Moving forward through Imposter Syndrome so that you can come out the other side means accepting that in order to succeed, accept that you need to fail. It is part of the learning curve. I understand and know that I may not be the therapist that I am today, without having needed therapy myself. I needed to settle for slower success in a therapy setting after realizing that I have to go at the pace of the person sitting opposite me. That fundamental lesson was learned through error. And I wouldn’t have learned it better any other way.
As a part of our series about how very accomplished leaders were able to succeed despite experiencing Imposter Syndrome, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carla Buck.
Carla Buck, MA, LMHC., is a writer, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, and a global traveler having traveled to over 85 countries worldwide. She has experience working with children and their parents; and high achievers all over the world having lived, worked and volunteered in Africa, North America, Europe and now the Middle East. Carla is the creator of Warrior Brain [www.warriorbrain.com], where her mission is to provide simple and practical tools to help both families and professionals cope with confidence and calm.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
I could tell you about my upbringing in southern South Africa and Botswana, and how I went to an all-girls boarding school at 16. I could tell you about studying my postgraduate studies in the Pacific NorthWest. And about starting out married life in Eastern Europe or even my global travels whilst being based in the Middle East. Or I could skip all that and lure you in with my own struggle with anxiety. Because that would be my true ‘backstory’.
I remember my mom taking me to the doctor for a sore stomach that wouldn’t go away when I was 8 years old. How I later developed Irritable Bowel Syndrome before I had left Primary school and then found myself vomiting from stress when I was 16 years old. It was then that I first met with Judy. I learned what it meant to have anxiety and the profound impact it had on life if it wasn’t dealt with properly. After learning how to be in control of it, rather than it being in control of me, I knew I wanted to be for others what Judy, my therapist, had been for me.
Fast forward a couple years, and I started the journey of online therapy with just one person. And person by person, I grew it from there. I wanted to be really good at it. And because I knew my Imposter Syndrome could be easily triggered if someone questioned how effective I was, I wanted to be as helpful and valuable at online therapy as I was face to face. I set about creating a network based on referrals rather than using any marketing at all. It was my own way of testing my own authenticity. Talk about Imposter Syndrome, ha!
Now with a healthy track record of value gained from my services, I couldn’t be more grateful that Warrior Brain was set up before the online therapy boom in 2020. I now have a solid foundation to support the people that need it the most. I really wanted to get good at what my ever-enduring supervisor calls the “art and science” of therapy. I wanted to understand the science of it all, so that I could get better at the art of it too.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
One defining moment for me was early on in my internship. I was placed at an agency that served primarily physically and sexually abused kids. I had a young child who shouldn’t have experienced what he did at his age. No kid should. I remember desperately wanting to ‘fix’ him. To take away all his hurting feelings and to do it all as quickly as possible. I started to talk about his trauma with him, but he wasn’t ready for it. I pushed too hard and too soon. He left the room — although not physically, he dissociated right before my eyes. He came back when he was ready and when he felt safe enough. It probably took about a minute in total but that single minute felt like hours to me. It was horrifying to me that I could cause such a strong reaction in a child. This taught me so much about my profession and about me. I learned never to go at a pace other than what is set by the human being sitting across from me. Who am I to decide on the pace of healing for someone else’s pain? Ultimately, it was not him that needed fixing. It was me.
I started out focusing just on anxiety and how that shows up for different people. I fell into a niche of working with bright people who naturally, have very deep-thinking minds. I have had the honor of working with intellectuals who have worked at companies including Microsoft, and Big Five firms like McKinsey, Bain&Co and EY. I have also had the honor of working with students at Ivy League universities across the world, including Oxford University and Brown University among others. One of my biggest learnings about people who struggle with anxiety and also Imposter Syndrome, is just how exceptionally intelligent they can be. This taught me how easy it is for us human beings to get in our own way. There is not enough research out there on the link between intelligence and anxiety, or even with Imposter Syndrome. But from the experience I have had working with some of the brightest minds I know, being intelligent can be both a blessing and a curse.
One of the most interesting stories I have to share is still a work in progress. And truthfully, I am still learning lessons from it. Maybe I’ll write about it one day, or maybe I won’t. The idea that “things are not always as they seem” is absolutely true. Just because one person perceives an event to be one way, doesn’t mean the other person doesn’t perceive that very same event in an entirely different way. The way we layer meaning onto certain parts of our childhood and current experiences has a huge impact on how we see the world. How we internalize it and make sense of it. Or alternatively, how we don’t.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Warrior Brain was created out of a need I saw within my community. Long before the virus made “online therapy” a regular household Google search, I wanted to meet the need that individuals and families had to learn how to hit the off switch in their brains. And how to do this from the safety and comfort of their own home.
