the imposter of imposter syndrome

For many of us, self-doubt pops it's unhelpful chatter into our thoughts more often than we would like.  It can come in many different forms and one that seems to be common at the moment is “the imposter syndrome”, several well-known people like Neil Gaiman and Sheryl Sandburg have talked about its effect on their work.   I spent 6 years studying women in the workplace (although that was a long time ago) and I wondered why I hadn’t come across this ‘syndrome’ before, so I set out to investigate.  


Originally imposter syndrome was called the imposter phenomenon.   The original researchers Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes (in 1978) described a certain cluster of feelings, thoughts and ideas that they had observed in themselves and then studied in other high achieving women.  The women who experienced the imposter phenomenon struggled to develop an internal sense of their intelligence and competence, despite many outward signs of success such as degrees, scholarships and promotions. They were also convinced that someone would eventually reveal that they were not actually as bright or competent as others thought.  The researchers found that Imposter phenomenon was maintained by four key characteristics.  Firstly who experienced it explained their success by outward circumstances that were not in their control such as luck, or a mistake.  They also worked very hard and tended to be perfectionists their hard work when acknowledged often resulted in temporary positive feelings, but did nothing to minimise their doubts. Often these women lacked the confidence to share their real views or opinions (especially when they were disagreeing) so they felt inauthentic.  They also expressed a strong need to be liked by those in authority which easily became an unhelpful loop when those in authority gave them positive feedback about their work as they discounted the feedback because the person giving it liked them. 

This particular cluster of behaviours and thoughts resonated with those reading about it and it became popularised and turned into the “Imposter Syndrome”.  Somehow a phenomenon (defined by Merriam-Webster online as “a fact or event of scientific interest susceptible to scientific description and explanation”) became popularised and hyped up and turned into a syndrome.  Merriam-Webster defines a syndrome as“a group of signs and symptoms that occur together and characterise a particular abnormality or condition”.  

On one hand, it is positive that it came to our attention because it makes it easier for people to share their struggles.  On the other hand, I feel like taking it from a collection of symptoms that was of interest to researchers and those working with people and turning it into a syndrome grew its weight and importance. 

 Something minor became a big deal. 

People were able to say I suffer from ‘imposter syndrome.” My concern is that a syndrome with all its permanence and solidness has more power over our identities.  The more we get tied up in thinking of ourselves as a sufferer of “imposter syndrome” the harder it becomes to unhook ourselves from the package of emotions and thoughts that we are having. 

The more we identify with it the harder it actually becomes for us to do something about it.  

More recent research suggests that it might be more helpful to talk about imposter episodes, which they found were widely experienced. It is not unusual to have brief times when we feel like an imposter and we can all experience them from time to time.  This doesn’t mean that we suffer from an ongoing syndrome.   Although some may experience more episodes than others and find it more difficult to cope with than others.  Both men and women experience imposter episodes, and evidence to date is inconclusive that this is more common in women than men.  

Talk to your coach, psychologist or professional supervisor to get some support and techniques for coping well with imposter epsiodes when they occur. 


what do you think?

A few incidences of people sharing their opinions in various ways over the last few weeks got me thinking about how and why we express our opinions, and how we feel about doing so.  I am sure you have all noticed similar things.  On the one hand I observed someone arrogantly expressing something inappropriate that they hadn’t fact checked and refusing to back down when it was pointed out that it was wrong.  On the other hand I have observed some quite competent and thoughtful people who feel reluctant or shy of sharing their opinions and views.



I have also observed that those people who are more reserved with sharing what they think tend to be more open.  They are the ones who can see that they may be making assumptions from a position of privilege, they tend to be open to other cultures viewpoints and being challenged and corrected on their assumptions and presuppositions.  The tension between confidence and openness is one that I have struggled with for a long time, even back when I was a PhD student. I didn’t have too much trouble writing and expressing my opinions to the three people who read my PhD, but expressing myself with confidence and surety was a bit harder always at the back of my mind was the idea that perhaps there was some new research in some corner of the library (yeah it was mainly hard copy research in those days!) that I had overlooked.  How can I be confident in my opinion, or even my summaries of research when the world of knowledge is so vast and there is so much to know?

