Imposter Syndrome: How to take your own inner critic in hand

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Dry mouth. Racing heart. Sweaty palms. Breathlessness. All are common physical responses to fear and excitement. For many of us, this is a feeling most commonly associated with Sunday nights after an episode of Line of Duty. But for others, these might also be feelings that you recognise if you have ever experienced Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome is something that crops up a lot in our work coaching 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 Imposter Syndrome, you’re in good company. High achievers from Maya Angelou and Meryl Street to Sheryl Sandberg and Albert Einstein have talked about suffering from it. It’s also much more common that you might think; often linked to perfectionism, around 70% of us feel it and it’s been reported in both men and women – although women seem to be much more open to talking about it.

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

Everyone’s experience of Imposter Syndrome is completely distinct and individual to them but in our work with clients, we’ve noticed certain common themes or “flavours” that crop up. Listed below is the selection that most resonated with the Conduit members who recently attended our Imposter Syndrome workshop:

“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, judgemental 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 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, physiologically-speaking.

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

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.

Try this technique for yourself: 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 approach, 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. Remember that, while worst case scenarios and catastrophes may be entertaining as part of Line of Duty, we can choose not to bring the drama into our daily lives.

By Lisa Quinn and Nicky Chambers, Executive Coaches