EPISODE 24: What's *actually* going on with imposter syndrome

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It’s estimated that around 70% of people will suffer through it at least once in their life.
I’ve gone through it and so have some of my clients.
Renowned author Maya Angelou has had it.
Award winning actor Tom Hanks and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor have been there, done that.

Perhaps you’ve experienced it yourself.

So what is this insidious condition? Imposter syndrome.

If you’ve been in the online business space seeking mentors and guides, chances are you’ve been in trainings that talk about imposter syndrome. As Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey pointed out in their article for the Harvard Business Review, “Rarely are we invited to a women’s career development conference where a session on “overcoming imposter syndrome” is not on the agenda.” (https://hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndrome)

This week on From Hustle to Hell Yes, I’m putting imposter syndrome under the microscope. Join me as I dig into:
>>> the *actual* definition of imposter syndrome
>>> the brain science of what’s happening
>>> a quick 2-minute exercise to help you prevent it (prevention IS better than a cure!) or to help you begin healing it

Links to resources in this episode:

Clare Josa's research on imposter syndrome: https://ditchingimpostersyndrome.com/research/

NAMI HelpLine: 800-950-6264 or info@nami.org
NAMI can offer you sympathy and support and provide you information about resources in your community.

The Crisis Text Line - just text “HELLO” to 741741

The Limbic System: https://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/limbicsystem.html

Amy Cuddy's TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_may_shape_who_you_are?language=en

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I’ve been wanting to talk a bit more about the four relationships, and I think one way to do that is to dedicate an episode to each one. So today we’re going to talk about the first of the Four Relationships, or the Four Ships as I like to call them. The first of the four ships is Relationship to Self - how we view ourselves and how we relate to our own way of being. This ship carries our mindset, our self-trust, how we’re resourced, self-care, our perception of who we are, our authenticity and comfort or discomfort with visibility, our boundaries, core values, and capacity. That’s a LOT to cover in a single episode, so instead, I’m going to focus on one very specific issue that can pop up in our relationship to self - particularly as we relate to ourselves in our work.

Because it’s come up a few times in recent weeks, I’m going to focus on imposter syndrome, but not in the way you’ve likely heard it talked about before. And here’s how I think it makes the most sense to tackle this:

First : What is imposter syndrome *actually*
Second: The nervous system as it relates to this particular phenomenon
Third: What the heck to do with this information

What’s imposter syndrome, REALLY? Because this is a phrase that gets thrown around a whole lot, I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page about what imposter syndrome is, what it looks like, the definition of imposter syndrome.

So first of all, imposter syndrome is NOT a recognized physical or psychological disorder. That is to say, you won’t find it in the DSM (which is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It contains descriptions, symptoms, and other criteria for diagnosing mental health issues.) or the ICD (International Classification of Diseases. It’s like the DSM, but for physical health issues instead of mental health issues.) Imposter syndrome not a medical condition, although it is described as "a phenomenon (an experience) that occurs in an individual” and is the subject of a number of scientific studies.

I really like the clarification that author Clare Josa (yo-sa) gives. Clare says, “Imposter Syndrome isn’t just self-doubt in a spiky suit. It’s the gap between who you see yourself as being and who you think you need to be, to succeed and lead.” It’s not really about self-doubt or lack of confidence. And experiencing Imposter Syndrome doesn’t mean you’re not up to snuff. Clare’s research points out the differences between self doubt - which is more of a mindset / confidence issue, and imposter syndrome, with is more of an identity problem: “Self-doubt is about what you can do. Imposter Syndrome is about who you think you are.” I highly recommend getting your hands on Clare’s study if you want to dig deeper into these differences, which I’ll link to in the show notes. 

From Clare’s study and the studies of other researchers as far back as the 1970s, it’s estimated that around 70% of people will experience imposter syndrome at least once in their life. As it turns out, being wildly successful won’t keep you from experiencing imposter syndrome, either. Renowned author Maya Angelou, award winning actor Tom Hanks, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor have all been candid about their experiences of imposter syndrome.

