If you’ve ever entered an alarmed building, you’ll know the sense of heightened anxiety that grips you until you can punch the code in to the key pad to deactivate the alarm. From the moment you open the door there is usually a persisent beeping.
You know the beeping will erupt into a full scale alarm bell if you don’t punch in the number within the required time. Hence the tension. You want to move quickly but not fumble with the keypad. Once the numbers are entered, there is the blessed silence of the alarm switching off. You can relax.
In the same way, thoughts about being a fraud, or Imposter Syndrome, as it’s known, can create tension and unease inside us. What you may not realise is there is a simple way to disable that anxiety too. Not quite punching in a code but understanding where our experience comes from. I’m getting ahead of myself, first of all….
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter Syndrome as it’s called, is that sinking feeling you have that you are really a fraud. It usually relates to your work but could also infect your sense of how competent you are as a spouse, parent, sibling or child. The sense that you’re winging it in some way and it’s only a matter of time before everyone else realises this fact.It centres on the idea, you’re not really competent, qualified or skilled for or worthy of the role you play in life or work.
It can affect people at any stage of their career. The critically acclaimed are not immune. As Oliver Burkeman cites in his BBC online Magazine article, Why feeling like a fraud is a good thing, Maya Angelou, award winning poet and novelist firmly believes she is a fake despite being a multi-prize winning author.
Why do we experience it?
It’s a form of self-doubt. A particularly pernicious form that in extreme cases can inhibit our ability to carry out our roles. We experience it more intensely the more we believe what it is telling us is true.
Why would we believe it was true?
We believe it’s true because we go looking for evidence to prove it. And when you go looking for evidence to support a belief, guess what? You find it. We think our achievements are a fluke or the client or our boss, doesn’t know any better or that it was luck or that someone, anyone else would have done it better.
Or we think we are lousy parents or selfish spouses and soon enough everyone is going to realise this blindingly obvious fact.
When you’re looking for evidence to support a particular claim, e.g. I am a fraud, you discount all the evidence to the contrary. So any facts, such as getting good reviews or appraisals, more work coming in or a promotion, people wanting to hire you, people recommending you to others, your family loving you – these all get dismissed and explained away.
It’s like getting a new outfit as a teenager and having your Mum and all your friends tell you it looks great, then your brother tells you it makes you look fat.
Your face falls and instantly you hate the outfit. The view of the majority means nothing. You only hear the one counter position.
For you, the outfit is a disaster. Given you love the outfit one minute and hate it the next, you have to ask yourself, where is this experience coming from?
It can’t be coming from the dress, can it?
Where does Imposter Syndrome come from?
Like the feelings about the dress, the experience of Imposter Syndrome comes from our personal thinking. In the beginning, it is a thought.
I am a fraud
Once upon a time, this thought floated into your mind, prompted by who knows what. The difference between those who get impacted by this thought and those who don’t boils down to how much each person engages with that thought.
Person A might not really even notice this thought arising and so it passes right on through.
Person B might notice the thought arising and immediately smile because they realise everyone thinks this now and then so they’re not that bothered by the thought. The thought also passes on by.
Person C might notice this thought and think, oh no, what if that’s true? The thought doesn’t pass on by. It hangs around. Person C then engages in battle with this thought which goes something like this:-
I don’t want to think this
But it must be true
Oh god if it’s true that means people will find out
When they find out I’ll be a laughing stock/out of work/a failure (delete as applicable)
Person C might be able to distract themselves for a period but a short time later (often last thing at night or first thing in the morning) those thoughts will re-surface again. Person C will do battle again, meanwhile their blood pressure will be rising, their mood will be falling and all this will serve to reinforce the veracity of these thoughts. This can happen over and over again. At the least it makes us miserable, at worse it seriously interferes with getting anything done.
You’ll see from this exercise that we have a choice about how much notice we take of our thoughts. When you see this, you have already got a little distance between you and your thinking. If you can see you are thinking…… you may realise you are not your thinking.
