You’re about to click ‘send’ on an overdue client pitch that has kept you awake since 3am, stressing about how they might find you out.
You’re listening to the announcer as you wait to walk on stage, with your inner critic screaming at you that they’re going to find out you’re a fake, if you dare to open your mouth.
An incredible opportunity has come up and you’re dying to raise your hand, but you’re hesitating, asking yourself ‘who am I to do that?‘ and you know you’ve only got moments until someone else says yes, instead of you.
There are times when navel-gazing isn’t an option and you need an emergency quick fix. And whilst I don’t normally do ‘sticky plasters’ (Band Aids for my American friends), sometimes you need to be able to smooth over the cracks that are threatening to become an instant ravine, so you can get on and let your Inner Genius shine.
And – especially for those moments, this article brings you my favourite emergency quick fix.
But before we dive in, let’s look at why emergency fixes can be useful for Imposter Syndrome: it starts with a whistle-stop tour of the neuroscience of performance.
So, for most of us, if Imposter Syndrome strikes, it’s not the first time. In fact, it’s a well-rehearsed routine that takes us from trigger to terrified in nanoseconds. And that is because we subconsciously programmed our brains to do that for us.
The more you think a particular sequence of thoughts or retell ourselves a story about something that was emotionally difficult, the more it gets wired into your neurology as a fast-track sequence, like an autopilot programme or a motorway in your brain.
Those practised stories (which I call mind-story fears) also train the part of your brain responsible for filtering sensory information what it should pay attention to and what it should ignore. So it doesn’t matter how often you get positive feedback, if your story-habits are about how people might realise you’re a fake, that praise won’t go in.
This has its uses – it’s why we can talk while we walk without having to remember all those mirco muscle movements it takes to balance and not fall flat on our faces. But it also means that seemingly innocent triggers, such as ‘could you give that presentation on Monday, please?‘ can fire off a whole emergency-response sequence, without us consciously choosing to go there.
When we’re in that mind-story fear zone, it triggers off the sympathetic nervous system – the bit that’s responsible for your fight-flight-freeze response – to fire up the cortisol and adrenalin to keep you safe from the sabre-toothed tiger. And whilst there’s evidence that a little bit of adrenalin can lead to increased performance (see the difference between fear and excitement), too much quickly impairs performance.
The stress response – triggered by Imposter Syndrome – shifts the blood flow in your brain from the frontal cortex, which makes strategic decisions and is great at problem solving and presenting, to the primal part that cares about nothing other than stopping you from being eaten.
It doesn’t care about you remembering what you wanted to talk about in your presentation. It isn’t interested in helping you to structure a compelling argument to win that client pitch. It doesn’t give two hoots about you getting the chance to shine at some future date. It wants to keep you safe. Right here. Right now.
So the first element of my sixty second solution for Imposter Syndrome is getting your sympathetic nervous system to stand down.
Then there’s the second element: pressing ‘pause’ on the negative self-talk that triggered the Imposter Syndrome outbreak in the first place. I have a number of ways to do this, but one of the quickest – especially if you’re an over-thinker like me – is with a simple question from the world of meditation and mindfulness. It gives you back your perspective and turns that mountain back into a molehill.
Why is it so important to do this?
Because there’s no point in calming your stress response if you’re still thinking the thoughts that triggered it – within a minute or two Imposter Syndrome will be back!
Stand up (if that’s an option), with your feet placed flat on the floor, about shoulder width apart.
Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth with a sigh – an audible ‘ahhh’ works best, depending on who else is around.
As you breathe in, imagine you’re breathing in from the earth, through the soles of your feet and up to your belly area.
As you breathe out, imagine you are letting go of the tension in that area, breathing it out through your feet and into the earth. Do this slowly, three times or until you feel a sense of calm and relief.
Imagine you’re watching your inner commentary on Imposter Syndrome on a movie screen, being played out by an actor.
Listening to the kinds of things you’re saying to yourself and ask yourself: “Is this really true? Or is it just Imposter Syndrome speaking?”
If it is genuinely true, commit to doing something about it – later. If it isn’t, allow that thought to drift on through.
You can wrap this up by smiling and reminding yourself about three things you are doing well, without using the word ‘but’!
Don’t wait until you need it! Play with this whenever you notice low-level Imposter Syndrome thoughts coming up, so that the process gets anchored in to your habitual memory.
And please make it fun! It’s not about beating yourself up because you had a ‘feeling like a fraud’ thought. It’s about accepting that part of you felt scared and that you can choose whether or not to dive into that drama, right here, right now.
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How did it feel, playing with this technique?
Which shifts did you notice?
And how might you remember to experiment with this, so it becomes an instinctive response to Imposter Syndrome thoughts when you don’t have time for deeper-acting techniques?
And if you know anyone who might love this technique, please share this article with them.
No one should have to struggle in silence with Imposter Syndrome.
Clare Josa | Author of Ditching Imposter Syndrome
P.S. Could you spare a moment to help with the 2019 Imposter Syndrome Survey? Thank you!