You’re doing a job you love – whether that’s working for yourself, or getting that great promotion you’ve been after – but you can hear a nagging little voice – and it’s not coming from someone else, but from inside your own head.
“What makes you think you’re qualified for this? Who do you think you are? You’re nowhere near as good as that person over there! You’re going to be found out…”
There’s a name for where that little voice is coming from – it’s called Imposter Syndrome, and the most important thing to know is that it’s wrong, you don’t have to put up with it any longer.
It can strike anyone – men and women, young and old, from any background – and it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing what you do. As well as appearing as that nagging little voice, it can manifest itself in these ways, too:
- You find it hard to believe or accept positive feedback and praise about your performance and achievements
- You blame yourself when things go wrong, and if they go well, you put it down to someone else’s input, or just “luck”
- You worry that any moment you will somehow be “found out” and someone will question why you’re doing what you do
- You set yourself very high standards, and have a serious fear of failing or being criticised by others – which means you end up working long hours, over-preparing, and criticising yourself
- You worry that you need to be an expert in your field, and that however much reading and research you do, you don’t know enough – which can prevent you from going for new opportunities or promotions
- You feel you ought to get everything right, first time – and that struggling to learn something is a sign of incompetence
- You worry that accepting help to get a job done is a sign that your abilities are inadequate, so you regularly refuse offers of help or input from others.
So what causes it?
All sorts of factors can contribute to these effects, and it is very common. It could be rooted in your upbringing, and based on how you felt in your family and education environment. If you were a high achiever who was used to doing well, finding something to be a challenge could well have triggered serious feelings of inadequacy, because you’re just not used to struggling. If you were criticised or stereotyped regularly by others, that can create a narrative that you use on yourself for the rest of your life.
Equally, Imposter Syndrome can be triggered by a change in your circumstances – if you’re out of the workplace for some time due to illness or childcare, it could be that you return with a big shortfall in your confidence, and a feeling that you’ve fallen behind.
So what can you do about it?
Imposter Syndrome is not easy to break, usually because it’s born out of long-term habits and attitudes. But it can be done.
Imposter Syndrome thrives on your unhelpful thinking patterns, so the first step is to recognise that you’re feeding it; then you can start to change how you behave, which will change how you feel, and how that voice speaks to you. Once this has become habit, you can complement and support your new habits with little acts of self-compassion and mindfulness.
Let’s start with that inner voice – slowing it down, and then changing what it says.
Research suggests that we talk to ourselves at an incredible rate, much faster than communicating verbally with others. We tell ourselves off in a long soliloquy, we rehash hour-long events in split seconds over and over, or just spin from one thought to another. When you put it like that, it sounds exhausting – and you need a break! Your inner thoughts can be all-consuming, and blot out everything else. They can ruin an event, a job, and even a relationship.
So we have to learn how to strike a balance, and one of the most effective ways to do this is to distance yourself from yourself: use your inner voice (or your outer one, if you like), and speak to yourself in the third person. (“Mike, OK, so you’re experiencing a problem. You’ll soon find a solution.”) Talking to yourself like this is calming and detached, as if someone unbiased has stepped in to give you some perspective. It will slow down your thoughts, and give you time to reset and adjust how you listen – and it will also let you reassess the issue as a challenge you can rise to, rather than a crisis you can’t manage.
A breathing exercise will help you to focus on something other than your inner critic, and the more you do this, the easier it will be to move your focus from the mental to the physical.
- Find a comfortable position – either sitting, or lying down on your back – that you can stay in for a few minutes.
- Relax your muscles, and start focusing on your breathing.
- Observe how you breathe in and out – don’t change or force anything, just observe.
- Feel the movements and sensations in your body with each inhalation and exhalation.
- As you breathe in and out, try to make your exhalation longer than your inhalation for a few breaths – then allow your breathing to return to normal.
- Continue doing this for a few minutes.
Focusing completely on something as fundamental, but powerful, as your breath will quickly give you a feeling of greater balance and control. The simple action of breathing out for longer than you breathe in also has a powerful effect on calming your mind. Do this whenever you feel that Imposter Syndrome creep up on you – the more you do it, the more effective it will become.
Changing your mind
The other shift to cultivate is to change what that voice in your mind is saying – and this comes from establishing new habits. This doesn’t happen overnight, but the more you do it, the sooner it will change. Write down some of the achievements you’ve been proud of – how you felt, what you did, and what problems you overcame. Give yourself the credit you deserve for the effort you put in, and repeat this whenever you complete a new project. It doesn’t have to be very detailed – just a few bullet points.
When you’re faced with a difficult situation, and your inner voice starts telling you that you’re overwhelmed, think instead “Mike, this is what being overwhelmed looks like- you know how to control those feelings, you’ve been there before.” Instead of telling yourself you hate conflict, focus on how you’ve solved problems successfully in the past. Look back at your achievement record, and remind yourself what you can do. Soon, your inner voice will start to change its language too – and “inadequate and ill-prepared” will become “ready for challenge and able to meet it”.
You don’t have to live with Imposter Syndrome, and as well as the tips above, I can help with my specially-designed programmes to support you in finding your inner confidence. Contact me today for your free consultation.