I’m a fraud, I’m a fake, I’m a phony. I can’t do this. Who in their right mind is letting me do this? I’m just going to fail.
If any of those words have ever entered your mind, then there’s a good chance you’ve experienced the psychological phenomenon that is Imposter Syndrome. The moment I hit ‘publish’ on the first episode of my podcast, it hit me like a ton of bricks. So, I thought what better time to talk about it than while I’m experiencing it?
In this episode, I go through the five different subgroups of Imposter Syndrome, along with some tools and techniques you can use to combat it. Below you’ll find the resources or extra research I talk about throughout.
Dr. Valerie Young
Learning from others
Successful people with Imposter Syndrome, including Sheryl Sandberg, Serena Williams, Maya Angelou and many others
Hello, and welcome back to The Anti-Burnout Club. This is episode two. And it’s very different to what I thought I was going to cover in my next episode after my introduction, I thought I was going to talk about the signs and symptoms of burnout and start at the very beginning, really. But I’ve been experiencing something that a lot of other people experience, and I thought, what better time to talk about it than as I’m going through it? So the moment I hit publish on my very first podcast, on my introduction, I just had this overwhelming sense of, “Oh my goodness, what am I doing? I don’t have a degree in psychology. I’m not a burnout expert. Who am I to talk about all of this? I’m such a big fraud. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
And there’s a lot of people that experience this on a daily basis. Some people only experience it once or twice in their life. Some people experience it much more often. And it’s called imposter syndrome. It’s thought that about 70% of people will experience this at least once or twice in their lifetime. And it’s most commonly associated with situations at work, or if you run your own business, giving a pitch to a client or standing up and doing a presentation. Imposter syndrome is likely to kick in around then.
But it’s not just limited to work situations. I know a lot of parents, for example, who think, “What am I doing? I’m just winging this. Everything you see on Facebook and Instagram of my perfect baby is a lie. He or she cries all the time. I’m a big fraud.” And you can get it in school or university or college. I remember when I went to my first face-to-face week for my university degree, and I met all of these people at the Shard in London, and they were all suited and booted and worked for big companies, like big accountancy firms, big consultancy firms. And I was just stood there in my Primark blazer, like, “Oh my goodness, they’re going to find me out. They’re going to find out that I’m a fraud. And how on earth did I get in when all of these other people are my cohort?”
So imposter syndrome can kick in at absolutely any time. And it can be really bad for us if it’s something that happens more often than just once or twice in our lifetime. There’s something called the low self-esteem cycle. And basically what that is is we have a set of core beliefs, and they might come from childhood or past experiences. And for some people they are things like “I’m not good enough,” or “I’m a failure. I’ll never be a success.” And when we have those core beliefs, it can cause us to act in a way that might seem a bit irrational to others, but we’ll get so anxious and we’ll believe those core beliefs and our inner monologue, and we’ll avoid things, and we just won’t put ourselves out there, because that dreaded imposter syndrome kicks in and we think, “Well, I’m just going to fail anyway. What’s the point in doing it?”
And when we avoid these situations, this just confirms what we believe in ourselves. So we think, “Well, I failed at doing that. I didn’t do that because I was anxious about it. So my core belief is right. My inner monologue and my script that I tell myself is right. I am a failure.” And if you experience imposter syndrome regularly, then it can be really detrimental to your self-esteem and your confidence in the long run.
When my imposter syndrome kicked in after recording my first podcast, I thought, “Well, I’m just not going to do any more. I’ve done one.” And I had some lovely messages from friends and family and even strangers. And I thought, “Well, they’re just saying that. I’m not going to bother doing another one.” So it can stop us from achieving all the things that we want to do, and hitting our goals and becoming the success that we want to be.
And that’s why I thought it would be a good thing to talk about today and just go through some of the different types of imposter syndrome, because there are different subgroups of imposter syndrome, and also how we can combat those thoughts and question our core beliefs, and hopefully shake off imposter syndrome when it turns up and when it starts creeping in. And I’ve got some tips and tricks that I’ve learned. I wrote an article for Found & Flourish, which is a really cool website. I wrote that this week about imposter syndrome and I learnt so much. So I wanted to go through the different tips and tricks that I learned and how to shake off imposter syndrome and how to build your self-confidence and your self-esteem a little bit more so hopefully it won’t even kick in and you won’t have to deal with it or find a way to combat it when it arrives.
