Finding a cure for imposter syndrome


In every workplace, there lurks a silent killer.

It may not be life-threatening, but it may be killing your productivity, your wellbeing and your confidence.

It affects about 70% of people – usually high achievers – and consumes significant amounts of mental and emotional energy. While not a disorder in the clinical sense, it is associated with anxiety and depression. And, because it seems to disproportionately affect women, there's a good chance that it's contributing to the woeful lack of women in leadership roles.

I’m talking about “imposter syndrome”.

What is imposter syndrome?

If you haven't heard of imposter syndrome before, you could be forgiven for thinking that it's something that happens when a person of dubious intent hacks into your computer and steals your credit card details. But imposter syndrome isn't identity theft (although it can feel a bit like your true identity has been hijacked).

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that is usually described as the experience of feeling like an intellectual fraud, despite all evidence to the contrary (e.g. qualifications, achievements and recognition). For some, it is accompanied by an irrational fear of being "found out".

Since when is this a "thing"?

The condition itself isn't anything new. It was identified as "imposter phenomenon" almost 40 years ago by two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, after they noticed a pattern in the thinking and behaviour of 150 highly successful women that they worked with over a five-year period.

Its resurgence in the organisational context seems to be associated with the focus on women in leadership.

You’ve heard the statistics. As I write this:

Studies suggest that imposter syndrome occurs more frequently - and more intensely - in women than it does in men (although this could be because men are less likely to talk about it). And the further women move up the corporate ladder, the more likely they are to question themselves and their abilities.

Having spent most of my career working in and around the construction industry, I’m well-accustomed to being the only female in meetings and feeling like I don’t belong (or, sadly, feeling “privileged” to be there). Throw imposter syndrome into the mix and it's no wonder there are so few females in key leadership roles.

That said, this is not about gender.

But hang on... I'm not a fraud!

I get it. The word "fraud" doesn't resonate with me either.

It seems to me that imposter syndrome is suffering from a marketing problem. Even in 2017, I've talked to several people who still hadn’t heard of it. And, of those who had, only a few were willing to admit that they’d experienced it. I mean, who wants to admit to feeling like a fraud?

But when you look at the common symptoms, it really resonates. We're talking "generalised anxiety, lack of self-confidence, depression, and frustration related to the inability to meet self-imposed standards of achievement". Sound familiar, anyone?

What I've realised though is that the reason I don't identify with the textbook experience of feeling like a fraud is that I've gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid it.

For example, have you ever:

  1. felt an almost compulsive need to work harder, put in longer hours and contribute more to prove that you're pulling your weight? (Nothing's ever "good enough".)
  2. downplayed your accomplishments because you’re focusing on how imperfect it felt on the inside rather than how impressive it looked to others from the outside? (Not surprisingly, imposter syndrome has been linked to perfectionism.)
  3. proactively declared your shortcomings so that no one could call you out on them later? (“I told you I was not as good as you thought I was!”)
  4. held yourself back from opportunities, and made excuses about not being qualified enough or skilled enough or experienced enough, because you don’t feel like you deserve them ("I'll ask for that promotion or pay rise when I achieve X...")?
  5. doubted the judgment of people who praised you? (Or even questioned their sincerity?)

It’s exhausting.

And the more you achieve, the worse it seems to get. It's a vicious cycle - feel inadequate, work hard, achieve things, feel even more inadequate. Rinse and repeat.

While a bit of self-doubt can provide a valuable check and balance against the excesses of vanity and ego, the problem with imposter syndrome is that most people get caught up in it and believe that it's true. It's a bit like being shrouded in Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak without even knowing that it’s there, let alone how to take it off.

So what's the good news?

The good news is that imposter syndrome doesn't have to be a way of life. Once you become aware of it, you've taken a huge step towards the "cure".

Personally, I've found it useful to think of imposter syndrome as a "way of being".

