Imposter syndrome has been in the limelight for a while now and recently I saw that Michelle Obama still wrestles with it. I was drawn to this for some reason when her marketing frenzy touched my world, I’d seen a brief snippet of something on Facebook and later that afternoon I wandered into Tesco and was greeted with a stand containing a good number of her book where this is also mentioned.
What grabbed me about this was the attempt to connect on an emotional level with the masses currently making decisions what to buy our loved ones (or ourselves) this Christmas. Imposter syndrome has gathered more momentum of late, but apparently was a term coined in the year of my birth, 1978.
This essay is actually about the root causes of this and how imposter syndrome is a single symptom of a broader umbrella human condition that most if not all human beings need to deal with either at points or all through our lives.
I believe that this condition is actually something we all wrestle with as part of the human design. It affects us all in slightly different ways, but it is a default way of being and acting that we have established as a way of handling difficult scenarios that confront us where we have no immediate, easy solutions. I call it Self Sabotage Syndrome and is a mechanism or templated way of being that extracts us from the presenting issue in our environments.
Let’s start with imposter syndrome. Back in 1978 psychologists Pauline R. Chance and Suzanne A. Imes were trying to explain why high achieving women described themselves as being ‘lucky’ rather than successful. With widespread acceptance of the term, it now applies to men and women. As it turns out, its a lot more common now we know more about it and more have shared their experiences of it.
Having seen more about this in the press and Michelle Obama reminding us of the emotions and feelings it brings about, I wondered how common the condition is. I was surprised (at least initially), that in one article it stated that 70% of the U.S. population has at one time experienced this. This is most of the population experiencing a condition that when defined is experienced by high-achievers. How can this be purely applicable to high achievers when up to 70% of the American population have experienced it at some point in their lives?
From our understanding of how the brain works, the idea of imposter syndrome seems plausible if it affected only the high-achievers, but the fact that so many of us are afflicted by feelings of doubt, depression, anxiety and other ‘negative’ thought patterns, I wanted to look into this in more detail.
At the core of imposter syndrome, there are the following traits that often present. These include perfectionism, competiveness, desire to know the most, solve problems quickly or to be self-reliant.
As we know, the reality of this is that no-one can be perfect, hardly anyone can be first all the time, no-one can know everything, be quicker to the solution for all problems or even purely depend upon themselves. Inherently in all these outlooks there is a set of false expectations being set.
From these 5 traits, it’s clear that this condition could certainly impact those achieving in the upper echelons of society as the expectations are impossible to live up to. What is interesting to me is that these traits are certainly not symptons that correlate purely with the top earners and achievers.
So what is common between these and how does it link to our understanding of the brain?
First of all these are all ways of being and acting that we have designed and created for ourselves throughout our lives. These serve individuals well when faced with certain situations. These are strong behaviours that serve a purpose in dealing with the day-to-day problems we face. Many of the same traits are both a blessing and curse. They drive individuals to to keep going when it’s tough and to do more.
Secondly, these ways of being are templated responses. They have been conditioned over years and several psychology papers outline how childhood events and experiences have formed these patterns and ways of being. These ways of being formed out of our past have been used time and time again and as such have some very strong neural connertions within our brains. These can be the neural hyperways that are used when the going gets tough.
Thankfully, as we know, the brain is able to create new neural pathways, which allow new templates to be created and for us to adopt different behaviours and ways of being. This is called neuroplasticity and is one of the remarkable aspects of being human. We learn and we adapt.
I am therefore proposing, that if we can recognise that we have our own ways of being, acting and impacting the world, then we can chose an alternative. This means we have the ability to create new ways of being to achieve a different outcome in the world.
Personally, I know I am not in the top 1% of ‘achievers’ whatever that means, however I do know that I experience a whole range of different thoughts that correlate to imposter syndrome. These thoughts can undermine and sabotage my being in the world and therefore, I think this condition should be more accurately labelled as Self-Sabotage Syndrome.
I use this term as many people, myself included, feel as though they cannot be an imposter if they haven’t achieved to the great level that others have. I am not a Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Prime-minister, Nelson Mandela, Marie Curie or Mother Theresa. I do however, believe that the same feelings are experienced by most, if not all, at some point in their lives.
Whether an individual has greatly achieved, not achieved anything or, more likely, fallen somewhere between the two. These thoughts and traits are present and manifest themselves as feelings of inadequacy. I have certainly experienced thoughts of ‘I’m not good enough’ and even ‘I’m nobody, they wouldn’t listen to me’.
These are all thoughts patterns and templates we are all have in some guise for better or for worse. My personal belief is that ‘imposter syndrome‘ is therefore a situational manifestation of this. This way of being is a product of engaging with the primitive part of the brain. Utilising the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus to constantly be on the look out for things that are not right in the world.
When there isn’t a real threat or if we have been storing up the mental energy associated with stress, anxiety, depression or otherwise, then our ever vigilant primitive brain can turn on itself, self sabotaging ourselves if you like.
As we are aware, the limbic system processes the world though searching for problems and calling on pre-programmed routines, tactics and behaviours to solve the perceived day to day problems we’re presented with. What if there isn’t a problem and there just feels like there is? What if there is no go-to templated response that works to get us out of the problem?