I started out working with worried kids and their parents. The more I did this, the more I understood that little kids become ‘big kids’ and get ‘big jobs’ and yet that big anxiety still lingers. Those big jobs have big responsibilities, and when this anxiety just continues to build and build without being kept in check it gets more and more intense. The fear of being “found out” grows and then the need to slow the brain down and find calm becomes imperative to living.
I started to meet with worried kids and teens and also with their working parents. Followed by professionals who had lived with their inner critic and become used to their own crippling self-doubt, until they realized that normal daily living had become unmanageable and totally overwhelming.
My company stands out because I do not take a cookie cutter approach to everyone I work with. I only work with 12–15 families and individuals at one time, so it is a very direct and hands on approach within a very specific group of people which has allowed me to become immersed in a world that is not so easily understood. I am not afraid to say, “I don’t know.” I am not afraid to dive head-first into research to uncover more answers. What I am afraid of, is knowing what this world will look like if we don’t find out as much as we can about anxiety and how it can change us and the world around us, and how we can best stay aware of those changes.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Without a doubt. There are so many people. But as you mention one person in particular, it would have to be my husband. Rory and I have been figuring out life as a team since we were teenagers. Success for me is intertwined with who Rory is as a person. He leads the way. He shines his brightest light by being a good example and a good leader to those around him, me included. I am a better human being because of how he listens to me and helps me figure out better ways to simply be me. I would not have and be who I am today without his consistent support and ability to drop everything to listen to me. He was the one who encouraged me to take my business online in 2014. My first thought was “no one does that, online therapy is so controversial. Other professionals and even my supervisor might not agree with it.” He challenged me by asking, “what exactly doesn’t make it okay, and what is so awful about a therapist specializing in anxiety and high achievers, even if others aren’t doing it?” He taught me to be brave enough to ask the seemingly silly questions and to challenge what I believed. He does not have a fragile ego, is proud of me and my work, and knows his way around the kitchen. He is to me what Marty was to Ruth Ginsburg.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the experience of Impostor Syndrome. How would you define Impostor Syndrome? What do people with Imposter Syndrome feel?
Imposter syndrome is essentially a feeling of self-doubt. The feeling that one day, you’re going to be caught out and “they” will realize you are a total fraud, especially as your responsibilities and expectations increase. A deep-seated fear is that you will be “found out” and revealed as a complete and utter fake. And moreover, these feelings often exist despite external affirmation, recognition, and evidence of good (namely, great) work. An individual or group even, may feel this way even after they receive validation and affirmation for their achievements.
People with Imposter Syndrome feel a storm cloud of emotions. It is significantly linked to burnout [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5116369/] for this very reason. Those who feel this way, more specifically feel exhaustion, cynicism, emotional exhaustion and even depersonalization. They often feel like they don’t fit in. That they don’t belong and that they are far from ‘normal.’ Feeling like a fake and constantly questioning their own ability and achievements are hallmarks of this syndrome.
Competent kids and teenagers that have been compared to their friends all throughout their lives, are included in this group. They are familiar with comparing themselves to others and are constantly evaluating themselves. It is how we measure achievement as a society, and this includes college readiness right through to promotions at work. This constant comparison of oneself to others can be incredibly isolating, leaving high achievers feeling like outcasts who then try to belong by being more like the others, rather than belonging to a group just because of who they are.
Imposter Syndrome can also be seen from a cultural lens. It is less a diagnosis or psychiatric disorder, and more a way of seeing one’s self in comparison to the others in the group. We can see this in movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter. This is a new spin on Imposter Syndrome and there is much more to be said here. We need more research in this area and there has never been a better time for it.
What are the downsides of Impostor Syndrome? How can it limit people?
When you have Imposter Syndrome, the downward spiral of thoughts sounds similar to: “What if I answer the question and I am wrong? What if I fail? What does that say about me? What happens if I put in the effort and try and I still fail? Then what does THAT say about me?”
Intense fear of failure can handicap you and cut you off at the knees. You might even find yourself not taking the necessary risks to grow. Failure is a part of a full life. In fact, it is critically important to you succeeding in life. You cannot succeed unless you fail along the way. If you have Imposter Syndrome, you can feel a deep sense of panic and terror for seemingly simple tasks. Getting out of bed in the morning can be a challenging ordeal. Showing up to work, attending a team meeting and giving a presentation can all lead to that downward spiral of negative thinking and feeling like “there must be some kind of mistake…” as to why you are there at all.
