How does imposter syndrome impact our work, life and mental health?
How it Started for Me
When most people think of me or see me, they might think of my brightly coloured blue/turquoise hair, my flamboyant clothes and having a real sense of confidence…and that IS me, I love being me and this gives me the confidence in everything I do… Well, that is me now, now that I’m back to being my authentic happy self. What people probably don’t know is that I struggled for a long time with imposter syndrome and self-limiting beliefs. Although, at the time I didn’t know this was what it was called, or that it even had a name. This wasn’t something that appeared overnight, it was a gradual process, maybe it started with self-doubt, or questioning my capabilities, was I really good at my job, or was I a fraud? Whenever it started, it had a huge impact on my life both professionally and personally.
In my previous career, I worked in IT. Specifically in the finance industry, building up a wealth of experience in the corporate sector. Working for 20 years in leadership and senior leadership roles. I even started from the very bottom of the IT industry. I was one of those technicians that would’ve told people to ‘switch it off and switch it on again’ when they called their friendly work IT department and I loved my job, it was fun. I enjoyed teamwork, but more importantly, I enjoyed the ability to be able to help people. However, as I progressed up the career ladder, I was driven more by pressure and results to work harder, quicker and better and as a result, I suffered the mental health impacts associated with anxiety and stress.
How Does Stress and Anxiety Impact Our Work?
I never really talked much about how I was feeling in the workplace at the time. I did try and make sense of it, but I found it difficult to explain or help people understand what I was feeling and the effect this was having on me. Somebody would ask me if I was ok and I would say “oh, I’m fine, I’m ok”. When inside I was not feeling ok, far from it, I was really struggling and it made me feel very lonely.
The thing about imposter syndrome is the negative voice in your head that tells you that you’re not good enough, or that you’ll get found out as not being able to really do your job, that you’re a fraud, this is the voice that you actually believe.
It was the voice that I believed and it meant I didn’t think anyone would listen to me, or understand me, or even worse I really would get found out as a fraud and lose my career and job. I felt stuck, I certainly didn’t feel like I could speak out, I felt isolated and my anxiety was off the scale.
Reflecting back now, there wasn’t one single trigger that activated my imposter syndrome, but there was a pattern of symptoms getting worse each time I was promoted or moved into another company/role. The more successful I became and the higher I climbed in my career, the worse I felt, the more anxious and stressed I became and the louder that negative voice became. The problem was with me, I didn’t know how to explain what was happening to me. Part of that was as a result of believing that self-doubting voice and mind propaganda and also because I didn’t understand it myself!
But things are very different now. I chose to retrain as a clinical hypnotherapist after my own anxiety and imposter syndrome led to burnout and other physical health problems. My training, along with my own personal experiences now mean I understand how our brains work and how the brain can convince us that we aren’t very good, that we’re not good enough, that we are a fraud, that we strive for perfection because that’s the only way to keep doing what we’re doing and it’s exhausting.
All these thoughts and feelings are a result of the survival mechanism in the brain, you might know or hear of it as the fight/flight part of the brain and that then leads to high levels of anxiety and stress, leaving people like I was in the past struggling with a range of debilitating mental and physical symptoms that make life difficult to cope with day to day.
I may not have been able to explain what was happening then or understand why, but I do now and I’m going to explain it below so that other people don’t feel as isolated and lonely as I did.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome was first recognised in the 1970s and is classified as a group of negative thoughts, self-sabotaging behaviours and limiting feelings of self-belief that cluster together to create a syndrome which can have a significant impact on your emotional functioning. It can lead to feelings of anxiety, low self-esteem, depression and frustration due to the thoughts and behaviours that result.
I wouldn’t have recognised this at the time, but what I did recognise was that I had very low self-esteem, I didn’t believe in myself and my capabilities, in fact, I lived in fear of ‘failing’, not just failing in my job either and thought I was just one conversation away from being found out as a ‘fraud’. Coupled with the guilt that I’d also feel about any successes that I did have, or any praise I received and the cycle of perfectionism that I was in, trying to prove myself and that I was able to do my job, as well as working harder than anyone else so I didn’t get ‘caught out’.
It’s no surprise that I burnt out and was unable to function.
My levels of anxiety had become so great I felt exhausted and overwhelmed. I was no longer able to work. Burnout is defined as a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. It can occur when you experience long-term stress in a job, or when you have worked in a physically or emotionally draining role for a long time. A survey by YouGov for the charity Mental Health UK in 2020 found one in five people felt unable to manage pressure and stress levels at work. Other Research found that burnout among UK workers almost doubled from 2021 to 2022 and that a staggering 88% of the UK workforce has experienced burnout since 2020.