If you’ve read my other articles on here, you would know we could engage with the pre-frontal cortex, the creative part of the brain, but what if we don’t? What if we’re reliant on the primitive part of the brain because we’re tired, stressed, exhausted, depressed, anxious and not on form?
Using the primitive brain stored templates are the ‘lazy’ and potentially destructive solution that many of us have created to the problem. THey’re easy go-to’s when the going gets tough. We’ve hardwired this in to our primitive brains for this very reason. When times are difficult, we want easy and quick answers or results.
These go-to templated responses created in response to an event in the past. There will have been times as a child, that we faced a significant challenge (to ourselves at very least) that was related to our behaviour. It will have been something we had done (or not) that we had not been able to make sense of or influence at the time. It probably was an emotionally difficult scenario for us and without the experience that age and experience brings us, we had little in our tool box to side step the issue. In this moment, in processing the emotion and whatever events that took place, combined with not having an alternative view, we would have been led to the conclusion that the only thing that wasn’t right was us.
We decided that we were the one at fault.
This became a new tool for us to handle difficult, emotional or non-clear scenarios. A template or variation of this template now exist within most normal, healthy,wonderful and perfect human beings just like us. This template is like the earthing cable in an electrical system that provides a fail safe.
If there is no answer to the problem, threat or issue that we have to hand, then there maybe just this one templated response to go to. We determine that the problem therefore must be with ourselves. Something about us is not right, not good enough or incapable. This thought process will provide a solution to the problem, it will try to guide us to moving ourselves away from danger. If the problem is us, then we must have control over it. At least that’s the way we think!
This is an easy get out clause, but one that can have some negative consequences. If we believe that we are the one at fault and that there is something wrong with us, then the next obvious go-to subroutine would be to change our behaviour and follow an alternative pattern or template we have stored. If there isn’t one, our minds will look for the next best solution, but if there isn’t one, the only hardwired solution is, yes you guessed it – you are the cause of the problem.
When we identify ourselves as the cause of the problem and we then look to solve ourselves, it can prove a difficult logic top contend with. Without a suitable alternative templated solution in place, the solution to the problem “what’s wrong with me” is also going to get the same default response, “I am the problem and I’m not good enough”.
This can form the basis of a mental loop that I have referred to previously. “There’s a problem, there’s something wrong, it must be me, i am the problem. There’s a problem, the problem is me, it must be me, i am the problem, there’s a problem, the problem is me, it must be me, i am the problem.”
The ongoing negative chatter causes enough emotional energy to either pull us out of what we’re doing (e.g. cause us to behave in a manner that will lead us to move away from the issue) or physically shut us down through stress, depression or anxiety. If you think about how many thoughts, decisions, feelings and functions are processed by our brain in a short period of time, it’s staggering how many times this could be replayed in our minds and experienced again and again whilst we are searching for a solution within our primitive minds.
For a level or context, and because I find it pretty impressive, the human brain functions at 38 thousand trillion operations per second. The most powerful man-made super computer can only manage 0.002% of that. Our brains are true multi-taskers doing many things simultaneously. Therefore, this mental loop thought process can be repeated literally millions of times and replayed back in our minds and slight variations in search of a solution. When we have reached this point there are two options for us.
1. Continue the loop and hope for the best. This may lead to stress, anxiety, depression, exhaustion or the issues may resolve themselves. The mental energy may be expunged through the REM process we’ve discussed previously or another means. Things can turn out ok purely by chance and the events that unfold and usually do. We not in control of this option, but it’s what’s happened time and time again in many events of the past.
2. We can also recognise that as soon as we are speaking to ourselves and blaming, criticising or not believing in ourselves that we are earthing the circuit. We’re trying to retreat, get away from the issue and also going down old patterns that don’t give us control. They are automatic responses to take us away and move back to an easy life. The little voice in our heads that says “I’m not able to do this”, “I’m not good enough”, “What’s wrong with me” and other variation of this is also a signal to say STOP. It’s time to do something different. It’s not you, don’t be hard on yourself.
As we know, the way in which the amygdala, hypothalamus and hippocampus combine together to work quickly, swiftly and without hesitation is an impressive thing to behold. These go-to ‘ways of being’ work for us in certain scenarios and are activated when it believes the right situation calls for it. With this hardwired “I’m not good enough” questioning, a problem is presented to the primitive brain and it calls the response that has worked for us as a child and in our past thousands of times.
It’s had a pretty good batting average for a little effort solution to the problems that have faced us. In many instances, it has meant that we have not needed to solve these problems and has successfully pushed away from the issue. If the issue repeats iteself unresolved, we’re going to find ourselves mentally looping around the feelings of inadequacy and not being good enough.
So what can we do about it?
The first step is recognising this voice when it acknowledges the problem is you. This is the first warning sign that something else is going on. The reality is that it is not you that is the problem, it is just that you do not have a stored, templated response to get you through the problem easily.
The even better news is that we have the ability and capacity to create solutions to the issues and problems we face are not reliant on default templates to run our lives.
For me personally, it manifests it’s self in many ways. I’ve repeatedly heard my inner voice saying things like “I can’t do this again, I give up”, “here I am again, it must be me” or “it must be me that has caused this upset, i must try to make up for it”.
If we recognise the feeling and routine, we can choose an alternative approach and that is an exciting concept and we’ll cover that in part 2.