I just want to be clear that while this is a common experience, it’s not a clinical issue in and of itself. BUT it does often appear alongside anxiety and depression, which ARE clinical issues. I also want to say that nothing in this episode of From Hustle to Hell Yes is meant to be taken as medical advice - please seek the advice of a medical professional if mental health is a contributing factor for you; you can contact the NAMI HelpLine—800-950-6264 or info@nami.org— NAMI can offer you sympathy and support and provide you information about resources in your community or use the Crisis Text Line - just text “HELLO” to 741741

Even though imposter syndrome isn’t recognized as a clinical issue, it can still be a really devastating experience.
Imposter syndrome shows up in a few ways. It might manifest as feelings of being unworthy, or feeling you don’t deserve the success you’ve had. It could show up as questioning your own abilities, or feeling like a fraud. Those feelings can lead to constantly seeking external validation, like getting more education & training, or constantly seeking certification of skills. Rather than being rooted in curiosity or ongoing education for the sake of staying sharp and up-to-date, this obsession with more education and finding more information is rooted in beliefs that you aren’t good enough at what you do.

Beyond being a real head trip (and potentially expensive depending on the costs of your certification programs) it can also lead to analysis paralysis (the inability to make a decision due to over-thinking a problem) or worse - straight up freezing: being immobilized, unable to take action, your mind goes blank, you say “I don’t know” a lot… you just freeze up when it’s time to make a decision or to actually do something. Maybe you say “Yes” to things that you really wanted to say “No” to. Or perhaps this leads to bouts of perfectionism.

It’s not hard to see why this might happen to business owners and entrepreneurs - constantly trying new things, new strategies that push us outside our comfort zone, the vulnerability in visibility and how fear inducing it can be to put ourselves and our work out there for the world to see. I know it’s happened to me, and it’s happened clients I’ve worked with time and again as well. What’s stress inducing about this situation is that as a business owner, and especially for solopreneurs and businesses of 1 - a lot of what happens in your business flows from you.

No matter what flavor the imposter syndrome - whether it’s questioning ones own credibility and authority or feelings of not-enoughness, it’s actually rooted in your physical body and how you respond to different kinds of stress. Those manifestations of imposter syndrome that I just covered, they relate directly to our nervous system’s responses of fight-flight-freeze-fawn.

Before we get to how imposter syndrome is rooted in the body through the nervous system, I want to clarify some things about how the nervous system operates, so you can understand the relationship between imposter syndrome and your body’s reactions to stress. Now, I’m going to simplify and leave out a lot of deeper details, for the sake of clarity and being very focused on the very particular experience of imposter syndrome.

So first, imposter syndrome is an emotional response. And while emotions really involve just about the entire nervous system in one way or another, for the sake of simplicity today I’m going to focus on the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These are part of the autonomic nervous system, which is part of the limbic system, which is made up of specific parts of the brain all working together. If you’re curious about all that, and really want to know more, I’ve linked to a really awesome website that breaks it down with diagrams - so if you’re a visual person this might really help to clarify the hierarchy of how we talk about these systems.


That’s all the deeper I’m going to go into the hierarchy: the limbic system has a great deal to do with emotions and within that system is the autonomic nervous system, which consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic circuits and those two circuits, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic are where we’re focused today. WHEW! It’s a lot, I know. The only thing that’s important for you to know, if this information is overwhelming, here’s all you need to really understand:

There are 2 well-defined nervous system circuits that play a role in regulating emotions, social connection, and fear responses:
The sympathetic circuit with is for mobilization, and responsible for activating the fight-flight-freeze-fawn response.
The parasympathetic circuit, which is responsible for supporting health, growth, and restoration ( activating the “rest and digest” response) and contributes to feelings of safeness. It also supports social engagement - this system is responsible for helping us navigate relationships to other people.

I’ve been studying somatic embodiment, which is a method for using the physical body to soothe the nervous system - specifically with the fight-flight-freeze-fawn response that can be triggered, even in situations that aren’t actually dangerous to us. Not everything that our body responds to with fight flight freeze fawn is in fact dangerous, but evolution has favored a quick trigger. Better safe than sorry, I guess. And PS I am not at all discounting any experiences of trauma that may lead to heightened nervous system responses, so just let me validate that now. But and also, the response isn’t always necessary and in a lot of cases it’s actually doing us more harm than good, like in the case of imposter syndrome. Embodiment is just a way to use the unique sensations of our body as a tool to develop awareness, stay present, self-regulate, feel connected, and empower ourselves to find more ease, enjoyment, and effectiveness.