I do enjoy sharing my opinion (and I have lots of them!), but it has stretched my confidence to put them right out there on a blog.  Of course, my blog is not just my opinion, I try to incorporate researched information with stories and application ideas. This week I set out to find our more about why some people are more confident in expressing their opinions than others, why some people are more open to other viewpoints than others and whether there may be a relationship between the two.  Well, that proved to be a bit of a rabbit hole that I have been in for some days!  It proved harder to find anything illuminating than I thought it would, the further I delved the more complex it has all begun to look.

I started with personality factors, trying to discover what elements of personality may have an impact on our willingness to share.  I looked into what is known as the five-factor model of personality, as that is one of the most robust.  People who score high on extroversion (one factor of the five) in this model are likely to feel more comfortable sharing their opinions than those low in extroversion.   In the five-factor model, those people high in extroversion are described as preferring to direct their energy outwards towards others, and this includes the sub -factor or facet of assertiveness.  People high in assertiveness express themselves forcefully and there is a small relationship between having high self-confidence and being high on this extroversion factor.  Well that sounds to me like the people who have no trouble sharing their opinions on everything and anything  

Openness is another of the factors in the five-factor model.  It is the tendency to seek out and enjoy new experiences, it includes intellectual curiosity and being open to new ideas and values.  That sounds like it describes people who are open to having their assumptions challenged and being introduced to new ideas. Openness has also been shown to be associated with the ability to listen well to others.  Identifying these personality factors that may be at play in these scenarios is helpful as a starter but it still doesn’t explain why people with openness would struggle to express their opinions, and why women seem to have a harder time valuing their own opinions and expressing them than men seem to.  

So I kept on digging.  Eventually, I discovered that there is a gender difference in what is called intellectual risk taking.  Men are more likely to take intellectual risks than women.  These means that men are also more likely to guess if they don’t know, whereas women are more likely to say don’t know rather than to make a guess.  Men are also more comfortable just having a stab at areas that they don’t know about.  

Expressing your opinions, putting your ideas out there is intellectual risk taking. Your ideas can be torn apart,  you can be attacked personally,  someone can tell you, you are wrong or disagree with your ideas. Men don't let fear of this risk stop them sharing, but it seems women do.  Also, risk-taking is predominantly seen as masculine behaviour.  So as women and men are socialised men are likely to be praised for taking intellectual risks and women are likely to be punished. The result of this reaction is that men get more chance to practice intellectual risk- taking than women, and they get better at it.  Women in the professional sphere also feel the need to perform to a higher standard than a man so may be reluctant to share their opinions, ideas or research until they are 100% sure of their statements.  A man doesn’t have this added pressure to live up to.  

Gender differences in intellectual risk-taking is a nice explanation of why men happily share any of their opinions with anyone, while women hold back until they feel confident and sure of their theories. 

Although it still doesn’t explain the relationship between confidence to express ideas and openness to others ideas.  I am wondering and I have no evidence to back this up,  if the delayed closure that is caused by the fear of intellectual risk taking, allows more room for further investigation and listening.  But that could probably be the topic of another post or PhD.

For your thoughts:

How do you feel about expressing your opinions?  

What experiences and reactions to your opinions may have caused these feelings?

When and how have you had your presuppositions challenged?

How open are you to others ideas?  

How can you create safe spaces to practice taking intellectual risks?

Using our strengths and gifts for our own self-care

Do you know your own strengths, values and gifts? It is likely that you have come across some discussion of strengths and values in your workplace, as it has become a common focus recently.      Most of the discussion of gifts and strengths, focuses on how we use them to interact with the world, how we put them into practice in our work, lives or parenting.  The wellbeing literature points to an association between the opportunity to use our strengths at work as being associated with greater well-being.  So knowing and using our gifts can be an important step in our self-care to increase and maintain our wellbeing.