So a lot of the research that I found about imposter syndrome comes from a lady called Dr. Valerie Young. She has spent decades researching imposter syndrome. She is a leading expert. She’s done Ted talks. She’s also got a book called… Wait for it. The Secret Thoughts Of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. Which is quite a lengthy title, but it’s a great book, and she, as I said, is the leading expert in imposter syndrome. She has spent so long dedicating her life to this weird phenomenon that is imposter syndrome. And she has managed to categorize the syndrome into five subgroups.
So what I plan to do for you today is to go those subgroups. And probably, if you have had imposter syndrome, you will recognize yourself in one of these, or if you have it regularly, you might recognize yourself in more than one. I think, as I read through them, I played a game of bingo with myself and thought, “Yeah, I’ve definitely experienced imposter syndrome in this situation, and like this, and like that.” So I’m going to go through each of the five subgroups and talk a bit about them, while also coming up with some ways from Dr. Valerie Young and from other experts as to how you can combat each type of imposter syndrome.
And then at the end I’ll just go through some general tips and tricks and techniques that you can use if you feel imposter syndrome creeping in, but also that you can just use on a regular basis. So if you’re feeling anxious or your self-esteem is low, it’s always a good idea to practice these kinds of techniques just throughout your day so you become more adept at using them. And then when imposter syndrome or low self-esteem kicks in, you’ve already got your toolbox ready, you know exactly what you need to do, and hopefully you can fight it off before it even plants a seed.
So number one is the perfectionist, and this is probably the most common. They tend to go hand in hand, perfectionism and imposter syndrome. Perfectionists set quite high goals for themselves, and even when they reach their goals, they think, “Oh, well, that wasn’t quite good enough. That wasn’t as perfect as I hoped it would be.” And a lot of people might get loads of compliments, and people say, “Oh, you’re really good,” and a perfectionist will think, “Well, yeah, you would say that.”
I definitely recognize myself in the perfectionist. I often get told I’m a control freak. I’ll take that. And that feeling of, “Well, if you want something done right, you might as well do it yourself.” That definitely resonates with me. But if you are a perfectionist, then success doesn’t always give you the satisfaction that you think it will, just because you think, “Well, I could have done better in that situation,” and that’s what brings on the imposter syndrome of you set such high goals that you feel like you can’t reach them and they’re unachievable. So you just don’t bother, or you freak out when you get really anxious. And this is definitely something that resonates with me.
So if you think you are type one, the perfectionist, one of the best ways to overcome impostor syndrome is to actually celebrate your achievements. This can be quite hard to do for a perfectionist, because you think that perhaps you haven’t done as good as you could have done, and so you don’t know why you should celebrate that success. But it’s a good idea to step back, have a look at what you have achieved, and use that as imposter syndrome kicks in. And I’ll talk a little bit about celebrating your successes a little bit later on.
Another thing that’s important for a perfectionist to do is to learn from your mistakes and take them in your stride. Failing is a natural learning process. And if you look at any professional athlete, they’re a prime example of people who learn from their mistakes and their failures. They might trip over a hurdle, but then they’ll get straight back up and they’ll carry on running, and they might get a bronze medal or a silver medal, but they’ll carry on striving for the gold.
The truth that perfectionists need to learn is they will never be the perfect time. Work will never be a hundred percent perfect. Parenting will never be a hundred percent perfect. The sooner that you accept that there is no such thing as perfect, the quicker you’ll be able to squash that imposter syndrome as it creeps in.
Okay. So number two. Type number two is the superwoman or superman. You might also know this as a workaholic. These people believe that their colleagues are so much better than them, and they want to push themselves to work harder and longer hours just so that they can prove themselves. Often the core belief here is some kind of insecurity that you’re just not good enough and you compare yourself to your colleagues. But this can also happen in situations such as with friends or at school or college.
You might be this kind of person if you stay late in the office, or later than anyone else in the office. I can definitely see that in myself. Even once you’ve finished all of your work for the day, you feel like the longer hours you’re in the office, the better. You might also feel as though you don’t belong in your job, that you aren’t good enough to be doing the job that you’re doing. And again, this is quite a common imposter syndrome.
