Freeing my mind from imposter syndrome
I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be a woman at work. In particular I’ve been considering my familiar friend, imposter syndrome; what its sometimes cruel voice whispers to me, how it affects my behaviour, and how I’ve tried to combat it.
Now admittedly this isn’t a phenomenon unique to women. Men can become just as caught up in negative rumination and self-doubt. But based on my own experiences and talking to enormously talented women around me, imposter syndrome seems to be something more prevalent in women.
As I sit here today, feelings of not being good enough, waiting to be found out as a fraud, and needing to work hard to “fake it until I make it” loom large. Last June I took on a new role, leading a team in our US organisation. More recently, I established a small coaching practice alongside my day job. Both are big changes in my career which leave me feeling exposed and insufficient. Given my training as a coach (and psychotherapist) you’d think that I would have it all figured out, right? Wrong!
As I wrestle with feelings of inadequacy and the fear of impending failure, it’s hard to resist the lure of negative thought patterns – a well-trodden path to myself and many other women, although our thoughts and feelings have their own unique shape and impact. There’s no doubt in that direction I would find more self-recrimination and criticism which compounds the emotional toll.
But how do we resist that temptation and embark upon a new path to change our internal dialogue?
Here’s what I’ve learnt so far…
The first step is for us all to be brave enough to vocalise what we’re experiencing, which is why I’m writing about it now. An example of this was at a recent team meeting. Instead of digging straight into the agenda, we started our discussion by “checking in” – sharing how we were feeling.
It was a truly humbling and inspiring 10 minutes, as colleagues who I consider to be hugely capable and have everything under control shared their misgivings, doubts and worries. It was such a relief to know I wasn’t on my own and that others had similar experiences. The more we talk about these feelings, the less control they have over us and we see they’re more common than our tricky minds would have us believe.
The second step is to talk about it more. I work through problems by talking them out, but I have also found that the sage counsel of someone who has already been there can be enormously reassuring, particularly at work. As I reflect on my career, the brilliant mentors I have worked with have been an invaluable resource and sounding board as I have tackled business challenges and my own insecurities. It’s comforting to know that even the leaders we put on a pedestal experience moments of self-doubt and feelings of imposterism.
The third step is open curiosity – in every one of these conversations. The eagerness to learn from others’ experiences, be supported by their wisdom and seek their insights by listening… And I mean listening with the intention of truly listening – instead of taking the approach many of us are frequently guilty of: listening to respond. Open ears, an open mind and a good dose of curiosity about others navigate these difficult waters are a great antidote to imposter syndrome.
And finally, self-compassion. We are often our own worst critics and would never speak to an acquaintance or colleague the way we speak to ourselves. Extending compassion to oneself is hugely freeing – not as a means to let ourselves off the hook, but to recognise we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got. Imagine what you would say to a dear friend if they came to you with doubts and self-criticism. Then apply your own advice to yourself.
Of course, that’s easier said than done – isn’t it always easier to dish out advice than to take it? However, being able to afford ourselves compassion is an important part of counter-balancing the flight, fight or freeze drive we encounter in life, both at work and home.
The things I’ve learnt are by no means a cure. In my experience, containing the nasty voice of my imposter syndrome is a frequent endeavour. But recognising it in the first instance and then taking steps to tackle it does minimise the power it holds over me. Well, most of the time.