The Imposter Syndrome has become part of our lexicon and it is often referred to by clients as a shorthand in their coaching or therapy. In the media it is often talked about as a quintessentially human condition – just this week Michael Parkinson’s son revealed that his father suffered from the syndrome – and often the subtext is that it is a sign of humility or a motivation to keep improving. Psychotherapy thinks about it differently; that if we have a deeper understanding of its origin then we can better manage its debilitating and unnecessary impact. Also, that there are healthier and better ways of truly motivating ourselves to achieve great things without the attack.
A working definition of Imposter Syndrome is the condition of feeling anxious and not experiencing success internally, despite outwardly and often objectively performing well. The condition can result in people feeling like “a fraud” or “a phony” doubting their ability. This has the detrimental effect of wasting energy on cognitive dissonance – the mental struggle or worry of trying to make contradictory information add up. If we can understand the root of this dissonance, we can debunk the Imposter Syndrome and move towards a state of genuine confidence where we can hold our skills and experience.
In our company, HealthyMinds@Work, we use the following model to explain confidence and the Imposter Syndrome.
Over confidence is an inflation of our skills or experience. Frank Abagnale – the conman anti-hero in Catch Me if You Can – is an extreme example, duping others about his abilities as a pilot, a doctor and a prosecutor. At times we may all want to believe we are more than we are, but unconscious incompetence is mostly unhealthy for individuals, organisations, and society. You can see the fun to be had from kids pretending to be superheroes, but as adults, it is important to know our limits and gaps in experience or skills to avoid becoming “Icarus”.
Confidence is where we can realistically assess our skills and experience. Often when we get things wrong or come up against gaps in our knowledge, we get triggered and experience physical symptoms such as increased heartbeat, or a sick feeling from a spike in the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. We only produce these chemicals if there is something life threatening e.g., we are about to get run over by a car, or if we tell ourselves something catastrophic. As human beings we do not like not knowing, and often erroneously and unconsciously, tell ourselves that we are not safe when this happens.
True confidence means that when we make mistakes, or have gaps in competence, we can separate this from our overall sense of self and work out how to resolve or address the specific issue. By this, I mean we become agnostic about our shortcomings, not in a complacent way but in a manner that takes responsibility without self-castigation. We accept that we are accountable for our actions and outputs but don’t become unduly stressed about getting things wrong. We have the perspective to realise that not knowing or having development gaps is not fatal like an Aztec football game where the loser is literally sacrificed.
Under confidence, the home of Imposter Syndrome, is the opposite of confidence and the inverse of over-confidence. It is where we underestimate our skills or experiences and cannot hold what we have to offer.
People often stop here and accept the mindset as yet another ‘failing’. But as a psychotherapist it is vital to explore the underlying causes and expose Imposter Syndrome for what it is – an old coping mechanism of getting in first with the blow; perversely we attack ourselves as form of protection from feeling not good enough, not lovable enough – a reaction that may stem from our younger self trying to process painful events.
Children rarely have the emotional capacity to manage difficult situations as their prefrontal cortex (newer more rational brain) is still developing. So, when faced with issues such as abuse, neglect, divorcing parents or sibling tensions – they must rely on other options. A common response is that the child takes full responsibility for the situation – preferring the illusion of control over feelings of powerlessness even if it means taking on the ‘blame’. This response may be carried through to adulthood and become a default coping mechanism. So, when we worry about a new job, public speaking, playing sport or other challenging situations, – the stress causes a concertinaing of time – taking us back to childhood responses and resulting in the experience of Imposter Syndrome.
In this mindset, we lose our ability to take in data from the “here and now” and resort to older, feelings-based memories and experiences to make assessments. We become flawed scientists in our self assessment – judging the present through a prism of the past. Jeremy Holmes, a renowned, psychoanalyst described the difference between top down and bottom up processing. Bottom up is when we use real time data coming in from our senses. Top down is when we use previous experiences, beliefs, assumptions, and memories to inform our thinking. Both are useful – without top down processing, we would have too much information to sift, but it can impact where we are on the confidence model. If we are taking on a new role, for example rather than ruminating “am I good enough” or “will I be found out” it is more useful to ask: have I done this before? Can I demonstrate that I have the skills and experience or reason that the leap is reasonable and not overly ambitious?
So, what do we do when we experience Imposter Syndrome? Be kind to ourselves and be aware of how our mind is working. Observe what is happening in our body (physical symptoms) and the associated behaviours – staying silent or shying away from a challenge. Recognise where we are in the confidence model outlined above.
If we have demonstrated competence but are in the under confident position, then we need to work out where the top down data is coming from which is warping the reality of the “here and now”. This is work that is best done in therapy that focuses on the unconscious (psychoanalysis or psychodynamic psychotherapy), i.e., the feelings and beliefs that sit below our conscious awareness and inform behaviour. CBT is less effective as it focuses more on our cognitions (thoughts and feelings), without exploring the concertina effect of past experiences.
Therapy can help clients assess their situation more objectively, appreciating that if they do not have the skills or experience needed for the task then it is an opportunity to learn and build skills rather than something lacking in oneself. No one expects you to drive a car without taking lessons!
If we are not in therapy, there are other methods to stop the time portal and help cope with Imposter Syndrome. Breathing, meditation, walking, and exercise are physical aids. We can also address the errors in our thinking by doing a realistic audit of our skills and experience, holding onto the times we have demonstrated competence. It does not mean we push or deny our feelings – we just refrain from acting on them or letting them be the judge and jury. For example, I often get nervous before presenting to large groups even though I prepare thoroughly and have years of public speaking experience. In these moments, when my emotional brain takes over and tells me that I’ll mess up or not be good enough, I tell myself that I am an adult with a good track record and positive feedback to prove it. I remind myself that once I get through the first nervous minutes, I often quite enjoy presenting and have yet to find a tiger in the room. Sometimes we need to ask others for help with this if we are finding it hard to do on our own.
We need to become less complacent about the Imposter Syndrome and recognise it for what it is – unscientific, unhelpful and located in the past. Imposter Syndrome is not a trait or a thing to have, it can be challenged by our adult, rational, bottom up processing, “here and now” data. Once we pause the attack on ourselves and stop twisting the knife, we can find motivation in healthier, productive, and far more enjoyable ways.
Leanne Hoffman HealthyMinds@Work, edited by Tami Hoffman