After my last post about self-care, I have had various conversations about self-care including my own.  On one level self-care is easy - most of us know the principles and have some ideas of the things that help us be healthy and feel re-energised.  

It is not lack of knowledge that prevents us from taking actions to care for ourselves.    

Other elements are at play that prevents us from prioritising self-care.  Often it can be that we haven’t developed enough self-compassion, we may not value self-care, or prioritise our needs.   

It is much easier to achieve goals that are in line with our values and use our strengths and gifts. Yet most of the discussion around strengths focuses on their outward expression.  A step in becoming better at self-care is to consider turning the best of ourselves inwards.  Self-care may become easier if we find ways to base our practices in what we value, and to mobilise our strengths and gifts in the service of our own well-being and self-care.   

The first step in this is identifying your strengths, values and talents.  A good place to start is with the VIA survey that you can find here.

Then think about your values and how they can underpin your self-care.  For example, if you value honesty taking time, to be honest about how you feel about your work and your energy levels may be an important self-care practice for you. I place a high value on wisdom and I see part of wisdom as caring for myself well.  Self-care will become easier if you take the time to base it in some of your core values.  

Think about how you can turn your gifts and strengths to yourself and your own care.  We often overlook applying strengths and gifts to ourselves.  The most obvious example comes from those I know and work with who have gifts of empathy and compassion. These gifts tend to be mostly focussed outwards, and it takes an intentional attempt at refocussing for them to turn that same level of empathy and compassion to themselves.  Often people who are strong in communication and humour also tend to focus these gifts outwards, intentionally re-focussing these inwards may include journalling to communicate better with yourself, and doing things just for fun to express your humour rather than seeking to be making others laugh.  I am trying to use my strength of curiosity to become more curious about what is going on in my own mind and to spend more time exploring my own emotional reactions to things as a way of increasing my mindfulness.  

Thinking about our strengths and how we can apply them to ourselves, not just others, is a key component of helping us to prioritise and value self-care.  

I have put together a weekly worksheet (also available as a pdf) to help you reflect on how your are and can use your strengths to care for yourself.  At the end of each day reflect on how you used your strengths for others, what you did (or didn’t) do for your own self-care and think about how you could have used this strength to support and re-energise yourself. 

As always I would love to hear how you are using your strengths as a base for self-care. 


is self-care a treat?

It seems that everyone is talking about stress these days, just living in our big cities and being employed is stressful.    After the US election in 2016 google searches for self-care rose to a five year high.  I was surprised to see self-care leaving the domain of the helping professions and becoming part of everyday dialogue.  Once a term leaves the realm of a certain profession and becomes part of everyday life it often becomes redefined on the way.   We are seeing that happen with self-care it’s scope has been reduced, and it has become synonymous with having a treat.  From becoming redefined as a treat it has moved to become a commodity.  Self-care is now a term used to tag products on social media, it is now something that you can pay for a little bit of something that you can purchase and that will make you feel better.  


The redefinition of self-care as merely a treat has devalued its importance for those of us who work in people focussed professions.  There is an important distinction that we need to emphasis between self-care and a treat.  I like treats, treats are a great way to distinguish between the weekend and the week.  They can help me celebrate, or provide comfort when I am tired, or sad.  Treats are useful things, it is nice to be indulgent every now and again, it can make us feel special and can be a way of showing that we value ourselves.  In fact, treats may make up part of our self-care practice.  But self-care is much bigger and more encompassing than just having a treat now and then.  

The history of self-care is vague. As far as I could discover it came to the fore with the growing awareness of burnout and vicarious traumatisation that grew in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Self-care became acknowledged as an essential part of professional practice for those who were working in people helping professions, as a way of preventing burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious traumatisation. These professions (including social work, psychology, counselling, clergy) are characterised by intense interactions that make up the core of the work.  People who work in these types of professions need to pay extra care to their physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological well-being. It is this intentional attention to themselves and their own wellbeing that enables them to do their job well.  It enables them to fully engage with empathy and compassion to their clients.  

