The benefits of impostor syndrome
In my twenties and thirties, I experienced a constant wrestling match between wanting to live by the sea and building a sports marketing career, by necessity of my chosen trade, in London. If this duality was an image, picture a man standing before you in board shorts and flip flops wearing a smart collared shirt and jacket. Like most people, I am a society of conflicting selves; part surf bum, part entrepreneur, part confident adventurer, part self-doubter. Each of these selves has an opinionated little voice in my head. When the self-doubter voice is loud and dominant, particularly on matters of work and career, I experience impostor syndrome.
You may well recognise the flavour of the impostor dialogue; typical self-talk includes phrases such as, ‘you don’t deserve this job’, ‘they will find you out,’ ‘you are not capable’. Many reputable coaches, Christian Van Nieuwerburgh* among them, argue that impostor syndrome serves us in the short term as a driving force - be better, do more. In the long run however, it can be exhausting and destructive. According to Christian, any benefit to the syndrome is a ‘fallacy’.
The truth is more nuanced. I put it to you that your inner critic, despite being negative in tone, is actually doing a crucial job of reigning in your worst excesses. In fact, a useful life hack is to visualise your inner critic and find a way of bringing him/her/it into the room for a conversation about its origin, trigger and ongoing role in your life.
Let’s take a recent example. Whatever your political persuasion, it is fair to say Liz Truss was spectacularly ill equipped for the position of Prime Minister. Had her inner critic had more airtime in the landscape of her mind, it’s possible that she would have self-regulated and concluded that, while she had done well to reach high office, there was a significant delta between her existing competencies and those required for the top job. In her case, professional will and extreme ambition drowned out all her other selves.
So, how do we derive utility from impostor syndrome? First of all, the syndrome is the most natural thing in the world. When we follow TS Eliot’s advice** to get in over our heads, we are, by definition, well and truly out of our comfort zone. If we never felt like an impostor, we’d never be stretching ourselves and learning.
Second, let’s interrogate what the inner critic is telling us. Franz Perls, one of the fathers of the Gestalt Technique, calls this talking to the issue instead of talking about the issue. Whether you use a chair, your hand or an inanimate object, invite the critic in for a conversation. Ask it to tell you its origin – talk to it as you might a dinner companion – where do you come from? Be curious about what triggers the critic and what role it plays in your life. What is it so worried about? Has that ever happened? (spoiler alert: generally, its worst fears have never come to fruition). How does it see its future role?
The process is much easier with a trained executive coach, preferably one practised in the gestalt approach, but it is still possible to have a constructive chat with your society of selves.
It’s a shock to realise that despite its negative tone, our inner critic’s raison d’etre is to safeguard us from harm, from our worst excesses, to protect us from poor choices and decisions. It means well. Once clients get the inner critic in the room, typically they feel a sense of agency around the ongoing role and volume of the voice.
Think of a graphic equaliser. There’s a balance of voices to be struck. It’s important to give airtime to all your inner voices but to keep them balanced at a midpoint, say a five out of ten where ten is the maximum volume. The moment one voice gets too loud, or in Liz Truss’s case doesn’t get aired at all, there can be catastrophic consequences.
I wonder if Liz Truss had had a skilled executive coach, able to help her dialogue with her inner critic, might the UK economy be better off to the tune of several billion pounds?
* An Introduction to Coaching Skills - Christian Van Nieuwerburgh
** "If you aren't in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?" - TS Eliot
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