This is a summary of our podcast interview with Claire Josa author of Ditching Imposter Syndrome, a particular issue in midlife. Here’s advice on how to identify what’s going on, steps you can take to stop doubting yourself and feel less like an imposter. You can listen to the full interview here.
We need more feminine energy in every aspect of life but particularly leadership. It’s crucial that we are accepted for who we really are as women. In a research study I did in 2019, we found that there are actually three hidden factors in the gender pay gap, gender inequality and also BAME inequality.
The first one is the alpha male culture at the most senior levels. A lot of women simply don’t want to do leadership that way or can’t do that or they try to do that, and it fails and it hurts. The second factor was imposter syndrome and the third was lack of flexible working where you’re judged for wanting to be a mother or human, as well as an employee. This article focuses on imposter syndrome and how women can get past that and doubting themselves.
The difference between self-doubt and imposter syndrome
The research study showed that 52% of female respondents had struggled with imposter syndrome daily or regularly, and it was 49% for men. If you look around a typical office and if you include the people who also said sometimes in the past year, to the extent it has affected their work, that was 89%, so only 11% got imposter syndrome, rarely or never.
The key is to understand the difference between self-doubt and imposter syndrome. They often get mixed up. Self-doubt is about what we can and can’t do. It’s our skills. It’s when HR sends you on a training course for Excel or presenting and that issue goes away because you’ve got more confidence.
Imposter syndrome is when you know you’ve just done a great presentation, but at three o’clock in the morning, you’re still doubting whether or not you are good enough: who am I to be doing this? What I found through the research study is it’s an identity level issue. It’s the gap between who you see yourself as being and who you think you need to be to achieve something.
That gap is like a ravine and building a bridge over it is what we do with our coping strategies. Whereas what we actually need to do is allow ourselves to become the version of us that can close the gap. There’s no need for imposter syndrome.
The 4 Ps of imposter syndrome – how it shows up
You can tell a natural perfectionist because they show it. Fingernails, shoes, hat, they won’t leave the house until everything’s perfect. Some people are wired that way and that’s cool.
What we’re looking for though, is perfectionism in the field of life where we’ve got imposter syndrome. You might not be a perfectionist when you’re throwing food in the shopping trolley, but you might have a particular project at work where you’ve set your standards so high that they’re almost unachievable and if you do achieve them, then you’ll write it off as luck or fluke or a group effort.
The challenge is we also then project that onto our team members and we become knit-picking micromanagers because we’re scared. If they make a mistake, we will get found out as not being good enough and our world will end.
I realized when I developed this model, it fits perfectly with the stress response which is the fight flight freeze response. Perfectionism goes with fight: I will slay that project. It will be the best client pitch we’ve ever done. You are going to war with the project, with your perfectionism.
This is really the busyness where we’re doing lots of things that kind of add to the goal, but they don’t actually move us forward. It’s like we’re dancing around the edges of a scary volcano. This is the flight response, by keeping ourselves so busy with everything else. We’ve all got our favorite ways of procrastinating.
- Project Paralysis
This is the classic “can’t see me”. It’s like playing hide and seek with a three-year-old who’s like, you can’t see me. It’s the kind of project that skulks on our to-do list which makes us feel guilty every single day, but we never actually do anything until the deadline races towards us. Then we use the adrenaline of the deadline to pull an all-nighter to get it done. It feels great, but we were frozen. On the fight flight freeze response concept, that fits with freeze.
- People Pleasing
In an entrepreneurial environment, that’s all about discounting your prices before you’ve even been asked, having poor boundaries with clients, so over-giving, and giving too much away for free in a corporate environment.
It also includes taking on projects that don’t really belong to you and that aren’t even really gonna move your career forward and wanting to be liked. A classic example is somebody comes out of a meeting, totally rearranges their priorities in order to please Joe, because that’s what Joe asked for.
This one fits with a new category psychologists have found in the fight flight freeze response, which is called fawning, which is the equivalent of going up to the saber tooth tiger and stroking its nose and saying please don’t eat me. Instead of fighting the tiger or running from it or freezing and hoping it can’t see us, we go and try and make friends with it.
People pleasing is an issue particularly for women, because as children, as young girls, we’re taught to be good, to be kind and to be nice. It’s something that women struggle with a lot more than men. It’s much more obvious in women.
Those four Ps, the perfectionism, procrastination, project paralysis and people pleasing, they are the subconscious stress response behaviors when imposter syndrome strikes. Whether you’ve got imposter syndrome, or a member of your team is struggling with it, they’re really useful signposts for, “I might need to say something, I might need to do something.”
Ask yourself, what do I get to avoid by doing this behavior? What this can do is unlock the deeper motivation behind the behavior. If you try to stop procrastination by lowering your standards, for example, but you’ve not dealt with the imposter syndrome, what will happen is the unconscious bit inside that wants to keep you safe, will freak out and find another way to sabotage. What do I get to avoid by behaving in this way? Deal with that below the surface and then the need for that behavior disappears.
