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Lifestyle & Wellbeing

Spotlight’s Mental Health and Wellbeing manager explains what imposter syndrome is and offers techniques to help you deal with it.

Imposter syndrome is one of the most common topics that I coach performers on. I’m fascinated by it – having also struggled with it myself for many years. Feelings of uncertainty are an expected and normal part of everyday life and an estimated 70% of people experience ‘imposter’ feelings at some point in their lives. But the great news is that you can learn to manage it.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome – the idea that you’ve only succeeded due to luck, and not because of your talent or qualifications – was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. It can loosely be defined as a pattern of self-doubt where we doubt our abilities and feel like a fraud. Even the word ‘imposter’ conjures feelings of being unsure, uncertain or anxious. Add to that the medical undertone of ‘syndrome’ and the terminology feels neither helpful nor empowering.

Our mind is trying to help us

You’re probably familiar with the term ‘inner critic’ (IC) or ‘saboteur’. If you’ve watched RuPaul’s Drag Race then you’ll know that RuPaul often uses this phrase to console queens when he thinks they’re self-sabotaging. Self-doubt is the fuel of the inner critic. When we take a risk or step out of a comfort zone, it’s like an inner alarm goes off, waking up the inner critic, who is desperately trying to maintain the status quo.

The inner critic is designed to ensure our survival and hates change because our minds are designed to keep us safe. The IC will have all the reasons/beliefs/assumptions/perspectives to help maintain the status quo – and this shows up as a pattern of self-doubt which we call ‘Imposter Syndrome’. The more ‘on purpose’ the idea/thing/situation is, the louder the IC will become. So the sign of the IC can indicate you are doing something that is important to you.

The language and behaviour of the inner critic

To manage self-doubt, we have to master the language and behaviours of the inner critic. You might recognise it as insecure thoughts such as ‘is this the right thing?’, ‘What will others say?’, ‘If I do it this way, then a lot of problems and challenges will come up…’ The language we use is often a great indicator of how we’re feeling about something.

Other inner critic signs include:

  • Binary thinking: When the IC is in charge there’s usually no room for grey, everything is black or white, either great or awful.
  • The voice of ‘reason’: The IC argues for what might seem to be in your best interests e.g ‘but if you put yourself out there then you’ll be judged, ridiculed, etc.’
  • The voice of ‘you aren’t good enough’: thoughts like ‘I need more time, I need another degree, I need more experience, I’m not very good at X Y Z…’
  • The voice of perfectionism: It hates mistakes and doing things ‘wrong’, i.e. if you can’t do it perfectly don’t do it at all. It’s also the voice of body perfectionism: ‘I’m not attractive enough’, ‘I need to lose weight’ etc.
  • The tape: The negative voice that is constantly on a loop in your head.
  • The broken record: The IC will come up with new lines from time to time but it also tends to rehash a few core narratives and beliefs it has been repeating to you for decades.
  • The one-two punch: It attacks you with critical thoughts before shaming you for having them (for example – ‘why is everyone else more successful than me when they’re less talented’ (binary thinking), followed by ‘maybe I’m not very talented after all’).

The IC may take inspiration from critical people in your life: such as a parent, sibling, colleague, or from cultural narratives or expectations.

How to manage self-doubt

We can’t get rid of self-doubt completely, but these four steps will help you recognise and acknowledge the inner critic and not take direction from it:

1. Acknowledge thoughts and feelings

Ask yourself: does that thought help or hinder me? Is it even true? What’s my reaction when I believe that thought? Who would I be without it? This acknowledgement cannot be underestimated because it immediately creates separation between you and the IC. Remember that you are not your thoughts – you’re the person having the thoughts.

2. Learn to think like a non-imposter

By valuing constructive criticism and seeing the bigger picture, we strengthen our connection to what I call our ‘Inner Leader’. It’s the part of us that is wise, compassionate, has clarity and always honours your truth. The Inner Leader knows how to make those life affirming choices which lead us to the fullest experience of our lives. I also recommend listening to this visualisation to get more acquainted with this part of yourself

3. Share your feelings with someone you trust

We are able to navigate this industry with more confidence and take risks when we have a ‘secure base’. Your secure base is made up of the people who we know at our core will support us. They don’t seek to problem solve but are able to listen with empathy. To identify your secure base, you may like to reflect on these questions. Who listens attentively? Who holds back from trying to fix it? Who knows how to mirror back how you’re feeling? Who is available and returns messages reliably?

4. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of simply noticing what’s occurring in the present moment. The IC’s narrative (and insecurities) are nearly always associated with past thoughts or future fears. When we focus our full attention on the present moment, we are less likely to become overwhelmed and we can respond to self-doubt rationally rather than reacting to it.

It’s important to remember that beliefs are just well-practised thoughts and we can choose to practice generating thoughts that are empowering and positive. Self-doubt happens to most of us, but by noticing when the inner critic rears its head and putting the above into practice, I hope you are better able to avoid taking direction from it. Whatever the inner critic might be trying to convince you of, I promise you are enough.

Bea Grist is Spotlight’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Manager and a Certified Coach. In 2020, she launched The Wellbeing Series, a comprehensive programme designed to support and empower actors and performers to navigate the mental health challenges of the acting profession, and the uncertain times that we’re living through. Prior to becoming a coach, Bea marketed theatre for twelve years, working with such companies as Almeida Theatre, National Theatre, Sonia Friedman Productions, Ambassadors Theatre Group, Polka Theatre and Nottingham Playhouse.

Photo Credit: Alpgiray Kelem / iStock