The choice to ignore the thoughts comes much more easily once we understand what is going on.
Who is experiencing the thinking?
Beyond personal thinking is a reservoir of wisdom which we can all access.It’s known by different names: Buddhahood, innate wisdom, higher intelligence, the divine, spirit and universal love. We come from this source, we are made of this and we can dip into it anytime.
Once we see this (you may sense that you know this already), then the personal thinking trip trapping through our minds all day and all night is something we can relax about. 99% of it isn’t telling us anything useful.
What happens if we simply ignore thoughts about being an imposter?
Try it. Don’t engage with those thoughts. You don’t have to do battle with them, prove them wrong, make them go away, change them or anything else. Simply ignore those thoughts.
I made my first Facebook live video recently. I’d been wanting to give it a go for some time. It was a bit of a faff. I had to get in a place where there was enough bandwidth. I didn’t have a tripod to hold my phone. I did a test first and nearly binned it as my thinking told me it was all too amateurish and I shouldn’t post it.
Then I decided to do it anyway. It was going on my personal Facebook profile so it wasn’t so important that it was a bit off the cuff. And you know what? Now I’ve done it once, I know I can do more (and I’ll get the tripod etc I need to do it a bit better). If I had deleted it, I imagine it would have taken me several weeks to have another go. The only difference was I decided to ignore the thinking around it.
What if we really are under qualified or under- prepared for something?
You don’t really need me to answer this. We know the difference. We know how it feels to be curious and open to learning new skills and enjoying that journey versus the thoughts of Imposter Syndrome that tell us not only are we unqualified but that also we should be more qualified by now.
Those thoughts are not helping us do our work or life with any joy. Quite the opposite. When we settle into a calmer, quieter place, where we can access our own wisdom, we tend to prepare better, tackle new learning with relish and generally feel a whole lot better.
Once you can see, Imposter Syndrome comes from thought in the moment, like the code for the burglar alarm, you have the ‘key’ to let those thoughts just roll on through without paying them any heed.
Juliet Fay is a facilitator working for social change. With New York author and transformational coach, Mary Schiller, she runs programmes for families in conflict and social care workers experiencing stress and burnout. Their work is based on the Three Principles as expressed by Sydney Banks.
Find out more about Solcare’s live online programmes for individuals and families experiencing stress and conflict.
Get a free copy of a new short e-book I’ve written called – A Simple Guide to Living Beyond Doubt – when you sign up for articles, programme offers and updates from the Solcare e-newsletter. Sign up here.
On the estuary, where I live, a never ending supply of fascinating flotsam and jetsam gets washed up by the tide. Each time I walk the beach I see something else that makes me smile. This morning it was a wedge heel from a shoe. I’ve thought about photographing these items or making some sort of collection of them but really I’m just happy to discover them. I never know what I’ll see next. If I were to set any kind of parameters for what flotsam and jetsam would qualify as interesting or delightful I would immediately reduce the pleasure of this little game. By being completely open to whatever the sea chooses to jettison onto the beach, I can find something to delight me every day.
In contrast it is easy to experience a good feeling and immediately want to hold on to that particular feeling, to have more of it, make it last longer. The longing that accompanies such a desire is deeply seductive and persuasive. It can obliterate everything else. We are no longer present, locked as we are onto the idea of holding on to that feeling. We latch on to the idea that a particular action will keep us in that wonderful feeling. The desire might be: to stay on this sun kissed beach, to be held by another person, for a dance to never end, for a holiday to go on for ever. Mostly we dismiss these desires as unrealistic but now and then they catch us in their grip and can spoil the simple pleasure to be found in the moment.
What is actually happening when we latch on to a feeling of longing is we mistakenly believe that the only way to satisfy that longing is to do more of what we think provoked the feeling in the first place. Our suddenly desperate desire to feel like that again is connected to our mistaken belief that being flooded with a feeling of wellbeing or feeling soft in our skin can only come from something outside of ourselves. It’s also an attempt to not feel the opposite: lonely, bereft, unloved.