What does any of that have to do with imposter syndrome?
Well, first of all, if we aren’t ACTUAL imposters, then imposter syndrome is a story - a story we are telling ourselves about ourselves.
That’s why I say it’s a misalignment of our relationship to self.
Our experience of an event is created by having a feeling, and then a story that we assign to why that feeling occurred in us. How we feel in the moment something is unfolding affects our experience of it, our interpretation and memory of what occurred. If we’re already feeling self doubt, then we might actually interpret an experience as confirmation that we don’t know enough or aren’t good enough - which can lead to a deeper crisis of imposter syndrome, questioning really who we are at our core. AND - PS - this is how a LOT of miscommunications start. Someone’s nervous system is gets hijacked by something else, and when they interact with another person, they’re not responding to that person based on the current moment, they’re actually still reacting to that something else. It’s too much to get into today, but know that there’s a future episode about communication in the works and this will definitely be in there. Back to imposter syndrome!

Our perception of who we are is based on stories we’ve created about these experiences, about these feelings.
So in the case of stories we are telling ourselves that cause feelings of anxiety or fear, like the things we tell ourselves when we’re in the depths of imposter syndrome - things like “I don’t think I can do this - I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m a fraud…” those thoughts can trigger our sympathetic nervous system, our fight flight freeze fawn response, because we are sensing a threat to our relationships, in the case of imposter syndrome, how others perceive us and our expertise - and we feel understandably threatened by that. We perceive or predict judgment, criticism, rejection, and our survival responses kick in: heart rate goes up and the survival strategy is to give up authenticity in order to maintain those relationships.

When our fight response is triggered by imposter syndrome it can lead to perfectionism - being fixated on imperfections, trying to control situations, working longer & harder, and being consumed with a need to be flawless.

When our flight response is triggered by imposter syndrome it can lead to procrastination - delaying or postponing working on something, even though there will be negative impacts for stalling out.

When our freeze response is triggered by imposter syndrome it can lead to analysis paralysis - overanalyzing & overthinking a situation that halts forward motion or decision-making.

When our fawn response is triggered by imposter syndrome it can lead to people pleasing - neglecting our own needs out of fear of disappointing others.

Each of these responses is linked to the sympathetic nervous system, which means working with techniques that first address this stress response makes it possible more quickly and effectively deal with imposter syndrome. So, what are those techniques?

Let’s talk about one very specific technique that can help you feel more empowered, to prevent imposter syndrome AND to help you get it under control.
Ten years ago, Amy Cuddy gave an incredible TED talk, which I will link to in the show notes.
In her talk, Amy shares her research on how body language - our posture - can impact how we feel about ourselves. Amy’s research focuses on power poses (also called postural feedback) and how it can create create feelings of optimism, creativity, authenticity, the ability to self-regulate, and even improve performance in some cases - lending more credibility to what I’m being taught about somatic embodiment. How we hold our bodies, how we move the and use them, impacts how we feel and how we think. Here’s how to do an expansive posture:
Simply stand up straight or sit tall in your seat with feet apart, hands on your hips, chin pointed up, and puffing out your chest. Hold this pose for two minutes.
As you’re doing this pose, recall praise you’ve been given, call to mind experiences where you felt empowered. Doing this exercise has been shown to have a measurable effect on how you feel, and on how you approach your next challenge.

There’s another reason I’m talking about posture: since lockdowns in 2020, our bodies have really been pushed into some strange postures, literally and figuratively.

Basically, we’re spending more and more time at home and less time outside, less time in big open spaces inside or out, less time letting our bodies stretch and take up space, we’re spending more time bent over our computers or phones… it’s called pandemic posture.
It’s wreaking havoc on the way we hold ourselves - which I believe is having a humongous impact on how we feel, from the inside out. A lot of what we experience in life starts with a feeling, and we make stories about where that feeling is coming from. In the case of a negative feeling - like imposter syndrome or anxiety, where our sympathetic nervous system is getting triggered - we can’t do that until we reel that sympathetic nervous system back in. It’s like one of this trick snake jars - you know the ones where the jar is disguised like a can of peanuts and you open it up and this colorful “snake” which is actually just a spring pops out and scares the beejeepers out of you? We have to be able to put the dang lid back on. So that’s why I’m talking about Amy Cuddy’s 2012 Ted talk about posture feedback: it’s awesome for helping us become more aware of how we’re holding ourselves AND has an actual measurable impact on how we feel about ourselves.

That’s all for today. Thanks for listening, there’s more in the show notes if you need it. Over and out!