Two Thirds of Women have Experienced Impostor Syndrome – Mindfulness Will Help

Impostor syndrome is where a person doubts that they are good enough… and so fear being exposed as a fraud:  A voice inside your head tells you that you are not as good as your colleagues, or, that you do not have the skills, ability or experience to be doing your job.  You start to believe that you have no right to be doing what you are doing; that you do not deserve success;  and that sooner or later you will be exposed.. as a fraud… as an impostor.

Last month a survey by Access Commercial Finance revealed that 66% of women have experienced impostor syndrome – men are 18% less like to experience it.  The survey showed that just over half (56%) of women say they have experienced impostor syndrome in the last 12 months.  The common triggers were criticism, having to ask for help and the use of jargon by colleagues. The research found that employees working in creative arts and design are most likely to experience imposter syndrome, with 87% of those in the sector experiencing it in the past 12 months.

HR Magazine quoted Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester’s business school.  Cooper says that impostor syndrome can have a long-term impact on an individual’s career. “Impostor syndrome can inhibit productivity and seriously limit an individual’s career progression. Self-doubt can also hold a highly-qualified person back from taking the chances that propel them forward,” he said.

Matt Haycox, a consultant at Access Commercial Finance, encouraged employers to provide more support for their employees to help tackle impostor syndrome. “Self-doubt can be the biggest obstacle to overcome, as our findings show, but employers can do more to help. More than one in 10 UK adults said not understanding technical language and industry jargon in the workplace made them doubt their own competence. This is easily tackled with a commitment to plain English and inclusive language,” he said. “Having to ask for help caused a lot of people to deal with impostor syndrome. Again employers can pre-emptively deal with this by ensuring their people, especially younger employees and new hires, are briefed clearly and given ongoing support as they learn.”

So on the one hand we can see that women,  particularly those returning to the workplace after maternity leave or those pursuing a career in a male dominated culture, may well be more prone to such thoughts; yet I expect that the lower score from men may be down to their denial!  So the gap may be closer than we think.

Impostor syndrome has be known about for quite a while – yet as an employer I can’t ever recall any initiative to try to reduce it and hence avoid demoralising a significant percentage of staff …and thereby failing to get the best from them.  Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes first investigated ‘Impostor Phenomenon’ in the 1970s, and it came to widespread public attention through Clance’s book on the topic in 1985.

Helpfully, there are practical suggestions for that experience impostor syndrome – such as keeping a list of achievements – so that you can see that you are making progress.  Accepting that there is jargon and not being afraid to ask for explanations; and perhaps keeping a list of resources that will help you to progress.  You should talk about your feelings with colleagues and with your manager; and ensure that the company has the right induction training in place.  Exclusion is form of bullying

Yet a mindfulness based approach is also very effective.   Tell yourself that you are gaining skills, experience and knowledge – and that there is no reason why you cannot be as effective as your colleagues… and probably better.  It is just a case of effort and practice so that you will learn how to be the most effective member of the team.  When you are criticised or when make errors then you should show self-compassion – accepting that your cannot instantly know everything and that you will make errors sometimes…  but that you will learn from such experiences so that you will not repeat such errors – everybody learns and develops in this way.

Yet there is another aspect of mindfulness that you should also practice.  The workplace is competitive.  Promotion can be a zero sum game.  If the team leader leaves then many members of the team will want his or her job… and so they are in competition.  In some companies the pay budgets are capped across teams – so that a bigger the raise for one member will mean a smaller the raise others.  Again this is a competitive environment.   [NB: Of course companies should recognise the negative effective of this mechanism as well as the  impact of too much jargon that may sap the confidence of new joiners.]

So it may be that some colleagues are keen to show their relative dominance or performance in comparison with their colleagues.  Indeed they may fear being usurped by a teammate who may start to overtake and outperform them.   Given the survey results, it may be that some workplaces develop cultures of longer hours or after work drinking that can exclude parents or those have to other responsibilities after 5pm.

So again mindfulness can help with these situations. When a colleague is seeking to put you down – or to be unhelpful or unnecessarily competitive you can look at their behaviour objectively – it is not your problem… it is their problem.  You can say: “Wow… this person must be really frightened or they may be insecure if they have to behave in that way.”  When you notice such behaviours, then rather than see it as highlighting your own flaws, you can observe it; and tell yourself that you are improving in your work and that this poor behaviour, by a colleague, is driven by their emotional reactions and insecurities .

In some cases you might feel able to say “I am making progress – yet I don’t want compete with you. Better that we all improve together” – and even if you don’t say it out loud, I guess it will help avoid your own emotional turbulence.

You are good enough –  set aside emotional reactions that may chip away at your confidence and cause you to develop imposter syndrome.  I would love to hear about how you may have overcome such experiences.

Don’t dither over the mindfulness training!

I have been in two minds whether to post this piece or not – I was going to do it last week.. but I put it off.  Yet I am not alone in such behaviour…

Procrastination – putting off a decision or putting off some task – even finding other stuff to do (aka displacement activity) so that we can kid ourselves we are too busy to take on the issue we are putting off.  Sound familiar?

A study in “Psychological Science” of both proactive folk and procrastinators (…I wonder how they categorised them?) looked at scans of their brains.  It found that the amygdala – an almond-shaped structure in the temporal lobe which processes our emotions and controls our motivation – was larger in the procrastinators. “Individuals with a larger amygdala may be more anxious about the negative consequences of an action – they tend to hesitate and put off things,” says Erhan Genç, one of the study authors, based at Ruhr University Bochum.

Worse, the procrastinators had poorer connections between the amygdala and a part of the brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (DACC). The DACC uses information from the amygdala to decide what action the body will take. It helps to keep a person on track by blocking out competing emotions and distractions.  The researchers suggest that procrastinators are less able to filter out interfering emotions and distractions because the connections between the amygdala and the DACC are not as good as in proactive individuals.

So it’s a double whammy – the procrastinators have a large amygdala ensuring that they are awash with emotional responses; and the lack of connections to their DACC mean that it is unable to set these emotions aside… thus leading to feelings of unease relating to the event in hand.  And so the event is dismissed… or a displacement activity (without such effect) is found.

Yet there is evidence that mindfulness can help – previous studies have shown that mindfulness allows people to avoid “unconscious emotional responses”; and also to be able to focus much better and so avoid distraction.

Prof Tim Pychyl, from Carleton University, Ottawa, who has been studying procrastination for the past few decades, believes procrastination is a problem with managing emotions rather than time.

In fact mindfulness can reduced the size and impact of the amygdala:  “This study provides physiological evidence of the problem procrastinators have with emotional control,” Pychyl says. “It shows how the emotional centres of the brain can overwhelm a person’s ability for self-regulation.  Research has already shown that mindfulness meditation is related to amygdala shrinkage, expansion of the pre-frontal cortex and a weakening of the connection between these two areas”.

So if you’re a procrastinator then don’t put off the mindfulness training – it could be your best hope yet!