Ask an Expert: Brenda Pearson Breaks Down Imposter Syndrome

October 27, 2021

I sat down with Brenda Pearson over Zoom to discuss the important topic of Imposter Syndrome. Brenda is a Career & Organizational Happiness Coach for individuals and businesses. After a long and storied career at Ivey Business School, she started Brenda Pearson Coaching to help individuals who are looking to level up and elevate their untapped career potential and partner with values-based companies to help create a positive work environment for employees.

The main patterns she has consistently observed over the years is that most individuals lack confidence, harbour feelings of insecurity and/or possess a “fear of failure”. This manifests into what is often called “Imposter Syndrome”. She believes that this is the underlying factor preventing too many people from realizing their full potential at work and in life. Helping individuals manage and conquer their limiting beliefs is at the core of her mission and the foundation for all of her Career & Organizational Happiness programs.

I have distilled our conversation into the following highlights of Brenda’s vast knowledge and experience working with people from all walks of life.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Coined in the 1970’s by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes in their research study titled The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention, Imposter Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where people are unable to internalize their own accomplishments and successes, despite external evidence to the contrary. People with imposter syndrome feel that they are frauds and that they don’t deserve the success that they’ve achieved.

Most often, imposter syndrome is described as a voice in your head saying you aren’t good enough. The voice can say things like, “Everyone else knows what they are doing.” “Who am I to be here?” “I’m going to get found out.” or “I don’t know how much longer I can keep this going.” Factors that can contribute to or exacerbate these thoughts include gender, age, nationality, ethnicity, qualifications, or education.

If you suffer from imposter syndrome, you are not alone! It affects most people in the world in some way, whether it is feeling insecure, having self-doubt, or lacking confidence. Knowing you are not alone allows you to give yourself grace and be kinder to yourself, as well as offer kindness and empathy towards others.

What causes Imposter Syndrome?

Any powerful change starts with knowing the root of the problem. With imposter syndrome, we can start with the brain. Humans are designed to survive, not thrive. Our natural setting is focused on survival and preservation of our species. We still default to our primitive flight or fight response in situations, even though we have many more resources and much fewer life-threatening situations today. Our primal brain takes over most of the time, but we can re-train our brains with neuroplasticity to make different connections and decisions.

However, we can’t change until we acknowledge that the odds are stacked against us. I like to use the metaphor of pushing water uphill. We try to be happy, fulfilled creatures, and we absolutely can be, but it starts with the understanding that at the very core we are designed to survive and not thrive.

The contributing factors to imposter syndrome are complex and often scaffold. Each individual has their own contributing factors and are affected to different degrees.

Psychology/Neurology

Now that we know that our brains are programmed for self-preservation, what does that look like? We are wired to not stand out from the crowd. Back in the time of early humans, being ostracized from a community or group meant death. We needed a community to survive. So, putting ourselves out there, speaking up in a meeting, disagreeing with people, or taking risks professionally or personally isn’t a natural default for us as humans.

Life Experiences

Many people cite experiences they had growing up as contributing to their feelings of imposter syndrome, whether it’s with family, friends, at school, or a combination. Our social experiences shape us, we compare ourselves to others, and we will do whatever it takes to fit in with the social norms or cliques. Through these experiences, we start to form our own beliefs about who we are, and they stack up over time. Our experiences shape our thoughts, which affect our beliefs about who we are, which then affect what we say and do, as well as how we feel.

Social Media

Social media exponentially amplifies our own insecurities and jealousies. It can bring out some of the worst in us. Most people only post the highlights of their life – they don’t show the lows or the struggle and hard work it took to get to the high.

The Myth of the Fairy Tale

I call this the “Disney effect”. Some of the false expectations Disney movies foster include the happily ever after and finding that “perfect” person or situation. The expectation of perfection – for ourselves or others – is impossible. We focus on and celebrate the result – the ending – instead of the journey and milestones reached along the way. It’s important to take time to celebrate and acknowledge the steps you’ve taken and the progress you’ve made.

Tools and Strategies to ‘Manage’ Imposter Syndrome

There are many tools to manage imposter syndrome, but I have distilled them down to a list of seven. Everyone is different, so these are by no means one-size-fits-all, but they offer a range of strategies that people can use to find what works best for them.