One of the key things with this type is external validation. So people who are the superwoman or superman are actually addicted to the validation that comes from working. Not the work itself, but the validation that they’re doing a good thing by being in the office for 12 hours. One of the key ways to move on from this kind of imposter syndrome is to shake off that need for external validation, which I know is a lot easier said than done, but there are things like mindfulness and building your self-esteem in general that will make you become more attuned to internal validation and give you more inner confidence, which is something that the superwoman or superman really does need.
Again, just like with a perfectionist, seeing your successes. Understand that you got that job because you have the right skills. Someone hired you to do this job. Someone asks you to give that presentation because they believe in you. You’re meeting with a client because they believe in you. Creating confidence and having that internal validation will mean that you feel less of an impostor whenever you have to take on situations at work.
And it will also just help with the whole workaholic side of things, because you won’t need that validation from a client or from a boss. Instead you’ll have changed your own core belief. So you’ll have more confidence. You’ll have more self esteem, and this will just change your inner monologue so that you feel like you don’t need validation from anybody else.
Okay. So moving on to subgroup number three, the natural genius. These are the people who maybe grew up being told that they were the smart one. They have a record of getting straight As. They’re used to excelling without putting too much effort in. And imposter syndrome can kick in for these people because they set their bar so high, just like perfectionists, but they don’t judge themselves based on those expectations. They judge themselves on getting things right the first time. If they can’t pick up something quickly or they don’t think they’re going to get it right the first time, then imposter syndrome kicks in and they just think, “Well, I’m not going to be able to do this.”
A natural genius can also feel ashamed if they don’t get something right the first time, and obviously this can tie into that low self-esteem cycle I was talking about, where you reinforce those core beliefs that you’re just not good enough. However, if you recognize yourself in this subgroup, then one of the key things to do is to always look at yourself as being a work in progress. Being able to accomplish amazing things takes a lifelong journey of learning, building your skills. Even the best athletes in the world, or the most successful entrepreneurs in the world, have spent a long time honing those skills.
If you don’t do something right the first time, then this is the perfect opportunity for learning and try not to avoid things just because you think, “Wow, I don’t really know how to do that.” Because again, it’s an opportunity to learn. And as a natural genius, you are naturally a very smart person, which means that you should be able to pick up new skills quite quickly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to get everything right the first time.
Okay. Moving on to number four, the soloist. So a soloist tends to think that asking for help basically confirms what they thought, that they’re a fraud or a phony. And these people are very independent. They want to accomplish things on their own and they don’t need anybody’s help. And while it’s completely okay to be independent, sometimes the soloist can lose out on things just because they refuse to ask for assistance just to prove their worth.
If this type resonates with you, then one of the best bits of advice is to see asking for help as actually doing something for someone else. Asking for help can make other people feel good. It can make them feel involved. And so just reaching out and perhaps even just starting small, just saying, “I need a little bit of advice with this,” or, “Could you please help me with this part of work?” And then building up to bigger things, so asking for help on an entire project or asking for help with a presentation, even just asking for help as a parent. Just reaching out, and instead of trying to do everything by yourself, and making other people feel good and wanted and needed in the meantime.
And finally, subgroup number five is called the expert. So these people want to hoard knowledge. They want to gather knowledge. They might avoid doing things because they feel like they don’t meet every single one of the requirements. They’re constantly looking to get new training or certifications because they think that that will help them to succeed. And again, I definitely see a little bit of myself in this. Applying for my Master’s, it was a way of gathering all the information I possibly could. And a lot of people who do fit into this subgroup feel as though they just don’t know enough. Even if they’re constantly learning or training, they feel as though that knowledge is not enough and they need more.
The difficulty with this type of imposter syndrome is that the tendency to always be seeking out new knowledge can actually just be a form of procrastination and stopping you doing the things that you really want to be doing to succeed. Again with this type, it’s important to realize that there’s no shame in asking for help. If you don’t know something, then it’s absolutely okay to ask someone else. But also practice a thing called just-in-time learning. So if you want to do something new, then hone your skills around the time that you’re going to do it, instead of trying to learn everything new and then hoping that eventually you’ll get to use those skills at some point in your life.