It is difficult to define self-care as specific activities because what nurtures one individual may not nurture another.  It is clear that a good base of physical well-being underlies well-being and resilience so that is an important foundation of any self-care plan.  With that physical base in place, self-care should include regular intentional activity that nurtures our spiritual, emotional and psychological health.  It helps build and maintain resilience, in the face of stressful and emotional client interactions.  Self-care is an essential part of professional practice for those in people helping professions. 

We have to attend to self-care to do our jobs well, it is as essential to our work as attending a staff meeting, or keeping up with our professional development and reading in our field.          

I am concerned that as everyone talks about the stress of living and working, it becomes easy to forget that there are occupations that are more stressful than others.  We need to affirm and validate the experience of these occupations as stressful and emphasise that self-care is so much more than cooking a healthy meal or having a chocolate brownie as a treat every now and again. 

Self-care needs more attention and promotion as an intentional and systematic part of our professional development.   

There are other cautions that arise from the development of this culture of self-care as synonymous with treats.  The focus on the individual can lead to too much emphasis being placed on individual responsibility for health and wellbeing.  Self-care doesn’t have to be all about us, it can include others caring for us, even our colleagues and the organisation that we work for.  Research by Maslach and colleagues (2003) have shown that there are many societal and organisational factors that influence the likelihood of burnout.  Although individuals have a role to play in looking after themselves organisations need to also acknowledge the role that they play in supporting the health of their workers.     

For those of you who are in professions that involve a lot of compassionate engagement with other people it is ok to feel like your work is more stressful than others.  Although everyone is experiencing lots of stress at this point of history it is important to acknowledge that your occupation is characterised by stressful interactions.  It is an important and essential part of your professional competency to nurture your own self, so that you are better able to engage empathetically and well with your clients.  Attending external supervision should be an important part of your self-care plan and a supervisor will help you reflect on and prioritise the things that you need to do to enjoy your work and to stay resilient.  


keep your creativity flowing

I spent two days last weekend at the Auckland Writers Festival.  It is a highlight of my year, an event I look forward to and I planned ahead with work and parenting commitments so that I could attend.  I enjoyed being around creative people, listening to them describe their creative process, hearing their passion for their work and their topics.  I discovered new books and authors that I haven’t read yet, I met interesting people in the queue for the bathroom and I heard about new ideas.  I left with my brain buzzing, making new connections and throwing interesting thoughts together.  I left inspired and full of new ideas.


If you are in a role that requires you to be creative or innovative it is wise to be thinking about how you keep your creativity flowing. You cannot treat your creativity like it is an endless stream that will keep flowing no matter how much you draw from it.  Your creativity is precious and fragile and needs tending and nurturing with care.  You need to balance output with input, to be thinking about how much you are drawing from your creativity and how much you are feeding into your creativity.  If you neglect the tending and the input you may end up feeling like you are wringing the last drops of water from a dry sponge as you try to come up with your next idea.

Part of my well-being practice is to pay careful attention to the effect that different people, different situations and different types of input have on my ability to be creative.  I have discovered that certain people who have certain ways of presenting themselves and their ideas tend to shut down my thinking, they don’t stimulate my thoughts, and they leave me dry.  Other people leave me bursting with thoughts, feeling inspired and creative, and wondering how I am going to implement all the ideas I am having.  Creativity is a complex mix of personality, ways of thinking and the influence of others (including friends and colleagues). So to nurture my creativity I need to pay attention to the mix that is created around me.  Part of how I nurture my creativity is to make sure that my life is balanced with lots of events and people that fire up my creative thoughts.   Attending the Writers Festival is not a luxury for me but an essential practice for nurturing my creativity, and making sure that my ideas are still flowing.