After almost a year of silence on this blog, I thought it was time to put digital pen to paper and share where I have been hiding and what I have learned about myself and life in 2023. I also want to commit publicly to what I want to do in 2024, making it real and giving me an incentive to deliver.
Life has a way of steering us in unexpected directions, and for me, it took an unforeseen twist as 2023 drew to a close. Instead of the familiar work routine, I grappled with a significant injury – a snapped hamstring, and the aftermath of an invasive surgery that left me bedridden, challenging not only my physical abilities but also my sense of identity.
The intriguing part? This injury was not a consequence of the daily grind but rather an incident during a leisurely retreat with my family. We were water skiing in the Lake District, a place I had not revisited to ski in over two decades.
The last time I ventured onto Lake Windermere, it spat me out, nearly claiming my life.
Nevertheless, I was, 23 years later, facing a similar fate, as once again, the lake decided I needed a lesson.
Following surgery, I was forced to lay down rather than sit or stand as the pain from the surgery was most apparent right on my seat bones. Whilst grappling with the pain, I was struck by the weight of introspection. It became apparent that life’s unforeseen challenges possess the capacity to unsettle both our physical and mental equilibrium.
Questions arose: Am I just getting too old? Is my body giving out? Should I follow my peers and, at sixty-two, consider retiring? Moreover, why this sudden surge of insecurity? Particularly after a prosperous year in business and a serene family excursion on the lake?
In truth, I was drowning in my own thoughts, but after months of work, I decided that this blog should endeavour to articulate my reflections in case anyone else has gone through or is going through similar feelings. This blog delves into personal anecdotes, examines the complexities of impostor syndrome, and offers pragmatic strategies for resilience amidst uncertainty. I recognise it may not be everyone’s preferred topic, so feel free to stop reading now.
My intention is to expose imposter syndrome for what it really is by weaving a tale of self-discovery, weakness and strength; I also want to share the tools I used to emerge from the depths of introspection, not as an imposter but as a survivor of life’s unpredictable journey, and hopefully help others do the same.
The Energy Conundrum: Why Imposter Syndrome Surfaces in Low Tide
One thing I have to accept is that imposter syndrome can emerge at any time in my life. However, its impact becomes particularly pronounced when my energy levels dip from physical exhaustion, stress, or burnout.
This energy depletion affects my cognitive functions, affecting crucial brain regions responsible for processing emotions, cognition, and self-perception.
Me being me and wanting to understand why, I looked through my previous research to see if I could find reasons for this impact, and I identified that three key areas contribute to the feelings of doubt and drive the feelings we label as “imposter syndrome”: –
- The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC): This is the executive hub of decision-making and self-regulation; the PFC falters when fatigued, amplifying self-doubt and distorting our perceptions of competence. Giving rise to the voices in your head, convincing us that we are not good enough and will be found out.
- The Amygdala: The emotional centre, the amygdala, becomes hyperactive in response to stress, heightening feelings of fear and inadequacy when energy levels are low, resulting in that same voice now being totally convincing in its description of how you will be found out, and that you are surrounded by threat. Essentially amping up the negativity towards myself.
- The Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC): Responsible for error monitoring and processing feedback, the ACC struggles to differentiate between constructive criticism and self-criticism during fatigue, contributing to negative self-appraisals characteristic of imposter syndrome. This final piece of the jigsaw now shows you very convincing evidence all around you that people know you are a fraud, driving the final nail in the coffin of your lack of confidence.
Strangely, as I sat and reflected on the chemical stimulants for my thought processes, I understood imposter syndrome better.
I realised it was not just about me and the neuroscience but also about the world I grew up in and how I viewed myself. My self-script made me vulnerable to bouts of doubt when my low energy levels did not allow me to fight my subconscious thoughts.
Once again, I returned to inner reflection and focused on my upbringing. In my youth, I constantly felt self-generated internal pressure to succeed for many reasons, fuelling my fear of failure. I blamed society’s expectations for driving a need to achieve and get better and better, even achieving at all costs, which I hated but which added to this inner burden. I believe this shaped how I saw myself and my achievements, but my choice, my need to be liked and feel others valued me, shaped these thought processes, not anyone else, and I had to own that.
Connecting this with my physiology, it became apparent that my energy and mood often dipped alongside moments of self-doubt, suggesting a link between my emotions and brain chemistry.
So, I started looking for research to support this hypothesis and found the work by Clance and Imes (1978), who highlighted how these perfectionist tendencies and fear of failure perpetuated imposter feelings.
“Clance and Imes identified a key factor contributing to the development and perpetuation of imposter feelings: perfectionism coupled with a fear of failure. They observed that individuals with perfectionist tendencies often set unrealistically high standards for themselves and are plagued by the fear of not meeting these standards. Consequently, any perceived failure or mistake becomes magnified, reinforcing the belief that they are not as competent or deserving of their achievements as others perceive them to be.