Imposter Syndrome can give you “all or nothing thinking”. It can be paralyzing just to exist in a room full of people. The lack of credibility is not necessarily true but the perception that it is, can feel very real. Sometimes these negative thoughts mean that you can train your mind to interpret events as not only challenging, but as a threat. This means you can feel paralyzed to speak up at meetings because you actually believe yourself to be in danger. You can end up not asking for what you deserve, such as a promotion at work, because you feel you are unqualified. Potentially, those with Imposter Syndrome miss the boat because when asked if they are ready or interested, they don’t believe they are. Imposter Syndrome is linked to perfectionism [https://hbr.org/2008/05/overcoming-imposter-syndrome] and also often links with self-worth too [https://journals.lww.com/academicmedicine/Fulltext/2018/05000/_Rising_to_the_Level_of_Your_Incompetence___What.41.aspx]. This vicious cycle of thoughts and actions can limit you by leaving you thinking that something is not worth doing unless it is done perfectly. And then, by not attempting that thing, you prove to yourself that you’re not good enough, as you achieve less than you set out to achieve. Ultimately, your self-worth plummets and your perfectionistic goals become even harder to reach.
How can the experience of Impostor Syndrome impact how one treats others?
Imposter Syndrome can create a tornado of anxiety. You can easily hear your own thoughts having conversations with themselves. You can catch your mind having deep conversations with itself that go like this, “on one hand, you believe one thing, but on the other hand, you very much believe the other thing too”. And as these thoughts go back and forth, the flight or fight response is activated. This can mean more anger and higher avoidance. It can also look like a complete shut down too, depending on how each individual responds to threat.
Those who often feel like a fraud can believe that they don’t have enough experience. And they give way to others that they think will do a better job. There is no evidence to prove that others will do better — but they often believe someone else is more competent for the job regardless. They are quick to compliment others, but not so quick to complement themselves. They are quick to turn the attention on to others to avoid any compliments, for fear of one day maybe being “found out.”
We would love to hear your story about your experience with Impostor Syndrome. Would you be able to share that with us?
Hilariously, my most recent experience was as soon as I was asked to write this article. I immediately began questioning my own authority. Am I really a person of great influence? Did you really mean to pick me for this piece?
This wasn’t the first time it happened. And it won’t be the last. When I was chosen to be the graduate speaker at my university, I wondered if my classmates would agree that I was well suited for the job. Or was it only my professor who nominated me, that thought that I was a good fit? And when I had a job interview for a placement that I was headhunted for, I found myself in a public bathroom five minutes before the interview giving myself a pep talk. When I started my own business, I wondered if I would ever cut it, and whether the people I would have the honor of working with, would know that I cared for their wellness as deeply as I do, or would they think I am just here to run a business.
Did you ever shake the feeling off? If yes, what have you done to mitigate it or eliminate it
Yes. I did, and I still do.
Gottman is a very well-known researcher in the world of relationships and what makes them work. According to science, the magic ratio is 5 to 1. This means that for ever negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has 5 (or more) positive interactions [https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-magic-relationship-ratio-according-science/
]. I apply the same line of thinking. If I catch myself doubting my own ability, I think of 5 pieces of evidence that suggest I am capable. I try to be as objective as possible, and it usually helps me quieten my inner critic.
When talking about the individual, pursuing self-care and journaling is often most frequently recommended. I struggled to journal for years. I knew it was helpful, continued to ask that my clients did it — but I struggled to do it myself. Then I built it into my morning routine, and thankfully it stuck. It helps me to be creative and short circuit my amygdala (an almond shaped part of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response) from working too hard. Actually, writing this article was a way I chose to get myself out of a hole I recently found myself in. I felt apathetic for a string of days and knew I needed to get creative to help myself see a way out. This very article is a response to my own Imposter Syndrome.
When I was doing the research for it, it came as quite a surprise to me that the narrative is often directed at the individual, when in fact we need to be having a greater conversation about how it applies to groups. Imposter Syndrome may better be solved as a group — especially now with so many movements pushing for racial equality and equal rights for all. We need a cultural transformation where organizations believe in their own men and women that are willing to stand for it. “We as individuals have learned behaviors that we believe help us get recognition and value in certain environments — when really, it just perpetuates a cycle. This oversight leads to individuals doubting their capabilities and deepening a societal sense of imposter syndrome especially within minorities. Imposter syndrome is but a symptom, inequity is the disease.” [https://www.deepdyve.com/lp/american-medical-association/imposter-syndrome-706M8ZCbBJ?articleList=%2Fsearch%3Fquery%3Dimposter%2Bsyndrome%26dateFrom%3D2017-01-01]
I watched the first football game of the season this month. A moment of silence was observed for racism and equality, and the two football teams showed unity by linking arms before the game. We need more of this: a large-scale cultural change in mindset, to support the individual change in mindset. Shaking the feeling off will come with whole organizations coming together as one, in spite of the attitudes around them. As an individual, I use the above tools to quieten my own inner critic. And as a society, we are being shown how to do the same. It comes down to purposefully taking action, even when we are not the most directly affected one on the field.