Your "way of being" is essentially your mindset. By becoming more mindful of your "way of being", you have the opportunity to notice when imposter syndrome is showing up in your life - e.g. in high-stakes meetings, presentations or other circumstances - and the possibility of choosing a different way of being that is more empowering for you.

What does this mean in practice?

The three domains of our "way of being" - Language, Moods and Body

The three domains of our "way of being" - Language, Moods and Body

Google "imposter syndrome", and you'll find numerous articles listing strategies for dealing with it. No doubt, many of those strategies are helpful, but they are almost entirely focused on one aspect of our way of being - our thoughts (Language).

The thing is - we are not just our thoughts. Our thoughts are connected to our moods and physiology, and these three elements interact and reinforce each other to create our "way of being" in the way that sleep, nutrition and exercise contribute to our physical health.

So a purely cognitive approach to imposter syndrome is a bit like giving a diabetic a list of foods to avoid but not telling them about the need for exercise.

A more holistic approach would encompass our whole “way of being”.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Language: Notice (and shift) your self-talk

Imposter syndrome is largely embedded in the conversations we have with ourselves - in other words, the negative self-talk that we engage in, largely out of habit.

By becoming more aware of your own internal narrative, you have the opportunity to change it to something more constructive.

For example, a person who is experiencing textbook imposter syndrome might be telling themselves, “Who are you to be applying for this role? You don’t have enough experience. They’re going to laugh at you!” On the other hand, a more supportive dialogue might be: “Good on you for challenging yourself! How can you best prepare yourself for the process?”

Next time you notice those old familiar feelings of self-doubt, ask yourself this: "What would I say to encourage someone I was coaching or mentoring?"

For more: How to break up with your inner critic

2. Moods: Cultivate curiosity

As we advance in our careers, the pressure to demonstrate our competence can sometimes come at the expense of our openness to learning. This can lead to a mood of anxiety, which occurs when we are attached to knowing the outcome of a situation (i.e. getting it “right”) and refuse to tolerate the uncertainty of not knowing.

For example: What if someone asks me a question I can't answer? Will they question my competence?

The antidote to anxiety is curiosity.

You can cultivate curiosity by adopting a learning or growth mindset. Being willing to be a learner requires humility and the courage to say "I don't know", but the payoff is the freedom to discover new ways of looking at old problems.

For more: How to kick your addiction to certainty

3. Physiology: Breathe!

A powerful but often neglected aspect of our "way of being" is our physiology. My working theory is that imposter syndrome occurs when you know intellectually that you are successful, but your body hasn't quite caught up.

By making subtle shifts in our posture and breathing, we can generate significant changes in our thinking and moods.

A simple experiment: Think of a tough problem you've been struggling to solve. Really focus on it and notice where you feel it in your body. Now go for a short walk (even just 5-10 minutes) and focus on breathing into that space. What do you notice? What new insights arise?

For those who have developed strongly engrained habits of thought and/or moods, a physiological approach can be a refreshing alternative to more cognitively-based approaches. People have been telling me to "get out of my head" for years - but until I discovered how to be in my body, I didn't know where else to go!

For more: How to cultivate authentic presence

Where to from here?

If this article resonated with you, I can help.

I'm not a psychologist and I don't have all of the answers, but I have accumulated a substantial toolkit of strategies and techniques that can help you to manage your self-doubt and improve your productivity, wellbeing and confidence.

Some of these strategies are better experienced in person than explained on paper, so I’ve developed a workshop that will equip you with a range of approaches towards curing imposter syndrome in whatever form you might be experiencing it.

The workshop will be held in Melbourne on Wednesday 1 November 2017 and is open to all, regardless of gender. The only prerequisites are an open mind, a courageous heart and a sense of humour! Further details will be released soon, so please get in touch if you'd like to learn more.

By applying these strategies in my own life, I am learning to manage my experience of my self-doubt so that it comes in waves rather than floods, punctuated by periods of joyful creativity, productivity and optimism that are becoming longer and more stable.