· Calibrate your expectations

· Seek out your ‘why’, passion, and purpose

· Embrace your superpowers and accomplishments

· Control what can be controlled

· Move your body

· Reframe your experiences and thoughts

· Open up and share your insecurities

The first place I would start is moving your body. There’s a wealth of research and science behind the importance of moving your body and the mind-body connection. I think it is important for everyone to do this every day for five to ten minutes, especially in the morning to set the tone for the day. It also helps your mindset and self-perception. Exercise releases a cocktail of good hormones that give you more energy and improve your mood.

The second place to start is controlling the thoughts in your head. We have 60,000-90,000 thoughts that run through our heads on a daily basis, most of them we’re not even aware of on a conscious level. Between 90-95% of those thoughts are repeat thoughts. When you get into negative loops of repeating thoughts, that is going to shape your perception and the way you approach situations.

I try to make things tangible and practical for my clients, so I’ve created a 5 R model to help clients with these repeating negative thoughts. These are brain muscles you need to stretch and strengthen.

1. Recognize – Develop a mechanism that helps you recognize a recurring or inaccurate thought. Once you’ve recognized it, take a step back. Practicing mindfulness, deep breathing, and meditation will re-train your brain so that you can more easily recognize these thoughts. The thoughts can also be triggered by an emotion or situation, so pay attention to your triggers.

2. Refute – After you recognize the thought and take a step back, assess it to see if it’s true. If it’s not (99% of the time it’s not), then refute it. Have a go-to phrase or word to refute it; you can even just say, “I don’t know about that. Let me think about it.” Incorporate a “go-to” statement or tool to refute or counter that thought.

3. Ridicule – Some people name the voice in their head or give it an avatar. Use whatever speaks to you and will help you ridicule that negative voice. By using a silly voice, your brain starts to automatically hear thoughts in that voice so that you can immediately ridicule it and not take it seriously – another way to build your brain muscles. Another possibility that doesn’t exactly fall under ridicule per se is to ask yourself, “Would you speak to your best friend that way?” “Would you even speak to your worst enemy that way?” So when the thoughts arise say, “Wow, that’s pretty nasty. You wouldn’t speak to someone that way, so don’t do it to yourself.”

4. Replace – Next you need to replace the negative thought with a positive one. This can be a go-to mantra that you can fall back on quickly in the moment. I like to use, “I got this. I can do this.”

5. Repeat – Any time you are in a situation where your negative thoughts are getting the better of you or stopping you, repeat the 5 R’s. This isn’t something you can do once and conquer your negative thoughts.

Conclusion

The main takeaways about Imposter Syndrome are:

Imposter Syndrome is a complex issue. It’s not cookie cutter or one-size-fits-all when it comes to why people experience it, who experiences it, when they experience it, and how they can overcome it. It can be seasonal and amplified in different contexts, including being in a negative work or learning situation.

An important reminder for people with imposter syndrome: you are not alone. There’s power in knowing you are not alone and that the vast majority of people feel the way you do.

We are wired to survive, not thrive, so we all need to be proactive to live fulfilled and meaningful lives.

The good news is we have neuroplasticity, so we can change the way our brains work and the voices in our heads. There are many tools, so find the ones that work best for you. Pick one or two things and just start.

Work with yourself to figure out your why and your passion. When you feel like you have purpose and meaning, and you are contributing and making an impact, you are naturally going to feel great. And it will help you build up your confidence.

About Brenda

Brenda brings 20+ years of progressive experience across the Career & Talent Management sectors. She has contributed to the career acceleration and development of employees and MBA students in a wide range of organizations such as Nike, Carleton University, the Canadian Olympic Committee, and through multiple roles at Ivey Business School, consistently ranked the #1 business school by Bloomberg Businessweek. At Ivey Business School, she built and executed comprehensive Career Management programming to bridge the realities of the recruiting marketplace with the talents of young leaders. She has contributed to the career acceleration and development over of a thousand students, she maintains that her students have become her greatest teachers. It is Brenda’s mission to help individuals get out of any career “ruts”, level up, and elevate their untapped potential.