Leadership

Finding a cure for imposter syndrome

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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 cultivate authentic presence

“Happy International Yoga Day!”

This is the greeting I received when I arrived at my local yoga studio yesterday morning. While I was tempted to roll my eyes at the relentless proliferation of national and international days of significance (although I did enjoy International Hug Your Cat Day a few weeks ago), the occasion did give me pause for thought as I stretched into my first downward-facing dog at around 7.35am.

Yoga continues to surprise me with its many benefits. Like many things in life, it’s like peeling an onion. Beyond the initial motivation of increasing my strength and flexibility, I’ve discovered a deeper purpose for my practice: cultivating presence.

What is presence?

In the workplace, people usually think of 'presence' as one of those elusive characteristics (like charisma) that helps you to 'win friends and influence people'. We might associate it with a person's height, or stature, or role - or perhaps it's due to their extraverted personality. But look around you, and I'm sure you can think of many people who have presence who don't possess these qualities.

That's because presence is both a quality and a skill.

As I see it, presence is the ability to connect with others and influence them at an unconscious level – and it originates in a very conscious practice of being present.

For a leader to have impact, presence is essential. But it’s not just useful in leadership. Presence is valuable in just about any relationship – with family, friends, clients, and particularly with children. You could say that presence is the glue that binds people together.

The good news is that, because it's a skill, presence can be developed. It may come naturally to some people, but ultimately it’s a choice that becomes a habit.

So how can you increase your presence without getting on a yoga mat?

Based on my yoga experience, I've identified four levels of presence –physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Whether you choose to develop it ‘on the mat’ or ‘off the mat’, here’s how you can increase your presence in your own life.

1. Physical presence

A basic requirement of yoga practice is that you are physically present. You can’t dial in – you need to be there.

But it’s more than that. Whether it’s maintaining your balance in tree pose or resisting the temptation to fall asleep in corpse pose, the practice of yoga extends a standing invitation to be more fully in your body.

What does this mean?

As a starting point, it means being aware of any sensations in your body – any tension, any aches or pains, any spaciousness, anything at all.

The quickest and easiest way to activate your physical presence is to become aware of your breathing. In yoga, we’re often asked to simply notice the breath – not to change it, but to observe it. Similarly, in life, physical presence means simply noticing how we are in our bodies – not to change it, but to observe it.

Why don’t you try it now?

Take a moment to notice your breath – even just for 30 seconds.

If you have a bit more time, you could do a mental scan of your body. Start with your toes and work your way up to the crown of your head. Don’t judge; just notice.

What did you notice?

You can also practise physical presence in daily activities - e.g. mindful eating - or when socialising, playing with children, or engaging in hobbies.

2. Mental presence

Hands up if you’re an overthinker? (Me too.)

Overthinking suggests a lack of mental presence, which can be a real killer when it comes to our overall presence.

There are two main reasons for this:

  1. Most people (and especially overthinkers) tend to have a negativity bias when it comes to their thinking. Our mind is programmed to constantly scan the horizon for threats – and if our physical safety is under control, then we’ll look for other kinds of threats, whether economic, social, emotional, and so on. Negative thinking tends to lead to moods like anxiety and resentment that then have a negative impact on our emotional presence.

  2. It is virtually impossible to listen to two people at once and really absorb anything from either conversation. If we’re caught up in our own mental chatter, how can we possibly listen to someone else?

The antidote?

In yoga, we begin to cultivate mental presence by observing the breath. To focus fully on the breath is, by default, to detach our focus from other thoughts. But this isn’t sustainable for most people. Eventually, a thought will arise, and we will probably follow it. So that’s why many mindfulness practices invite us to simply notice our thoughts and let them go, rather than try to resist thinking altogether.

In day-to-day interactions, no one is expecting you to have the mindfulness of a Zen master. But how about taking a moment to focus your mind at the beginning of each interaction?