In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone who is experiencing Impostor Syndrome can take to move forward despite feeling like an “Impostor”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Moving forward through Imposter Syndrome so that you can come out the other side means accepting that in order to succeed, accept that you need to fail. It is part of the learning curve. I understand and know that I may not be the therapist that I am today, without having needed therapy myself. I needed to settle for slower success in a therapy setting after realizing that I have to go at the pace of the person sitting opposite me. That fundamental lesson was learned through error. And I wouldn’t have learned it better any other way.
- You may get told by others that you failed. You may get told you need to work harder, be more and actually “hit the mark this time” so that you are enough. Expect this. Focus on the learning along the way, rather than constantly evaluating your performance. You cannot expect yourself to know everything. As there will never be a time when you do. Succeeding for me, looks like learning. When I am constantly learning, I am constantly succeeding.
- Remember that whilst Imposter Syndrome can knock your self-esteem, it can also give you a very clear direction of how to build your self-esteem. It’s about how you choose to interpret your areas of growth. When starting my company, I wasn’t sure I had what it took. I never grew up dreaming of being an entrepreneur. I came very close to giving up many times. But then I came to the realization that the single thing I needed to do to succeed was just keep going and now I know I can take on anything my business throws at me because I am confident in my own ability to just keep going.
- Have awareness of yourself, your actions and inaction. This year I was tagged in a social media post about systemic issues in my high school relating to racial inequality. I read the post and left without actively participating by commenting. It took me some time to realize that by doing that, I was perpetuating the cycle. The cycle of silence and inequality. Know yourself and the groups you belong to. Know what it means to choose to stay quiet or to choose to speak up. And then make a choice that you can live with and stand by.
- Similar to what happened on the football field this month and those seeking justice for loved ones like Breonna Taylor, we too need to choose to stand in unity against societal norms. Choose to look outside yourself and celebrate the person standing next to you for standing up for what they believe in. I am always honored when someone chooses to be authentic with me. When a parent says something like, “I screamed at him and pinched him, and I feel terrible because I have never done something like that. What kind of a mother am I?” You’re the kind of mother who is trying her best, and you lost your cool. All mothers do, and it doesn’t make you any less of a mama than you were before it happened. We can help others along just by giving them space to be authentically themselves.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Right now, the world needs us to slow down. The movement I choose to inspire through my interactions every single day, is the awareness of this. If we all had a better sense of actually doing one thing at a time and taking care of ourselves and others, maybe we wouldn’t feel so pressured and constantly keyed-up. Maybe we wouldn’t be diagnosed with stress related diseases and mental health disorders as frequently. Maybe we would actually feel capable of ‘being’ who we want to be — rather than ‘doing’ what we feel we need to do.
I know I am but a tiny drop in the ocean. I can’t help but celebrate with all the joy in my soul when one more person in this world has a greater awareness of their own needs before trying to care for the needs of others. The bigger challenge is saying no to something that is not a top priority. It is being brave enough to not check your notifications multiple times an hour. It takes real courage, knowing what your top priorities are and giving most of your attention to those.
Be the person you want to be. It is not about what you will ‘do’ with your life. It is about whether you are right now, the person you want to ‘be’. Not tomorrow. But right now.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
Lori Gottlieb helped me know myself better as a therapist. She helped me breathe life into my own weird and wonderful ways of being human and helping people figure things out for themselves. To be okay with my own humanity as opposed to needing to find ways to ‘fix’ it. I have also just started listening to Michelle Obama’s podcast. I respect the change she has made in this world. She is a doing-the-best-she-can mama, and an incredibly supportive wife to her husband who she continues to find ways to adore. She is open and honest and isn’t scared to laugh at herself. And, she can do a push-up or 15 at the drop of a hat, no problem.
Both these women are uniquely human and forgive themselves for being mere mortals. And in fact, they celebrate their own humanity as a way of amplifying their own gifts to the world. When I wake up each morning, this is how I want to be.
That would be one heck of a breakfast date, with push-ups to boot.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find Warrior Brain on Instagram at @warrior.brain and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/warriorbrain/.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!