‘That taunting whisper’: Three strategies for beating impostor syndrome
Thursday, November 8, 2018/
Not long ago, I was invited to Malaysia to spend two days training a group of executives on crisis communication.
As someone who speaks for a living, I’m no stranger to standing in front of an audience — but this time something went horribly wrong. It was the afternoon of the first day and I was midway through a piece of content. Looking across the audience, I became fixated on their faces — they seemed dubious, disbelieving, even suspicious. Words were coming out of my mouth, but meanwhile, a competing strain of thought rampaged through my head. ‘What am I doing here? These people know so much more than me. This is a disaster!’
Hello, impostor syndrome. The taunting whisper that appears at the most inopportune moments for many of us. It makes us feel like a failure, like we don’t deserve to be doing what we’re doing — and it can cripple our performance.
But this doesn’t need to be the case. When that niggly impostor appears, here are three strategies to send it packing.
1. Focus on them
This sounds counter-intuitive. If you’re worried about what others think of you, it’s easy to withdraw into your shell as a way of self-protection.
But here’s the thing, you’ll become less self-conscious by increasing your focus on the others in the room.
Rather than wondering what they’re thinking about you and allowing your impostor to come up with all manner of destructive answers, ask yourself: ‘What do they need from me right now? How can I be of most value to them? How can I serve them?’
Now you’ve flipped the mental conversation and you’re curious rather than nervous. Your impostor, having had its fun curtailed, will move on.
2. Leave your baggage at the door
A high percentage of the tens of thousands of thoughts we humans have in a day come from our past — whether that’s our childhood, what happened last year or the incident on the way to work this morning.
When we’re in a situation outside our comfort zone, our impostor can unhelpfully remind us of similar, previous scenarios that didn’t end well.
It’s like dragging a massive trolley of baggage from our past into our current circumstance. You can shut down your impostor in the moment by visualising that overloaded baggage trolley and deliberately leaving it outside the door — where it belongs.
3. Hang your words off a great structure
Being under-prepared for a presentation or interview gives your impostor an open invitation to wreak havoc, but over-preparing can be just as risky.
Choose the middle ground, and prepare your approach rather than every single word — which you’re likely to forget in the heat of the moment. Break your information into three chunks under logical headings you can easily recall. Rehearse using only your headings as notes, rather than reading from a script. The better you get at this the more your confidence will soar and your impostor will be kicked to the kerb.
Now, back to Malaysia and my unexpected impostor moment. While I continued to speak and my negative thoughts proceeded to swirl, I added a third melody to the chorus. It took a few seconds of mental effort, but I consciously shifted my focus from me to them, asking myself what they needed to hear from me that would help them the most.
I don’t remember the rest, because I was back in the zone. The impostor had left the building.