One way of doing this is to ‘clear your cache’. Our short-term memory is limited, so trying to hold on to too many thoughts is an exercise in futility. It can be helpful to write down anything that you need to remember or come back to. Some say that 95% of our thoughts are repetitive, so you can probably afford to let some of them go!

Take a few moments throughout the day to check in with yourself.

  • What are you thinking?

  • Is this thought helping you or hindering you?

  • If it’s not helping you, could you let it go?

If you want to be really systematic about it, you could adopt one of the practices that my colleagues from Polykala use in their workshops. They get participants to record their thoughts on sticky notes throughout the workshop (which could be over two or three days) and later reflect on any common themes. Onerous, but enlightening!

3. Emotional presence

Emotional presence is two-fold:

  1. It’s about being aware of our own moods and emotions, and the impact they may be having on our thinking and behaviour. This aspect of presence requires a foundation of physical presence, as emotions are experienced primarily in the body.

  2. It’s about being aware of others’ emotions and using this awareness to connect with them – using empathy.

Professor Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, has studied the effects of damage to the limbic system (the part of the brain that generates emotions) and has found that it makes decision-making virtually impossible. Patients without a functioning limbic system can weigh the pros and cons of a decision using the neocortex (the rational brain), but they cannot actually decide – even on something as simple as chicken or fish! (Or maybe they were vegetarian?)

Being more emotionally present with ourselves enables us to be aware of what might be motivating our own behaviour, especially when that behaviour might be at odds with our ultimate purpose. As leaders and influencers, emotional presence also enables us to connect with those around us and engage them in a way that is more powerful than using logic or reason alone.

Try this: How are you feeling now?

Emotions can be complex and nuanced, and it not uncommon for people to have trouble naming them. So perhaps begin by identifying where you’re feeling any sensations – in your head, in your throat, in your chest, in your stomach, or elsewhere.

What impact might your emotions be having on you – on your thoughts, decisions and behaviour?

For bonus points: In your next conversation, try to identify how the other person might be feeling. What emotional space do they seem to be in? And how is it affecting their interaction with you?

4. Spiritual presence

The concept of spirituality means different things to people, and for some it doesn’t resonate at all. Let’s just say that spirituality is about having a sense of purpose – something that goes beyond your physical, mental and emotional existence; something that connects all of life and gives it meaning, whether it comes from a divine source or otherwise.

One of the key functions of a leader is the ability to articulate a clear and compelling purpose – in other words, a vision. And to be effective, a leader needs to embody the purpose – to be present to it as much as humanly possible – and inspire a corresponding sense of purpose in others (which is grounded in empathy).

From time to time, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is your purpose?

  • Why are you doing what you’re doing?

  • What impact do you want to have?

Perhaps this sounds a bit too much like hard work...

As the saying goes, being present is “simple, but not easy”. But the rewards are tremendous, in terms of the quality of your relationships and your ability to make an impact in your world. And, as you become more familiar with feeling of presence within you, you may be able to access it within a few minutes.

To summarise:

  1. Connect to your breath (physical presence)

  2. Be mindful of your thoughts and your listening (mental presence)

  3. Acknowledge your own feelings and have empathy for others (emotional presence)

  4. Act on purpose, with conscious intent (spiritual presence)

Ultimately, presence is a gift (if you’ll pardon the pun). When we show up fully – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually – it is a sign of respect, to ourselves and others. And we also create a space for others to do the same.

“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” (Nelson Mandela)

*Ontology is the study of our ‘way of being’, which loosely corresponds to ‘mindset’ and encompasses the domains of Language, Moods/Emotions, and Body. Ontology draws upon the disciplines of linguistics, biology and philosophy to create a unique and exceptionally powerful framework for exploring personal and organisational change.

Hope is a choice: choose hope

When's the last time you cried at work?

For some, this question will trigger mild horror. (Cry at work? Are you kidding me?!) For others, it will trigger an association of being under extreme pressure - unrelenting deadlines, demanding clients, a difficult relationship with a manager or colleague, or even personal issues infusing their way into the workplace. For others still, crying at work is a regular occurrence (please talk to someone if this is the case).