Anxiety Leads to Procrastination
When we experience high levels of stress and anxiety our brains produce cortisol, which is produced by our adrenal system which regulates these biochemical responses. We normally produce cortisol in response to fight or flight emergencies and situations that are hopefully few and far between.
But when we have a constant level of stress and anxiety, for example, if we’re constantly worrying about our job, or in social situations where we’re seeking validation from others to convince ourselves that we are good enough, (another symptom of imposter syndrome.) The adrenal system is then constantly producing cortisol and it literally gets burnt out.
High levels, along with extended periods of time of high stress and anxiety can also lead to a lowering of the immune system, making us feel physically as well as mentally ill.
So, in my case, here I was, paralysed and unable to make a decision about even day-to-day tasks, let alone my future, I was the procrastination queen! So, I stayed in my job, fearful about my ability to do anything else beyond this role. In fact, I was fearful about almost everything, leaving my job, and my career, fearful of relationships and even social situations, yet another symptom of imposter syndrome.
Of course, I hid it well, I wanted to keep this a secret. Who wants to admit to struggling in their job, in their daily lives on a daily basis, that everyone else seems to do so effortlessly?
Imposter syndrome strips you of everything you recognise as ‘you’. All your confidence goes, that spark that gets you out of bed each morning with a zest for life and you fluctuate between high anxiety (what’s wrong with me? Who is judging me today? How long can I keep doing this? What if I get found out?) Swinging into depression, not wanting to go out, not wanting to see people, and feeling helpless and hopeless.
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
The main part of the brain responsible for these exaggerated thoughts and feelings is the fight or flight area of the brain, the amygdala. You might also have heard it referred to as part of our limbic system and it is one of the parts of our brain that controls our emotions and behaviours. As I mentioned earlier, its main function is survival, to keep us alive and it will always see things from a negative perspective.
If we take away our modern society for just a moment and imagine we’re a distant ancestor hunting, gathering and trying to stay alive day to day, it makes sense why we have this mechanism, why the amygdala will look for the negatives and worst-case scenarios. Unfortunately, although society has evolved greatly, we still have the same response to potential threats and dangers and our brains have adapted these responses that once kept us alive to all our modern-day issues. So, this part of the brain sometimes goes into a high alert status, seeing everything as a threat, everything as a danger. Cue symptoms of imposter syndrome! (There are many other ways anxiety and stress can manifest too with other depression and anxiety disorders).
However, on the flip side of this, when we interact in a positive way, when we think in a positive way and when we are active in a positive way, (I’m talking actions and doing things, rather than just exercise, although this helps too!), we produce consistent patterns in our brain which cause the release of various neurotransmitters, the most important of which is serotonin and this neurotransmitter (also called the happy hormone) keeps us in a mentally healthy place.
When we produce serotonin and other chemicals, we get a reward that enables us to feel good and cope better with situations, it keeps us in a good place where our brain can make a full assessment of any situation we’re in and come up with the correct answers.
And it sounds easy, doesn’t it? And, with practice, it can be. Because when interacting, thinking and acting in a positive way, we’re able to start to reduce anxiety and stress levels.
This in turn starts to turn down the ‘dial’ on that fight or flight response and we’re no longer experiencing the intrusive negative thoughts that imposter syndrome brings with it.
How Does Hypnotherapy Help?
This is where hypnotherapy really does help and has helped me, in fact it led to me changing careers! Now my training and my experience help me to work with people just like I was, to re-connect them with who they are, to help them believe in themselves again and to help them regain or discover their confidence. Helping them understand how to start living their lives again so that it’s not just about surviving, it’s about living the life they want, to become the best version of themselves, empowering them to take back their control.
About the Author: Dawn Ibbetson is based in our Chelmsford clinic in Essex and sees clients both in person and online. As someone who has experienced anxiety and stress first hand, she understands how difficult it is to ask for help and to break the negative cycle of anxiety. Dawn specialises in Anxiety, Stress, Confidence, Pain and Business Success.
If you’d like to find out how hypnotherapy could help you to take back control from imposter syndrome and work-related stress, get in touch with one of our Inspired to Change hypnotherapists and book your FREE initial consultation.
Inspired to Change Hypnotherapists are all recognised by the National Council for Hypnotherapy, the UK’s leading not-for-profit hypnotherapy professional association.
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