The researchers highlighted how these perfectionist tendencies create a vicious cycle, fuelling imposter feelings and undermining self-confidence. Despite external validation and accomplishments, individuals experiencing Impostor Syndrome attribute their success to luck or external factors rather than their own abilities, fearing exposure as frauds.”
Similarly, the studies by Legrand and Ruby (2009) showed how specific brain activity patterns were connected to these feelings.
“Legrand and Ruby’s findings revealed distinct neural correlates linked to the experience of imposter feelings. Specifically, they observed heightened activity in brain regions associated with self-referential processing, such as the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex, among individuals reporting high levels of impostorism. These regions are implicated in self-awareness, self-evaluation, and emotional regulation processes.
Furthermore, the researchers uncovered alterations in neural networks involved in processing reward and feedback. Individuals with Impostor Syndrome exhibited differences in neural responses to positive feedback, indicating a heightened sensitivity to perceived discrepancies between internal standards and external validation. “
So, digging into the science behind imposter syndrome gave me insights and confirmed my thoughts on why I felt the way I did, and this gave me the strength to face it; after all, it is just mechanics.
However, understanding it is one thing; facing it is another: How do you navigate a way out of the feelings when you have no energy?
My Tools for the Journey: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome’s Currents
Frustratingly, for me, the answer was simple and, to be honest, obvious.
It was the tools I spoke about daily in my working life and guided my clients through daily. It became apparent that I had to start taking some of my advice.
So I did. I sat myself down and coached myself through the following three techniques: –
- Cognitive Restructuring: The first step was to address the voices in my head telling me I had no value, which were downright harmful. I used cognitive-behavioural techniques to confront these imposter-related thoughts, gradually reshaping my mindset by challenging the validity of these thoughts and replacing them with realistic, empowering narratives based on my previous successes and experiences. I was inspired by the insights of Young and Valach (2004), and their work helped me navigate the maze of self-doubt with newfound clarity and positive affirmations.
My Exercise Routine.
- Identify Negative Thoughts: Start by recognising and recording negative thoughts or beliefs that arise in specific situations.
- For example, if you feel overwhelmed by a work deadline, identify thoughts like “I will never finish this on time” or “I am not capable enough.”
- Challenge Negative Thoughts: Once you have identified negative thoughts, challenge their validity using evidence-based reasoning.
- Ask yourself questions like:
- – “What evidence supports this thought?”
- – “Is there evidence against it?”
- – “What would someone else think about this situation?”
- Generate Alternative Thoughts: Develop alternative, more balanced interpretations of the situation. Consider factors you might be overlooking or underestimating.
- For instance:
- “I have successfully completed similar tasks before.”
- “Even if I do not finish on time, I can still make progress.”
- “It is normal to feel stressed, but I have the skills to manage.”
- For instance:
- Evaluate the Evidence: Assess the credibility and logic of both the negative and alternative thoughts. Reflect on past experiences and objective observations to support your revised perspectives.
- Practice Reframing: Practice reframing negative thoughts into more constructive and empowering statements.
- For example:
- From “I will never finish this on time” to “I can break this task into smaller steps and tackle them individually.”
- From “I am not capable enough” to “I can learn and improve, even in challenging situations.
- For example:
- Monitor Progress: Keep track of your thoughts and reactions over time. Notice any patterns or changes in your thinking habits as you practice cognitive restructuring.
- Celebrate Successes: Acknowledge and celebrate moments when you successfully challenge and reframe negative thoughts. Recognise your effort and progress in cultivating a more positive mindset.
- Seek Support: If you encounter persistent challenges or find it difficult to reframe specific thoughts, consider seeking guidance from a therapist or counsellor trained in cognitive-behavioural techniques.
By consistently engaging in these exercises, I developed the skill of cognitive restructuring, empowering myself to manage stress, overcome self-doubt, and foster greater emotional resilience to protect myself in the future..
- Self-Compassion Practices: Something I have often spoken about, but I cannot over-emphasise the power of mindfulness, self-kindness, and recognising our shared humanity, which for me became a potent defence against imposter syndrome’s relentless onslaught. Through breathing and practising self-reflection and introspection, I learned to extend compassion towards myself, understanding that imperfection is an inherent aspect of human existence. Guided by Dr Kristin Neff’s research (2003), I embraced self-compassion as a pathway to acceptance and self-love and realised I like myself. I may not be perfect and make mistakes, but my intentions are always to help others. At times, I have to focus on my own well-being.
Dr. Kristin Neff’s research emphasised the importance of treating oneself with kindness, understanding, and acceptance, especially in moments of difficulty or failure, and highlighted three core components of self-compassion:
- Self-Kindness: Cultivating a gentle and supportive attitude toward oneself, akin to the way one would treat a close friend experiencing hardship.
- Common Humanity: Recognizing that suffering and imperfection are universal human experiences, fostering a sense of connection and empathy with others rather than isolation or self-judgment.
- Mindfulness: Engaging in present-moment awareness without judgment, allowing oneself to acknowledge and accept difficult thoughts and emotions with equanimity.