But what if your tears were joyful?

Some years ago, I read an article entitled How to Discover Your Life Purpose in About 20 Minutes. The author's instructions were simple: just write down what you think your life purpose is and keep repeating that step until you cry. Whatever makes you cry is your life purpose.

Now the stoic among you might not agree with this. But I recently witnessed a group of young Indonesian students demonstrate the power of this process.

I was running a Leadership Skills workshop in Sydney for a group of 24 university students from all over Indonesia. The trip and the training were sponsored by Indonesia’s largest telco provider, Telkomsel, and it's probably fair to say that the students were from modest backgrounds.

After a somewhat chaotic two days building some foundational skills in self-awareness, communication and relationship-building, we had made it to the final half-day. Given that the students were fairly worn out after two days of training and various tourist activities, I decided to start the final day with something relatively simple: purpose. The students were asked to write and/or draw their purpose on a sheet of butcher’s paper.

What followed was one of the most inspiring and emotional sessions I’ve ever experienced as a facilitator. As each of the students shared their purpose with the group, it didn’t take long for the tears to start flowing as the students tapped into the raw energy of their hopes, their dreams and the impact they want to have in the world. Some of the students shared their personal circumstances – broken homes, financial hardship and so on – and how these circumstances were motivating them to further their education and achieve professional success. Invariably, this was so they could help support their families and communities.

 

We heard from a law student who wants to reduce political corruption in Indonesia. We heard from a health sciences student who wants to win a scholarship to Harvard or Oxford in order to become a professor and "make people healthy". We heard from an English literature student who wants to influence people through her writing. There was an aspiring rockstar, a few photographers, and plenty of "independent businesswomen" (which I found especially exciting!).

About half of the students shared their purpose in the Bahasa Indonesian language – and, even though I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, it was impossible not to feel what they meant.

This is what I learned:

  1. The power of stating your purpose: I’ve long believed that purpose gives us energy – and not just the manufactured motivation that comes from using our willpower, but the undeniable, inexhaustible inspiration only a genuine sense of purpose can provide. Linguistically*, a statement of purpose is also a declaration - a statement that generates a new or changed reality; a statement about how things will be from now on. Leaders set the course by using declarations frequently and following through with action so that the integrity of the declaration is maintained.
  2. The power of emotion: Sadly, in some respects, the students will probably forget much of what they learned during the first two days of the training. But they won’t easily forget what happened in the final session due to the power of the emotion they experienced and shared with each other. Educators have long known that emotions create longer-lasting memories, and leaders can also use emotion to generate energy and commitment to challenging goals.
  3. The power of hope: Most significantly, I was inspired by the amount of hope these young people hold for the future. Some would say that it’s been a difficult year with some notable political upheaval, the deaths of some iconic individuals, and no doubt our own personal challenges in work, family, and life generally. Too often, it’s easy to dwell in negativity, to ignore possibilities and resign ourselves to the status quo. It’s often easier to complain than to take action. But there’s always hope. Ultimately, a leader's currency is the ability to inspire hope in his or her followers.

Life is a series of choices. While I don’t necessarily believe that there are winners and losers in life, I do believe that the people who live more fruitful lives are the ones who choose hope. As leaders, our role is to tap into the possibility of our own purpose and our emotional connection to that purpose, and to cultivate hope in our hearts. And if you also lead a team, then your responsibility is to enable others to do the same.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul / And sings the tune without the words / And never stops - at all.” (Emily Dickinson)

*based on the field of ontological coaching

How to kick your addiction to certainty

Hi, my name is Chyonne, and I’m an addict.

I’m not talking about drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. Not gambling or video games either. Not even online shopping.

My addiction is far more insidious: I’m addicted to certainty. And I suspect that I’m not the only one.

Why is this a problem?

It has been said that humans perceive change as linear – we see it as occurring at a constant rate over time. But, as futurist Ray Kurzweil points out, technology is bringing about changes at an exponential rate. Kurzweil calls it the Law of Accelerating Returns. To put it simply, we are living in a time of unprecedented change, which brings with it unprecedented uncertainty.

