Syndrome
In order to help people combat impostor syndrome, Dr. Beilock described using some of the same techniques that elite athletes use. Researchers had been studying a group of Canadian Olympic swimmers, and determined that they had the same stress signals as those afraid of math prior to a competition.Visualization
To help them learn to overcome this, they had the swimmers think about what happened in their last race in detail, and then focus on what to do better next time. And then they did! So one critical way to improve future confidence and performance under pressure is to think about the situation in a non-emotional way, and visualize what to do different or better next time.Create Self-Distance
Another great tool is to talk to yourself in the third person. Say to yourself, “Hey you, you’ll do great on this presentation”. Your bodily reactions when you are under pressure can actually prepare you for what’s going to happen.
Impostor Syndrome is a symptom of vulnerability. When you’re putting yourself out there, it can bring to the fore a flood of insecurities and worries. But if you can learn to separate yourself, viewing the situation through an outside lens, you can rewire your brain to view the situation in a more pragmatic manner.Practice Makes Perfect
Make sure to practice under stressful conditions, whether it is a client meeting or big presentation. A great story to help offer some inspiration is that of Sarah Sellers, the nurse who finished second in the Boston Marathon in 2018.
Her training workouts were sometimes after working a full day at the hospital, so she was used to not feeling great while running. When the horizontal rain and freezing temperatures side-lined the elite runners, she excelled because she was used to being uncomfortable and running in less than ideal conditions. As a runner myself, I can totally relate to this. I know that the times I pushed myself to run in the snow or uphill geared my mind for success before a big race because I knew I could do it.
Dr. Beilock gave the example of workers from the civil rights movement who practiced getting arrested, yelled at and spit on. Practice helps you learn to overcome your limits when it matters most.Reframe Perceived ‘Failures’
Okay, so the big presentation, speech or meeting is over and you think you messed up? Now what? There are two important considerations on how we should view our own perceived failures.
First, everyone has these worries because we are ego-centric by nature. There is even a term for this called “spot-lighting”. Remember that in most situations, people are paying attention to themselves and not to you.
Second (and this is especially important for women), it is good to remind yourself where you are successful right now. Are you a good friend? Daughter? Partner? Mother? Start by saying, “Dear one, I know you messed up in this stressful situation, but you are not just an X, you are also a Y, and just because you are having a bad day today, that is not the sum total of YOU.”
Remember that you are entitled to make small mistakes occasionally and forgive yourself. Don’t forget to reward yourself for getting the big things right.Rewind and Be Kind
When you boil it down, the ultimate goal of impostor syndrome is to get you to stop. Stop doing the thing that is scaring you or making you feel uncomfortable so that your brain can stop receiving stress signals, and calm you down.
And so it tries its hardest to get you to stop by telling you that you are not worthy. You’re not good enough. You’re a big fraud. You don’t know what you’re doing.
So here’s a different way of looking at impostor syndrome: it’s a sign that you are being brave.
You’re stepping outside of the box, beyond your comfort zone. You’re doing hard things, growing, evolving, and taking control.
Awareness is the first step to change. The fact that you are here reading this article is a really positive sign, and I hope it has helped you. The next step is to get out there and talk about your feelings. You may have friends or family who are struggling with the same feelings, and sharing your story could be powerful for them as well as you.
And if your financial success is an area where you are feeling like an impostor, and you’d like to talk about whatever is on your mind, then I’d welcome the chance to listen. Building yourself a community of trusted advocates can really help to bolster a more positive and confident mindset.