Peak imposter syndrome for women – menopause!
One of the things research showed, which I hadn’t expected, but it made complete sense once I’d found it, is that in the second half of life, there are two main factors that trigger imposter syndrome. One was returning from maternity leave and the other is menopause. The imposter syndrome rates for both were massively higher than the general population. The hardest time for imposter syndrome is actually menopause.
Coming back to work after maternity leave, it’s that real fear of can I even fit back in again and the mommy guilt, all of that adds to it. Anything that increases your stress levels makes you hypervigilant to threat. There’s a bit in your brain called the reticular activating system that monitors threats.
It’s trained to look for them. If you’ve increased your stress levels, it goes on high alert. You’re much more likely to spot that external evidence of, “Oh my goodness, they’ll find out I’m not good enough.”
With the menopause, you’ve got the hot flushes, the fog brain and you’ve got all these pretty bright, young things in their twenties coming up, thinking they know everything. You suddenly don’t feel valued as much potentially, or you’ve reached the stage in your career where you’ve had to shut down a lot of who you really are and there’s a bit of you, that’s having a go at you about it.
Whereas men in industry, the older they get, the wiser they’re perceived as being. With women at the moment, we still judge them differently. Us women need to go out there and change that culture for the generation below us but it is a cultural perception, that bias against older women.
It’s not just an external bias but an internal bias. We do it to ourselves as much as society does it to us. If you’re sitting in a meeting and your mind goes blank because you’ve just had a hormone rush go through, it’s really easy to judge yourself.
How imposter syndrome and stress contribute to brain fog and even hot flushes!
If you’re stressed, that’s also why your mind goes blank because in the fight, flight, freeze response, the body’s getting ready to run so it diverts the blood flow from the frontal cortex back to the primal part of the brain, which is rubbish answering questions when you’re put on the spot. It only cares about how fast the tiger’s running.
Anything that increases our stress level makes it even harder for us to perform. The very first stage that we need to take on a journey like this of clearing out imposter syndrome, is understanding the role of our self-talk and imposter syndrome, because it is an identity level issue, but the way we experience it is with that negative inner critic voice in our heads.
The very first thing I teach people is how to stop that in its tracks, how to press pause on our self talk in under sixty seconds and start to train it to be a cheerleader, because that reticular activating system, we program it what to pay attention to, and it filters in stuff that we’ve told it to pay attention to.
If we’ve told it, spot everything I’m doing wrong because I’m not good enough and they need to fire me, then that’s exactly what it will do. If, however, we reprogram it to spot what we are also doing well, it doesn’t mean you’ll turn into an arrogant, big head because that’s down to personality, not inner critic. You can train it in just sixty second chunks to actually rewire the neuro pathways in your brain so every single day it spots what you’re doing well, and it starts to turn into a genuine cheerleader.
Then you can go below the surface and look at the beliefs, the values, the identity level work that you’ve constructed around imposter syndrome, taking off those masks and clearing that out. The very first step is always knowing how to press pause on what I call mind story dramas.
We all know what they feel like that, one throwaway comment from someone and suddenly we’re down there in that spiral. Being able to pause that is powerful because that negative self-talk creates a biochemical reaction in the body that triggers stress and fear hormones. That is what creates our experience of emotions.
They’re effectively a chemical reaction in the body that feeds more negative thoughts and suddenly we’re down there on the floor, hiding in the ladies’ loos, wondering why we’re even doing this. Being able to stop that in under a minute, gives you back that frontal cortex blood flow for start.
We also know that things like hot flashes can be exacerbated by stress so it brings those down and it allows you to really concentrate and focus, be more of who you really are and let go of the fear-based triggers.
The huge identity shift that we can have when we hit midlife happens at a different point for each of us. For some, it’s coming back from maternity leave. For some, it’s when the kids fly the nest. For some it might be a particular date or a birthday. When we have an identity shift, imposter syndrome comes up because we’ve changed how we’re seeing ourselves.
I often talk about imposter syndrome as being the fear of others judging you the way you’re judging yourself. If we’re judging ourselves, the more we’re scared of others judging us and the worse imposter syndrome we’ll get. So it’s definitely time to stop judging yourself, also a fundamental part of how to stop doubting yourself!
You may also like: How To Overcome A Loss Of Confidence In Midlife and How To Find A More Sense Of Purpose In Midlife
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Clare Josa has been a leadership mentor since 2003. She’s the author of eight books, including Dare To Dream Bigger and Ditching Imposter Syndrome. She certified as an NLP Trainer in 2003, and is also a formally-trained Meditation and Yoga Teacher Teacher, a Reformed Engineer and the former Head of Market Research for one of the UK’s most disruptive companies.