The problem is that most people don’t like uncertainty. Our survival instincts are based on knowing whether the long cylindrical object ahead of us is a dead tree branch or a snake. And if we’re not sure, then let’s assume it’s a snake. Certainty can save lives.

Now that's fine if you’re dealing with a life or death situation. But when the ‘threat’ arises out of an organisational or personal change, the effects of creating certainty prematurely can be disastrous.

Consider these examples:

  • A manager, under pressure to recruit for a critical role in her team, ignores her misgivings and recruits a candidate that she considers ‘coachable’, only to find that the candidate is a poor cultural fit and doesn’t make it past the probation period.
  • A colleague blurts out an ill-considered answer to a question and spends the next five minutes backtracking, because he's too uncomfortable with the silence to pause and think before speaking.
  • A person routinely sabotages her romantic prospects by insisting on knowing whether an evening out is ‘a date’ or ‘just friends’, creating unnecessary pressure that forces the conclusion towards the latter. (To be fair, this was over 10 years ago!)

These situations (and many more like them) occur because we are addicted to certainty.

Why do we crave certainty?

From a psychological perspective, uncertainty exerts an enormous amount of pressure on the human psyche and tends to trigger a fear-based response.

The obvious way to counteract this is to move towards certainty, in whatever form it might take. In doing this, the risk (as illustrated above) is that we may grasp for answers and solutions prematurely, without allowing events (and our full understanding of them) to unfold naturally. It’s a bit like “better the devil you know than the angel you don’t”. We then justify the disappointment of an unsatisfactory outcome with the marginal relief provided by the certainty.

How can we learn to embrace uncertainty?

Over the past five years, I've been training myself to 'embrace uncertainty'. I've had to, because I love change. And by far the most powerful technique I've learned for dealing with uncertainty is to cultivate curiosity. I say "cultivate" because I believe that humans are naturally curious, although many of us are trained out of it through our formal education.

The field of ontological coaching* (which focuses on a person’s ‘way of being’ as the key driver of their success) proposes that curiosity is a natural consequence of accepting uncertainty – that is, when we accept that we don’t know the outcome of a particular situation, this naturally leads us to feel curious. On the other hand, when we oppose uncertainty, this leads us to experience anxiety or some variation of it (e.g. fear, worry, stress).

The reason that curiosity is so powerful is that it opens us up – physiologically and psychologically – to see the possibilities around us. Young children are the perfect example of this. Ever notice how much they notice?

Anxiety, on the other hand, literally causes the brain to narrow its focus. During periods of great change, anxiety can cost us dearly by causing us to miss opportunities that could lead to a better long-term outcome.

Try this simple experiment to experience the difference for yourself:

Go for a short walk at lunchtime and consciously shift your mindset between anxiety and curiosity. To generate anxiety, focus on a problem in your life that you don’t yet know how to solve. Then shift to curiosity by saying to yourself, “I wonder what will happen next.”

What do you notice?

How can we build the curiosity habit?

An essential part of cultivating curiosity is to have faith. I’m not necessarily talking about the religious form of faith, although I do wonder whether people who believe in a higher power have a leg up on this one. Faith could be faith in a God (of your choosing) or the Universe, or it could simply be faith in yourself – faith that you can handle whatever happens.

Beyond this, we can also learn to value curiosity in others. While it’s tempting to respect a leader or colleague who demonstrates certainty, the world has become too complex for that. A person who is willing to be openly curious, consider a situation from different perspectives and be flexible in taking action is more likely to generate a better outcome than one who jumps to conclusions for the sake of certainty.

Wherever there is uncertainty in your life, I hope that these insights will help you to navigate it more effectively – and even learn to enjoy it!

"Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit." (E. E. Cummings)

*The ideas in this post are based on the work of Alan Sieler of the Newfield Institute, which promotes and teaches ontological coaching in Australia and overseas.