My Exercise Routine. Here is a step-by-step guide to a range of my self-compassion exercises. I tend to mix them up based on what I need at the time. Take a look and try each until you find one that works for you.
- Self-Compassion Break:
- Find a quiet and comfortable space to take a few moments for yourself.
- Begin by acknowledging the struggles or difficulties you are facing. Allow yourself to recognise and validate your emotions without judgment fully.
- Offer yourself words of kindness and reassurance. This could involve speaking to yourself in a gentle and supportive tone, using phrases like:
- “It is okay to feel this way. I am not alone in experiencing challenges.”
- “I am worthy of love and understanding, even in moments of difficulty.”
- Take a few deep breaths, allowing yourself to absorb the warmth and compassion you are extending to yourself.
- Notice any shifts in your emotions or mindset after practising self-compassion.
- Self-Compassion Journaling:
- Set aside dedicated time for journaling in a quiet and comfortable environment.
- Reflect on a recent challenging experience or emotion you have grappled with.
- Write about the experience from a perspective of self-compassion, focusing on understanding and kindness towards yourself. Consider the following prompts:
- How did this experience make me feel, both emotionally and physically?
- What thoughts or beliefs emerged during this experience, and how did they affect me?
- How can I offer myself the same kindness and support I would offer to a close friend facing a similar situation?
- Explore any insights or shifts in perspective that arise as you write. Allow yourself to be open and vulnerable with your feelings.
- Conclude your journaling session by reaffirming your commitment to self-compassion and acknowledging the courage it takes to explore your experiences with kindness.
3. Self-Compassion Meditation:
- Set aside a specific time for meditation when you can be free from distractions.
- Choose a self-compassion meditation practice that resonates with you, such as loving-kindness meditation or a body scan focusing on self-acceptance.
- Find a comfortable seated position or lie down in a relaxed posture.
- Begin by bringing your attention to your breath, allowing yourself to settle into the present moment.
- If practising loving-kindness meditation, start by directing loving-kindness towards yourself. Repeat phrases like:
- May I be happy!
- May I be healthy!
- May I be safe!
- May I live with ease!
- If practising a body scan meditation, gently scan through your body, noticing any sensations or areas of tension. Offer acceptance and kindness to each part of your body, acknowledging it with compassion.
- Allow yourself to be fully present with whatever arises during the meditation without judgment or expectation.
- After completing the meditation, take a few moments to reflect on your experience. Notice any feelings of warmth, relaxation, or self-compassion that may have emerged.
Carry the intention of self-compassion with you as you move through the rest of your day, extending kindness and understanding to yourself in all situations.
Neff’s research highlighted the transformative power of self-compassion in promoting mental health, reducing self-criticism, and enhancing emotional resilience. Incorporating self-compassion practices into daily life can cultivate greater self-acceptance, inner strength, and well-being.
I discovered resilience amidst adversity and clarity amid confusion in embracing these strategies. Each tool was a guiding light, illuminating the path toward self-discovery and empowerment. Armed with these approaches, I navigated the unpredictable waters of imposter syndrome with confidence and conviction.
Understanding the currents of imposter syndrome and its neurobiological roots and implementing evidence-based strategies lead to genuine self-confidence and achievement.
Reflecting on this journey through imposter syndrome, I find solace in having conquered its grip this time. The tools of cognitive restructuring, self-compassion practices, and journaling have been instrumental in navigating self-doubt and inadequacy. However, I remain cognizant that imposter syndrome is a persistent companion, lurking in the depths and poised to resurface in the future.
Acknowledging its presence, I have understood that while imposter syndrome may be a natural part of my life, it will not define me and certainly will not prevail. Staying true to myself, extending kindness to my inner struggles, and surrounding myself with a supportive network of individuals with whom I can openly share these experiences will be the anchors that keep me grounded.
This triumph is not just about overcoming imposter syndrome but about resilience, self-awareness, and a commitment to my well-being. As I move forward, I carry the lessons learned from this experience, knowing I have the tools and support to face imposter syndrome head-on when it inevitably raises its head again.
The journey continues, but this time, I navigate it with the confidence that I am not defined by imposter syndrome—it is a part of the narrative of my life, but it will never be the defining chapter.
And so what of 2024?
Well, as I said at the beginning of this blog, I would share with you my plans to make them real and to make them public so that I will be more motivated to achieve them.
In 2024, I am committing to put myself care as my priority and not allow doubt or fear to distract me from what I know is right. Age is but a number, and as long as it keeps going up, then I will be ok. Sixty-two is not old, and whilst I may not be as physically flexible, nor have the energy I had when I was twenty-one, I have no intentions of slowing down. I love my life, and I love my family, and as my favourite Japanese quote states, “Ichi-go ichi-e,” which translated into English means, “one time, one moment, one chance.”
We only get one chance at this life, and whilst it may be fleeting each day brings new opportunities to enjoy the gift of life, so I will be grabbing it with both hands and squeezing every ounce of life out of it.
I hope you do the same…