Reading time: 7 minutes
Imposter syndrome is estimated to affect up to 82% of the population. So what is it and why can it affect your mental health in such an impactful way?
What is imposter syndrome
It was described by Langford and Clance in 1993 as ‘feelings of insecurity and self-doubt’.
The imposter syndrome is most recognisable through your self-talk. The most common thoughts are ‘I don’t deserve to be here’ or ‘I’m not worthy or good enough’. The feeling of inadequacy drains our energy and motivation and can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety.
First identified as something affecting only women in the workplace, research has shown that it applies to people across the gender spectrum and all ages. What’s also becoming more widely accepted is that it can show up in any area of life, not just work. People can experience it in any activity and even in intimate relationships, and friendships.
The imposter syndrome can feel so persistent and undermining that the quality of health and wellbeing you’d like is compromised. Thoughts and feelings are always information so given the prevalence and impact of this experience, what is the information here? Let’s get curious.
Is it ok to self-talk?
We all do self-talk whether it’s just in our thoughts or whether we say it out loud. Self-talk is pretty much what the words suggest: it’s how we talk to ourselves. You may wonder if it’s ok to do that? The short answer is: yes. We all do it. Trying to not do self-talk is like trying to not think or breathe. We need it. The aim isn’t to stop self-talk, it’s about getting curious and sherlocking what kind of self-talk you are doing and checking if it’s helpful to you.
Know the Bananarama (and Fun Boy Three) song from the ‘80s? ‘It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it’.
Inner critic and Imposter Syndrome
Self-talk is often referenced in terms of having parts of us that each has a different purpose like an inner critic, inner coach and inner child. As the name suggests, the inner critic’s purpose is to be critical as it does with imposter syndrome. For a long time the focus has been on silencing your inner critic or getting rid of it but here at The Helpful Clinic we believe that this isn’t actually helpful and fortunately, the consensus seems to be shifting to ‘working with your inner critic’.
Why is it important to work with your inner critic and not silence it?
If you’ve read our blog Let it go versus Let it be you’ll know that more often than not ‘silencing’ or ‘letting go’ is more likely to be the result of avoidance or denial than actually dealing with the reality of what is going on.
When you do this, you may have temporary respite but sooner or later it’ll come back and often hit you even harder because it’s been left unattended. By sherlocking and getting curious you’re able to address the clues and causes of what drives your inner critic and the thoughts and feelings of the imposter syndrome.
What is the information in the imposter syndrome?
The imposter syndrome has three main aspects: beliefs, skills and social context. Let’s look at each in turn:
Your beliefs shape how you perceive everything, including yourself. The purpose of your beliefs is to tell you what’s safe, unsafe, what’s good, bad etc. You then filter all information through the prism of this belief. If you believe that you are not good enough, you will find references that support this belief and regardless of what others tell you, you won’t believe them. Whether you ‘inherited’ this belief from your family or friends or whether you picked it up along the way, it’s helpful to identify what it is and how it shows up for you.
‘I’m not good enough’ is a thought pattern that often shows up here. More often than not, it’s about not being good enough at something, like spreadsheets, relationships or public speaking, it’s about skills. This practical aspect of imposter syndrome is often overlooked. Your skills affect how good you are at something. If you’ve not got the skills to do something you won’t be very good at it. If you need to up your skills, that’s information that you can act on. If you’re out of practice, you need to do some training. If you’ve already got the skills but are struggling to recognise your level of competence, write down what you know how to do so you can see it listed outside of your head.
This matters. If you’re in any kind of minority, whether gender, race, religion, education or even aspects like sports or parenthood, you’re navigating a difference. Any feeling of difference will amplify your imposter syndrome for two reasons. Firstly, you’re not seeing role models and allies that you can relate to. Secondly, the people in the ‘majority’ may struggle to relate to you or value what you bring. Both aspects relate to your social needs where a sense of belonging strengthens our feelings of safety and acceptance. You can read more about the importance of the social context here.
Dealing with imposter syndrome
The key technique in First Aid for Feelings is the ABC, which stands for Awareness – Breath and body – Choice (this is the same mnemonic as in medical first aid which stands for Airway – Breathing – Circulation). The reason why it starts with Awareness is because until you become aware of it, you can’t do anything about it.
Start by identifying what lets you know you’re experiencing imposter syndrome. What are you thinking, feeling or doing? Is it the thought like ‘I’m not good enough’ or the feeling like lack of motivation or is it something you’re doing like reaching for chocolate or coffee? Learning to spot your key indicators will help you address this quicker and easier each time.
Breath and body
This is about making your in-breath shorter than your out-breath. You can use the 3/5/7 technique where you breathe in to the count of five, then breathe out to the count of seven and do this three times. You then move your body by for example shuffling your shoulders and wiggling your toes. This will help change your biochemistry and strengthen your ability to think clearly.
Now that you have the awareness of what’s going on and you’ve used your breath and body to strengthen your ability to think, it’s time to do some sherlocking. Remember the three aspects: beliefs, skills and social context. We’ve put together 3 steps to help you make a more helpful choice.
CHOICE – STEP 1
Write down some of the thoughts you are thinking because they show you your beliefs. Then ask yourself is [this belief] helpful? What might be more helpful instead? What would you like to believe instead? It can be helpful as well to write down what is good enough, get specific. We’re often so focused on the ‘not good enough’ that we don’t identify what is actually good enough.
CHOICE – STEP 2
List the skills needed for the task or the situation. Then assess the skills needed on a spectrum of 0-10 where 0 is not a skill whatsoever and 10 is mastery. Then look at your own skills, do you have the skills needed? This is rarely a yes or no answer so get a sense of how you score on the 0-10 scale you created. Where is good enough? How far or close are you to that, really?
CHOICE – STEP 3
Write a description of the social context. Are there any areas of difference? In addition to the obvious ones like gender and race, what about the more subtle ones like are you the only parent? Or your life, for whatever reason, doesn’t align with cultural expectations in terms of education, relationships, career etc. Do you have allies and role models that you can relate to who can help you address the barriers due to your difference?
Inner coach and self-compassion
Most of us have an overdeveloped inner critic and an underdeveloped inner coach. An inner coach is the part of you that is able to be more compassionate and kind to you. This is the part of you that can help you go through steps 1-3 and feel a sense of trust and care.
It may not feel obvious but trust and care skills to be learnt and then practised. Because we’ve not learnt how to do this, it can be hard to learn this by ourselves so connect with someone you trust enough to help you with this sherlocking. Because imposter syndrome is common, it’s likely that you’ll both benefit from it.
Remember, feelings are information and it’s more helpful to be curious than critical. If you don’t sherlock what’s fuelling the imposter syndrome you won’t be able to mine the information it contains and take action.
Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor
PLEASE NOTE THAT THOR A RAIN IS NOT A MEDICAL DOCTOR. THE HELPFUL CLINIC IS NOT A MEDICAL CLINIC AND THIS IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE. FOR MORE INFORMATION CLICK HERE