And so can you.

How to break up with your inner critic


I recently ended a long-term relationship – with my inner critic.

We’ve had some good times together. During law school, my inner critic kept me focused. It guided my career decisions and made sure I did the things I needed to do to earn the approval of my family and colleagues. It cheered me on in my pursuit of achievement. It has been an important source of motivation for me, both personally and professionally.

And we’ve got a long history. Growing up, my inner critic helped me to navigate dangerous and uncertain territory. My inner critic is the one who kept score of all the things and people that had hurt me, so it could steer me away from them (and things like them) in the future. I probably wouldn’t have made it this far without it.

But every healthy relationship needs boundaries – and that’s where the inner critic tends to go awry. What begins as reassuring encouragement turns into relentless perfectionism – nothing is ever good enough. And what starts out as a healthy apprehension of the unknown can become a debilitating denial of possibility.

Like the ‘frenemy’ (the so-called friend who has an uncanny knack for bringing you down), the inner critic’s voice is mired in pessimism. In its attempt to keep us safe, it shuts out the possibility of joy and love.

The problem is that the inner critic is primarily driven by fear, including:

  • the fear of failure, which drives us to invest in perfectionism and stops us from taking risks;
  • the fear of not belonging, which leads us to hide our uniqueness in order to fit in; and
  • the fear of not being good enough, which causes us to settle for less than we deserve.

I remember the day I really started to realise that this relationship had run its course. I had just run a workshop for a client that, by most accounts, had gone extremely well. But my inner critic didn’t think so. My inner critic was focused on troubleshooting all of the parts of the workshop that hadn’t met its standards. “What happened there? You didn’t explain that activity properly.” “You shouldn’t have spent so much time on that section.” “That bit needs more work.” (I can feel my chest tighten as I write this.)

Ultimately, the penny dropped. My inner critic would never be satisfied. Nothing I could do would ever be good enough. And, in the meantime, it was robbing me of the joy of appreciating all that I had achieved. The client loved the workshop! Why couldn’t I enjoy this?

And so: “We. Need. To. Break. Up.”

(I threw in a gratuitous “It’s not you, it’s me” for good measure. My inner critic does have a sense of humour, after all!)

The break-up took some time (and it’s ongoing). When you’ve been in a relationship for that long, it can take a while to end it.

Along the way, I learned some valuable lessons about how to manage the break-up process:

1.    Learn to hear your inner critic

This may go without saying, but the hardest part about breaking up with your inner critic is recognising that it exists. For many people, our inner critic is so ingrained that we don’t even notice it anymore. It’s like we’re watching a movie that begins with a narrator speaking. At first, we hear the narrator’s voice and recognise that it is separate to what’s unfolding on the screen. But at some point the narrator’s voice gives way to the drama, and we lose ourselves in it.

One way to isolate the voice of the inner critic is by journalling. Write down what’s going on in your mind and read it back to yourself. What are you saying to yourself? Would you say those things to someone you loved?

I’ve also realised that my inner critic doesn’t always speak to me directly. Sometimes it projects itself into internal conversations that I’m having with other people – my ‘peanut gallery’, if you like, made up of people whose approval I've been seeking. Becoming aware of this is a huge step towards the next stage…

2.    Recognise that the relationship is no longer serving you

I used to take a certain sort of pride in being a perfectionist. To me, it meant that I had high standards, as well as the strength and determination to strive for them. And, to be fair, this worked for me for many years. But it came at the expense of my happiness. And now, as I explore the opportunities and freedom afforded by what I call a ‘post-conventional career’, my inner critic has become a liability to the extent that it is slowing me down from taking creative risks.

3.    Develop a new relationship to replace the old one

Let’s be honest: it can often be easier to end one relationship when there is another on the horizon. In this case, it was the possibility of developing a relationship with my ‘inner coach’ that enabled me to recognise the limitations of the existing relationship with my inner critic.

