Why do ‘Imposter’ thoughts show up?

Right now I’m in the middle of making a bunch of exciting (and scary) changes to my business. Starting to blog, launching a new look website and new coaching programmes, planning a podcast, and taking on a new employee! It’s all great stuff, but with all this ‘newness’ comes a ferocious comeback of my Imposter Syndrome, aka the ‘Imposter Gremlin’. (Yes, coaches suffer with it too, even though we are supposed to know what to do with it!).

Imposter syndrome is estimated to affect at least 70% of us at some point in our careers and is defined as ‘The persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.’ It can affect anyone at any career stage and it happens because our minds are problem solving machines. This is mostly very useful, especially for researchers tackling complex problems daily. However, in the case of Imposter Syndrome, the problem solving turns inwards as our mind presents us with a constant stream of internal ‘problems’ as it tries to work out where we might fail, not measure up to expectations or not ‘fit in’ with the crowd. When you experience ‘Imposter thoughts’ your mind might present you with unhelpful and unpleasant little nuggets such as ‘I’m a fraud’, ‘I don’t deserve this success’, ‘I’m going to be found out’, ‘everyone is so much better than me’, ‘I was just lucky’ ‘they are just being kind, they actually think I’m rubbish’ etc etc. (ouch!)

Our mind is always on the lookout for potential threats and problems
picture of a head with lots of negative thoughts surrounding it

If you experience Imposter syndrome it might not be fierce all the time, it might come in waves. Everyone has their own triggers. For me, it’s ‘newness’ – doing things for the first time, figuring out new technology, working with a new person/organisation, sending my words out into the world for the first time (I’m in good company with the newness trigger, check out Brene Brown’s podcast on FFTs!). Researchers I work with also describe other common triggers such as:

  • taking on new responsibilities,
  • a significant professional success,
  • leadership situations,
  • speaking up in meetings,
  • being called on for your expertise,
  • publishing and talking about your work,
  • teaching something new,
  • making comparisons with colleagues.

In academia, where the work is complex, the stakes high and the competition fierce, there really is a veritable smorgasbord of potential imposter syndrome triggers, which is why it’s one of the most common themes in our coaching sessions regardless of discipline or career stage.

Whilst imposter thoughts are indeed normal human cognitions, the problems arise when the thoughts ‘hook’ you in. If you start buy into those thoughts, they may start to negatively govern your actions and cause you to engage in behaviours that, whilst potentially removing short-term discomfort, result in negative long-term consequences for you professionally and/or personally. See if you recognise any of the behaviours listed here, if you do there’s a good chance the Imposter Gremlin (more on him later) might have a grip on you.

Behaviours that might arise if imposter thoughts ‘hook’ you in

5 Strategies for handling ‘imposter’ thoughts

Imposter thoughts will naturally show up from time to time, but they don’t have to get in the way of doing what’s important for you. Here are five strategies to help you to put imposter thoughts into perspective and continue to make positive progress, whatever that might mean for you.

1. Regularly reflect on and own your successes

Ideas for this strategy include:

  • Create a ‘happy folder’ in your email inbox where you store any positive feedback you receive, recognition, successes or news about how your work is having a positive impact. Make sure you take a look through it regularly – particularly on the days when the imposter thoughts are starting to get the better of you.
  • Proactively seek feedback from others – work hard to accept and hold on to the positive feedback you receive.
  • Make a list of the things you’ve achieved, keep it up to date and review it regularly – a good way to do this is to keep a dynamic CV that you add to regularly.
  • Each day note down 3 things you’ve done well that day. These don’t have to be ground-breaking accomplishments – just things that help you know you’ve done a good job.

2. Regularly step outside your comfort zone

We grow and develop confidence best when we work on things that are a little bit beyond our comfort level.

The more regularly you stretch yourself outside of your comfort zone and do the things that will help you to develop, the more practiced you will become at handling the discomfort that naturally accompanies new experiences. Rather than letting uncomfortable feelings stop you – you will start to recognise that those feelings are a sign that you are (a) doing something that matters to you and (b) able to push through discomfort and achieve positive outcomes.

Try to identify a few things that you could start doing now that would stretch you outside your comfort zone. Don’t go too crazy and set yourself unachievable goals, but do look for a opportunities to try something new or use your skill set in different ways than you usually would. Remember to take time to reflect and congratulate yourself when you’ve pushed yourself to do something you didn’t feel confident with previously.

Growth happens outside the ‘comfort zone’ – by it’s very nature, growth comes with an element of discomfort
Concentric circles showing the different levels of comfort

3. Observe and defuse from your thought patterns

This takes some serious practice but is worth the effort!

Take an observational approach to your imposter thoughts, notice what they are saying to you. Start to analyse which thoughts are helpful to you and which are not.

Practice cognitive defusion techniques (a bit like social distancing, but with your own thoughts!) to ‘unhook’ from the thoughts, so that you can start to see them for what they really are – words and pictures that your mind is presenting to you.

I find it helpful to picture an ‘Imposter Gremlin’, who is providing the negative thoughts. This enables me to take a more objective look at the thought – it turns it from being part of my identify ‘I’m a fraud’ to something external ‘my Imposter Gremlin is telling me I’m a fraud’ – I can then decide if the gremlin is being helpful or not, and choose my actions accordingly! Here’s my gremlin – it helps to have a picture of him as it makes it funny and provides some extra distance from the nasty thoughts he’s trying to beat me up with.

Picturing the ‘Imposter Gremlin’ can help to create some distance between you and the imposter thoughts
little red scruffy gremlin surrounded with negative messages

4. Put comparisons into perspective

It is very natural to make comparisons with others, but it can be a prime trigger for imposter thoughts.

  •  Moderate your use of social media, pull back from it if you are noticing that it is fuelling the imposter thoughts.
  • Remember that whilst you know everything about your own situation, when comparing with others you are only able to see the part of their story that they share with you – often these are just the ‘highlights’, we are rarely invited to witness the challenges/struggles behind these.
  • Where possible, try to focus your energy and attention on identifying and moving towards the things that are important to you. You don’t have control over what happens to others, but you are able to exercise influence over your own goals and decisions.

5. Talk about imposter thoughts and feelings with others

Take opportunities to discuss your thoughts and feelings with other people you trust. Help others who experience similar challenges and share what you learn along the way. The more openly we talk about Imposter Syndrome and share our experiences, the better we can help each other to navigate it when the Imposter Gremlin tries to take charge!

For help and support with any of these topics please contact us and visit us at www.researchcoach.co.uk to see our services for researchers and academics.

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