Imposter Syndrome is that feeling of being slightly out of one’s depth, not really belonging. It’s the fear that other people at work believe you don’t know what you are doing or are faking it.
We have probably all had the “internal experience of intellectual phoniness” which was first coined in an original article by Dr Pauline Clance (1978). She suggested that this phenomenon was particularly prevalent and intense amongst a select sample of high-achieving women. Despite being highly respected in their field and earning praise and professional recognition from colleagues, these women did not always experience an internal sense of their own success. In more recent studies by Clance, Impostor Syndrome has been recognised as affecting both men and women equally.
There are various ways of interpreting Impostor Syndrome and tackling it effectively. Here is one of them:
In each of us, we have two sides (hemispheres) to our brain, as is well-known. The processing capacity of each hemisphere is very different. The left is involved in enabling us to use language to describe experience and information, whereas the right brain tends to remember episodically and implicitly.
When we experience pain (emotional or physical) or upset, fear, abandonment, anger or neglect, it tends to be stored in the memory of the righthand hemisphere. Our fortitude – the remarkable ability we have to keep going in day-to-day life in spite of feeling low, tired, undervalued, disappointed, frustrated etc – comes from the lefthand side of our brain. Yet, when the brain is under stress, this compartmentalisation has a cost. It can lead to feelings of fraudulence, or pretending, or ‘faking it’. Under stress, our consciousness is surviving and ‘keeps on keeping on’ – while our emotional state is struggling. If one part of our brain is struggling but this is not recognised by another part, the spirit to keep going is suddenly undermined. This feeling of falseness persists, thus fortitude is required and at this point the lefthand side digs in. We continue to keep going – doggedly putting one foot in front of the other, in order to avoid feeling the pain, which only exacerbates the feeling of “this is not me”.
As brain-based research deepened in the early 2000s a number of findings affirmed that the presence of two distinct hemispheres is significant in the way we process upsetting, emotional experience in childhood. Most children are right-brain dominant as they grow up. Late in childhood there is a sudden spurt of growth in the left-brain associated with our development of language and then there is further growth again at adolescence. Thus, in the early years of childhood, right brain experience is relatively independent of left brain experience. Our left brain tends to grab hold of the gist of a situation, the narrative after the event and make guesses about what fits in with this storyline, and throw away anything that does not fit. The right brain remembers more internally and somatically – stored in physical memories – but lacks the words to describe it.
This is relevant to the experience of feeling like an impostor. Our left brain is functioning well, getting on with life, job, family, day-to-day tasks. Yet our voice-less and emotion-based right brain is alerting us to feelings of self-doubt, unfairness, shame or confusion. Often these feelings may stem from childhood experiences – when we were too young to know ho to manage our feelings or express our needs. We can feel like impostors when we ignore information from our emotions and thoughts. But this feeling is simply our right brain trying to communicate with us.
A common but naively simple (or simply naive) way of coping suggests we should “fake it until you make it”, or “feel the fear and do it anyway”, or even “just do it” etc. Although these are catchy, easily memorable phrases they do not even touch a way of dealing with the real underlying difficulty. These catchphrases actually aggravate the process in which emotions, gut feelings and instincts are suppressed.
Instead of quick-fix phrases, here are 5 steps to authentically deal with the experience of feeling like an impostor:
- Notice the physical signals and accept them as coming from a part of the brain which at some point in the past felt inadequate, uncertain, unclear.
- Become curious, rather than reactive, about these signals. This will help you to develop new responses and build the capacity to self-regulate and ‘be here now’.
- Manage, with compassion and generosity, the voices that speak through your reactions. For example, you might say to yourself “of course you are feeling out of your depth, but think about all of those times where you have faced this and survived”
- Take that uncomfortable, anxious, tense, doubtful part of your mind ‘under your wing’. Let it know that we hear it, we understand it, and we will hold it. However we will not over-identify with it, because that small part of us, is not the whole. It needs to be listened to but not obeyed. By taking care of it, like an upset child, it will start to calm down.
- Recognise that Impostor Syndrome is not a sign of weakness, or defectiveness, or more evidence of our ‘intellectual phoniness’. In fact it shows that our brains communicate with us internally through different methods. These are intact and functioning well but sometimes they may be at odds with each other – and in those moments we should take the time and patience to listen to them.
Written by Tom Cassidy
Tom has an MSc in Psychological Coaching and a BSc in Psychology; his approach as a trainer, a coach, and a thought leader is informed by science and the latest L&D developments. He is a skilled Executive Coach and provides supportive yet challenging coaching on topics such as leadership, decision-making, and driving high performance.
If you’d like to learn more about the Imposter Syndrome Training options, coaching with Tom or any of our other courses get in touch and a member of the team will be happy to help.