But new relationships take time to develop. I am still learning to trust my inner coach. I don’t want to lose the excitement of ambition, but I do want to approach my goals in a more relaxed and flexible manner. It's important for me to be patient as I establish these new parameters with my inner coach.

4.    Honour your inner critic

Once you’ve created some distance between yourself and your inner critic, it’s worth acknowledging some of the benefits that the relationship might have brought you. Like most relationships, it wasn’t all bad.

Recognise and thank your inner critic for their counsel. It always had your best interests at heart, even if it was limited in its appreciation of what those interests are.

5.    Expect to see your inner critic ‘around the traps’

Just because you’ve declared the relationship over doesn’t mean you won’t hear from your inner critic again. Like an ex-boyfriend sending you random text messages to remind you that they are still breathing, your inner critic may recede into the shadows but probably won’t disappear completely.

You might need to be careful when you’re in situations where you are likely to encounter them – for example, when you’re about to give an important presentation, when you’re lying in bed trying to get to sleep, etc.

Simply notice the conversation and choose to disconnect it – and perhaps begin a conversation with your inner coach instead. (“Sorry, inner critic, I’m getting a call on the other line.” *click*)

6.    Give yourself time to heal

The inner critic lives in our thoughts, so make it easier on yourself by doing things that don’t involve a high level of intellectual activity. For some, meditation is the most direct and obvious way to disengage from thinking, but it doesn’t have to be so deliberate.

Just do anything where you can feel completely engaged and ‘in the moment’ – what is often described as ‘flow’. For me, it’s yoga. For others, it’s playing with their children, hiking, playing or watching sport, playing or listening to music. Anything where you can engage your senses without engaging your analytical mind (or perhaps by occupying your analytical mind with something else) can give you the space you need to recover.

7.    Develop a new relationship with your inner critic

Once you have some healthy boundaries in place (in other words, the ability to end unconstructive internal conversations), you can still be friends with your inner critic. Like the exceedingly honest friend who is the master of ‘tough love’, your inner critic knows you well and can help you to identify what might go wrong with a proposed business venture or creative project.

But be wary of its tendency to exaggerate the risks and catastrophise about failure. If this starts happening, simply smile (inwardly, otherwise you might seem crazy) and say: “Thanks for your advice. I’ll take that on board.” And then re-engage with your inner coach to determine how best to integrate that advice into your plan.

All relationships are based on conversations. The inner critic is simply the personification of a type of conversation that many high achievers are prone to indulge in (sometimes to the point of masochism). By becoming more observant of our internal conversations, we can recognise those that do not serve us and ‘switch tracks’ to ones that are more constructive.

So is it all worth it?

For some of you, this process might seem like a lot of work – and it is. When we’re in a dysfunctional relationship, it’s tempting to wonder whether the “grass is greener” in a different relationship and conclude that it’s “better the devil you know”. And, like all relationships, this is a question that only you can answer. But make sure you’re asking the right question to begin with. As I approach the end of my fourth decade, the question of how I want to live the rest of my life is looming large. And this has provided me with the added motivation to sort myself out internally – to develop a more constructive relationship with myself that is based on love, compassion and trust.

This is all neatly summed up in a realisation I had during a recent conversation with a mentor. In reflecting on the changes I’d experienced over the past 12 months, I said:

“I used to think I was a confident person, but my confidence was based on my achievements – on the strength of my CV. Now, I feel a new kind of confidence emerging. It’s a confidence based on pure love.”

[Note: I’d like to thank my inner coach for the support and encouragement to write this piece and share what has been an intensely personal journey for me. And I’d also like to thank my inner critic for helping me to edit this into something that is reasonably digestible. My inner critic is also urging me to mention that this post is not intended as professional advice. For professional advice on any mental health issues, please contact a medical doctor or psychologist, or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.]