So that was the five different subgroups of imposter syndrome, and perhaps you’ve recognized yourself in at least one of those. And of course there are different ways to combat the different types, but I wanted to have a look at just some general ways that we can tackle imposter syndrome head-on. Now, I might talk about a few different tools through this and what I’ve done is I’ve created a blog post on my site, bexspiller.com/the-anti-burnout-club. If you head there, you’ll see the blog post called “I’m a fraud”. And on that, I’ve listed some of the tools that I speak about, also some of the research into imposter syndrome, including the Ted talk from Dr. Young, a link to the book by Dr. Young as well. And anything that I talk about such as like cognitive distortions, I’ve also included some extra readings so that you can learn as you go.
There will be a little mini-task in this. So if you want to grab a pen and paper, or perhaps if you’re on your phone, open a note-taking app. And I’ll go through some of these different tools and techniques that we can use to combat imposter syndrome that hopefully you can use when imposter syndrome creeps up, but also just practice throughout your day learning mindfulness, learning to understand what’s going on in your mind and listening to your inner monologue as well.
So the first thing I’ve got for you is questioning your feelings. Many people who experience imposter syndrome or any kind of low self-esteem or anxiety may have something called cognitive distortions. Now this isn’t as bad as it sounds. It sounds horrible, doesn’t it? I don’t want a cognitive distortion, but basically what it is is it’s an unhelpful way of thinking. So a few common ones include all-or-nothing thinking, for example, “I’m a failure”. Something called mind-reading, where you’re guessing what someone else thinks of you. Predicting the future, where you think “Well, this is definitely going to happen, I’m definitely going to fail this.” Catastrophizing, which is one of my favorite to do, where you think everything is going to go terribly, terribly wrong, or you think something has already gone terribly, terribly wrong.
And so there’s all these different types of cognitive distortions. And like I said, I’ve put them in a blog post on my site so that you can go through them and see if you recognize any of these unhelpful thinking patterns. And when I say question your feelings, what I mean really is to recognize these distortions and learn how to challenge them. So asking yourself, “Do I really believe that? Can I really predict the future? Is it really as bad as I think it’s going to be? Does everyone actually hate me? Does everyone actually think I’m a fraud? Where’s my proof?”
And that’s the second thing really is to look for proof that your imposter syndrome is wrong. Question it and ask, “How do you know? Is this something that has just come from my core beliefs, that has perhaps come from a past experience or a lack of confidence in general, or is this the truth? Is this real?” And nine times out of ten, you’ll probably think, “Actually, yeah, my mind is lying to me a little bit. I’m not a failure. I’ve done this, that and the other. I’ve given presentations before and it went really well. I’ve already brought in clients before and that went really well. I’ve succeeded in all these areas of my life before. So why am I second-guessing myself now? Why do I think that I’m a fraud now?”
And so with this, I want you to grab your pen and paper or your note app, and I want you to please write a list of all of your successes. Let’s say at least three. Ten would be amazing, but you can pause there. So you can have a little bit of time to think and write down everything that you have achieved that you’re proud of.
It might be that you have given birth to a beautiful baby boy. It might be that you set up your own business without any outside help. It might be that you’ve got the job promotion that you really hoped for. It might be that you bought a house. Anything that is considered in your mind to be a success. Anything that you’re proud of yourself for. And I want you to write this down because I want you to be able to keep it with you.
So I’ve written ten of my own successes on a little piece of paper, and that’s folded up and tucked into my purse. Whenever I feel that imposter syndrome kicking in, I grab that little bit of paper and I read through all of the things that tell me that imposter syndrome is a liar, all of the successes that I’ve already achieved that prove that I can actually do what I want to do. So if you keep this little bit of paper with you, or you’ve got it written down in your phone, every time you start to question your feelings, have a look at that and remind yourself how amazing you actually are.
Another fun thing to do, which seems really goofy, but I quite enjoy it, is to stand in front of a mirror and talk to yourself. Tell someone that you live with that you’re going to do this before you actually do it, by the way, because I think my husband thought I was absolutely loony. But just get in front of a mirror, talk to yourself, tell yourself how successful you are, how amazing you are, all of the things that you’ve achieved, everything that you’re proud of that you’ve done. And if you can practice this every day, then it will make such a huge difference in that inner monologue of yours, that story that you tell yourself that you’re not good, or you’re a failure, or you’re going to fail. Just talking to yourself every day will start to change that. And you’ll also feel like you’re building charisma in The Sims, if anyone played that. It is a genuine way to build charisma. It wasn’t just in The Sims.
