AB Thinks  →  20th November 2020

Projecting confidence: tips from imposter syndrome expert Dr Valerie Young

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Katie Macaulay’s guest on Episode 38 of The Internal Comms Podcast is Dr Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of it.

Imposter syndrome is the nagging feeling that you are a fraud or a phony, and research has found it disproportionately affects people in creative fields.

This enlightening conversation reveals just how common feelings of anxiety and self-doubt is in people from all walks of life, even those at the very top of their professions. Valerie also lays out some of the ways you can prevent yourself, and those around you, from engaging in self-limiting behaviour.

Here are our top five helpful highlights from an unmissable chat.

#1 Relax, almost everyone feels like an imposter at some point
“Certain fields that are more susceptible [to imposter syndrome]. People in STEM – science, technology and medicine – is one, but also creative fields, which makes sense when you think about it. You’re being judged by subjective standards, by people whose job title is ‘professional critic’. You’re only as good as your last design, performance or creation, so you’re always having to prove yourself in a way that is not required in other professions. That’s why you see so many writers and actors – from Tom Hanks and Kate Winslet to Tina Fey and Maya Angelou – who’ve talked about imposter feelings.”

#2 Never be ashamed of falling short, unless you didn’t try
“The biggest mistake we make about mistakes is thinking we can avoid them, and also feeling shame. People who feel like imposters experience shame when they fall short. If you’re a perfectionist, 99 out of 100 will evoke shame, and realising you forgot to make some minor point in a presentation will result in you beating yourself up. None of us get to avoid setbacks, so it’s how you handle them that really matters. The point I always want to make to people is, you can be crushingly disappointed if a client hated your design and you didn’t get the job, but not ashamed. The only time to feel shame is if you didn’t really try, you didn’t prepare, or you procrastinated so long that it showed up in your results. Then, shame on you.”

#3 It’s better to feel like a fraud than to be brimming with unfounded confidence
“If 70% of people at one time or another have had these feelings (of being an imposter), what’s up with the other 30? Some part of that 30% has the Dunning Kruger effect. It’s named after Professor Dunning at Cornell University, who through hundreds of studies, found that the most confident student would consistently do worse than the person who was convinced they would be terrible. What they concluded is, people who don’t know what they’re doing, don’t know that they don’t know what they’re doing. Or they think they know way more than they really do, but they’re incredibly confident in their lack of knowledge. Research shows that, in a leaderless group, people are more willing to follow the more confident person over the more competent person. Which is frightening when you think about it. A lot of us are focusing on becoming more competent – getting more certifications, degrees and experience – when perhaps we should be focusing on feeling and projecting more confidence, even when we don’t always feel it.”

#4 Trick your body into turning nerves into excitement
“Your body doesn’t know the difference between fear and excitement: sweaty palms, nervous stomach, dry throat. If I’m going to a job interview or a meeting or about to step up to the podium, I would much rather say to myself, ‘I’m excited’. You don’t have to believe it, you have to keep going, regardless of how you feel. What everybody wants is to stop feeling like an imposter, but that’s not how it works. Feelings are the last to change. The only way to stop feeling like an imposter is to stop thinking like an imposter, and then jump in, trusting that you can figure it out as you go. The key is not to cure imposter syndrome, and have it go away, it’s to have the information, the insight and the tools so when you have a normal imposter moment, you can talk yourself down faster.”

#5 Experience the liberation of admitting you don’t understand
“We’ve all been in a meeting or class where we wanted to ask a question but didn’t want to sound stupid and then someone else asks your question and they go ‘That’s brilliant’. It’s not about knowing everything and it all coming easily and quickly, it’s about not knowing with confidence. It’s about being the person that could confidently raise your hand and say ‘Excuse me, I don’t understand. Could you clarify that? Do you mean this, or do you mean that?’ Other people will be relieved. You have to really project the notion that ‘I’m entitled to not understand’.”

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