Filling up the void with pleasant feelings seems like a much better alternative. Especially if we believe that pleasant feelings are telling us something important about who we really are.
Our thoughts go something like this…
if I feel all warm and fuzzy inside that must mean all is right with the world, all is right with me, I am okay. I am loveable. I won’t be alone or lonely.
Ironically all is not well with you because of those things on the outside; you feel in a high mood because of the thinking about the things on the outside. That’s nice.
But all is well with you because innate wellbeing is your birthright. You have it. You have always had it. You just don’t see it. At your core, your innate essence is inviolate. It cannot be changed or damaged by the setting of the sun, the ending of the music, the departure of a loved one. It cannot be damaged or affected by anything outside of you.
Yet as our desire to hang on to those feelings grows in the mistaken belief that we need those kinds of feelings for everything to be well with us, our thoughts turn in a different direction which ironically punctures the balloon of those warm fuzzy feelings and leaves us with a sense of longing.
Rather than enjoying the fleeting nature of pleasure and savouring it when it occurs we start to agonise, question and plot when and how we might feel those warm fuzzy feelings again.
Why doesn’t he call?
Wouldn’t it be nice to do this again with friends
I don’t want this day to end
Oh no the music is coming to an end
If our plans are thwarted by the sun going down, the music ending or the object of our attention not being available, then we can start to feel let down, irritated, grumpy.
Our inner two year old can come out and start stamping her feet. She wants to feel warm and fuzzy again, right now.
If you took a step back you would realise this is ridiculous (and oftentimes we do realise it’s silly and pay no attention to that longing).
You couldn’t stay in that embrace, dance, suntrap for ever and ever. For one thing it’s not possible, secondly you know the warm fuzzy feeling would dissipate and most likely boredom or irritation would set in.
Everything changes. Everything that is except your innate wellbeing.
Of course we like that warm fuzzy feeling and want more of it but when we realise those feelings can come to us any time because they don’t come from something outside ourselves, then it doesn’t seem so important to grab on to them. We can just savour them when we have them and let them pass on through.
The irony is that when we do savour them and let them go, we’re likely to feel those peaceful feelings more often as well, because we stay open, connected and curious about what the next moment may bring. Just as my walks on the estuary reveal unexpected and delightful flotsam and jetsam because I don’t have fixed ideas about what they should like look, anything and everything can delight me and peace can follow pleasure rather than pain.
Find out about programmes for individuals and families.
Juliet Fay is a facilitator working for social change. She has recently launched a social enterprise called Solcare, with New York author and transformational coach, Mary Schiller. They run programmes for families in conflict and social care workers experiencing stress and burnout.
Get a free copy of a new short e-book I’ve written called – A Simple Guide to Living Beyond Doubt – when you sign up for the for articles, programme offers and updates from the Solcare e-newsletter. Sign up here
In Nicola Skinner’s article in last Saturday’s Guardian, Why parents are getting angrier, she wrote about the popularity of Mike Fisher’s courses, Understanding Anger in Parents, offered by Ealing Council in London UK.
More and more parents are being referred to the council’s parent commissioner by social services, the NHS, police or solicitors on account of anger issues. It transpires the most common trigger for parental anger, as identified by the parents, is children not co-operating.
As I read this, it brought to mind a dog toy I once had. It was a little hessian sack on a string. When you squeezed the sack a cat miaowed. It used to drive my Jack Russell mad. She was convinced there must be a cat somewhere in the room and would get in a frenzy trying to find the cat. Each time, the little hessian bag miaowed, the dog would go nuts. Of course we laughed because we knew it was a trick. There was no cat. It’s easy to get tricked.
As Mara Gleason of One Thought illustrated at The One Solution Conference in Oslo earlier this year, correlations are very easy to draw and they are masters of misdirection. It is easy to see how the dog made the correlation; the sound of a cat must mean there is a cat in the room. Yet there was no cat because the sound came from an audio recording not a real live cat.