So when you’ve got your list of successes, this is something that you can add too at any time. But there’s one thing that I would like you to promise me that you’ll do, and that’s to reward your successes. So we go through our lives constantly striving for goals. We hit those goals and then we just move the goalposts. We never really take the time to step back and give ourselves a metaphorical pat on the back for doing well. So for each of these successes you’ve written down, I’d like you to give yourself a pat on the back, a literal pat on the back. So if you’ve got three, pat yourself on the back three times. If you’ve got ten, you’ll probably get a sore hand and a sore back. But pat yourself on the back for those ten. And every time you succeed in something, add it to the list and give yourself a pat on the back. This will help change your core beliefs to something far more positive. You’ll start to see yourself as the successful person that you actually are.
Of course, we’re not going to succeed at absolutely everything that we try. But as I’ve said before, we need to accept those failures as lessons. We’re so lucky that we have these chances to learn. And instead of beating yourself up when you fail at something, celebrate it instead. Celebrate it as a lesson that you didn’t have to pay for. You didn’t need to go to university to learn that lesson. You’ve lived it. And as I said, most professional athletes are experts at getting value from their mistakes. And I’ll include a link to some great quotes and stuff from athletes who talk about getting value from their mistakes and their failures.
And finally, give yourself some time. There’s a good chance that these negative thoughts haven’t just appeared overnight, and so there’s a good chance that they’re not going to disappear overnight either. Imposter syndrome tends to come from a low self-esteem or a lack of confidence that is built over time. And if it is something that you experience on a regular basis, then it is going to take a little while to actually get out of that mindset. And there are plenty of mindfulness tools that you can use, which again, I’ll link in the blog post.
Practicing mindfulness every day is something that I’ve just started to do, really, but it’s about acknowledging your thoughts. And it doesn’t mean sitting at the end of your bed and meditating for 20 minutes every day if you don’t have the time. It can just be things like acknowledging your thoughts when you’re making a cup of tea and just being present in the moment. It’s a really good idea to bring this into your life, if you can, and if you feel that you can, because it reinforces all of these other techniques that I’ve talked about. By listening to your inner monologue, you’re far more likely to be able to change it to one that’s more positive. And when you can do this, then you can get rid of imposter syndrome. You can get rid of low self-esteem and build your confidence up.
I hope that everything that I’ve covered today has been really helpful for you. As I said, it’s something that I’ve been experiencing this week, and so just writing about it and talking about it has really helped. And I’d encourage you to open up if you can, if you feel like you can. Open up with other people about those feelings of imposter syndrome, because you might be surprised that those that you idolize or who you see as a mentor will actually be experiencing the same things. I know that when I researched this, some truly incredibly confident and successful people had been quite open about theirs. And I was really shocked.
I have just started up a little Facebook group called The Anti-Burnout Club, which I will link again in the blog post. This isn’t officially open until the 10th of August, but it will be a great space for us to talk about these kinds of things, talk about our imposter syndrome and how we feel, share advice with others about how we also got over our imposter syndrome or low self-esteem. I’ll also be sharing articles and videos that I find on these kinds of topics. So if you want a supportive community where we all just rally around each other, then I’d really like to see you over there. As I said, it’s not officially open until the 10th of August, so you’re more than welcome to request to join, and on the 9th of August, I will let everybody in and we can all talk and learn together. I’m really excited.
That’s it from me today. I will be going back to my original episode idea of the hidden signs of burnout for episode three. So these will be things that perhaps you don’t feel like you’re stressed or you’re burning out, but these are little hidden signs that maybe there’s a problem around the corner, and to give yourself some time and some breathing space. I’ll also be talking about a few more techniques and tips and tricks, especially when it comes to burnout and feeling stressed.
So please do subscribe. I’m now on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and a few others I don’t really know. I’m very new to all of this. There’s just so many different podcast places. And as I said, if you go on to bexspiller.com, go to The Anti-Burnout Club, you’ll see all of the articles and all of the ways that you can get involved, including the Facebook group and a fun Instagram page that’s just full of pretty quotes which just livens up everyone’s Instagram. It’s beautiful. Anyway, I hope you have a lovely day, a lovely weekend, or whenever you’re listening. A lovely week, lovely evening, lovely morning. And I will see you next time. Take care.