In the same way, you can understand the correlation parents draw between children being unco-operative and their feelings of anger, one seems to follow on from the other. Yet once you realise how our human experience is actually created, it is clearly impossible for the children’s lack of co-operation to be the cause of the angry feelings. How so?
Mostly we grow up believing that our experience of life comes from out there, outside of ourselves. The things that happen to us, the people we hang out with, the family we’re born into and the country of our birth. These things, so the thinking goes, shape us, our character and our destiny. Yes, there may be some influence from genetics, making us short tempered or patient types, but generally, the view is, it is our circumstances that shape our experience day to day.
What if this was completely and utterly untrue?
What if, in fact, our experience was coming entirely from within? What if everything we experience moment to moment was created by our thinking in that same moment?
Sounds far fetched? Just look at this a little more closely and see for yourself what is true.
Even for the angriest parents in Mike Fisher’s courses there will be times when their children’s lack of co-operation doesn’t provoke rage. Times when they simply sigh and are resigned to it, other times it may seem funny, times they deliberately ignore it and still other times when they don’t even notice their children being unco-operative.
So what is going on? How can this commonly cited trigger be so inconsistent?
Let’s take an example.
You ask your teenage daughter to clear up the dishes. She rolls her eyes and walks out the room.
So far we have the facts. What happens next depends entirely on the thinking that goes through your mind and your daughter’s mind in that moment. Any of the following thoughts might occur to you:-
Perhaps she didn’t hear me
I love that eye roll, it’s so teenage
She’s clearly not in a receptive mood
It will only take me 5 minutes to stack the dishwasher
How dare she be so insolent
Why won’t she help, even just a little bit?
She shouldn’t walk away from me when I’m talking to her
I’m running late and she’s being difficult again
I could go on. It’s like a pick and mix. Any or all of those thoughts could occur and we could take any or all of them seriously, believing they are telling us something useful about ourselves, our daughter and the state of the world (or the dishes). Which thoughts we listen to will then influence our next move. The same is going on for your daughter. She might have any of the following thoughts:-
Why does she always go on about the dishes
Can’t she see I’m busy?
Why doesn’t she go on at my brother to do dishes?
It’s so unfair
None of my friends have to put up with this from their parents
Why is she nagging all the time
This is so boring
Which thoughts you and your daughter believe and then act on, will determine the outcome of this exchange. If we believe the thoughts that tell us the other person is uncaring and out to get us, so our emotions will rise to reflect this perceived ‘threat’ to our wellbeing.
The simple solution to parental anger (and conflict in general) is to understand where our wellbeing actually comes from. It doesn’t come from anything outside of us. Innate wellbeing and wisdom is something we all have, all of the time. It’s just most of us don’t realise it.
Conflict is a natural result of mistakenly believing our wellbeing is under threat. We prepare to defend our wellbeing by going on the attack or defensive. An argument quickly escalates. During an argument we lose all sense of connection with the other person, fail to hear anything beyond the words and before we know it both parties feel horrible.
On the other hand, when we see that our wellbeing cannot be damaged by anyone or anything outside of ourselves, and we start to notice when our thoughts are sending us off track, then we can pause. When we pause, it’s like taking a breath to settle yourself, then you see past your own fears and past your children’s defiance. You realise too that your children are also innately well and that the grumpy, difficult behaviour is just that, some grumpy difficult behaviour. It’s not who they really are.
From this vantage point, it is easier to take some time out when thoughts are running away with us, to zoom out and see what really matters and not to get caught up in our own or our children’s momentary insecure thinking.
Like the oh so convincing sound of the cat in the sack which isn’t actually coming from a real cat, we can easily get tricked into thinking our feelings are coming from what is happening out there, when in reality they are only ever coming from our thinking in the moment.
Find out about programmes for individuals and families in conflict.