Disrupting Imposter Syndrome with Nalini Saxena

Behavioral neuroscientist and founder of Elicit Consulting, Nalini Saxena, spoke to us about the commonly cited Imposter Syndrome (IS) that can all too often hold us back. She began by explaining what Imposter Syndrome is and isn’t. Firstly, it’s not a medically recognized condition listed on the DSM-4 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

Instead, it is a colloquial phrase denoting the disparity between our negative self-image, in terms of competence, and the real evidence we have of our abilities. In other words, we’re better than we think we are, but the syndrome tells us we’re “faking it”.

Imposter Syndrome isn’t Reasonable Self-Criticism

Saxena goes on to point out that Imposter Syndrome isn’t the reasonable questioning we apply to our abilities in specific areas, such as “am I presenting myself well?” or “am I making sufficient eye contact in this pitch?” Instead, she describes it as “corrosive” and something which affects both men and women but may particularly disadvantage historically under-represented groups.

Five Indicators of Imposter Syndrome

Saxena outlines five common ways in which IS shows up (five symptoms):

  1. Self-doubt: a pervasive insecurity about one’s abilities.
  2. Overwork: a tendency to overcompensate with long hours.
  3. Missed opportunities: because we don’t believe we’re suitable for them.
  4. Perfectionism: taking too long over minute details, at the expense of the big picture.
  5. Not owning success: being unable to accept a compliment or reward.

Whereas feel of failure is natural, and something most entrepreneurs and business leaders face, when it becomes relentless and negative self-talk, that’s where this natural tendency slips into IS.

In fact, it becomes a vicious cycle, Saxena explains. Anxiety creates the feeling of being an imposter, causing self-doubt which engenders further anxiety. With entrepreneurs, IS can be particularly dangerous, since it can prevent them from fulfilling their ambitions, and realizing potential greatness.

Tools for Combatting Imposter Syndrome

Fortunately, Saxena has identified some useful ways to defeat IS.

One: Recognize your Competence

It can really help to define those occasions when you DO feel entirely competent, whether it’s giving a presentation to a large capacity crowd, hitting a sales target, or creating a brand-new product or service that people want. Competence may mean quite different things to different people.

Two: Identify your competence type.

There are five basic types of competent individual (with specific vulnerabilities) and it helps to know which one (or more) you are, in any given moment.  Saxena defines these types thus:

  1. Perfectionist – unable to be happy with near-perfect, you score 94% in an evaluation, but obsess over the lost 6%.
  2. Natural Genius – people think it comes easy to you, yet much behind-the-scenes labor is required, leaving you to wonder if it shouldn’t be more straightforward.
  3. Expert – those who feel they ought to know all the answers and fail to appreciate that much true competence is life-long learning, and that nobody understands a topic 100%.
  4. Soloist – the entrepreneur who feels they should be able to go it alone and doesn’t perhaps appreciate the value of collaboration or delegation.
  5. Superhero – the leader who tries to be all things to all people and wear multiple hats.

With each of these competency types, the danger is of trying to live up to unreasonable self-set standards.

Three: Define your Origin Story

Having identified the type of imposter syndrome you experience, based on your unique vulnerabilities, you need to investigate how this negative thought cycle began.

Saxena runs through the various contributing factors which might have led to destructive self-talk. These include environment (nature and demographics), nurture, social expectations (which can be culturally specific for women), or the influence of key individuals in our early lives. Some of the latter can be unknowingly destructive, their consequences long-lasting. Saxena relates the example of an aunt who thought she wasn’t fair skinned enough to be in the front row of a dance recital.

Four: Avoid Comparisons

Saxena relates: “I had this fantastic coach who used to say […] every comparison, by definition, robs us of our power”. Comparing yourself with others is almost always unhelpful, since everyone has a unique set of circumstances and a one-off origin story. You’re almost always not comparing like with like.

It’s vital to remember that your presence (on a board, in a meeting) be definition gives you the right to a voice. You have a right to be there. Normalizing self-talk about your achievements, and celebrating your wins, can build the healthy habit of having a more positive self-image.

Effectively, you set up a positive cycle in place of the negative one. Use positive self-talk to appreciate successes and learn from setbacks, promoting increased self-esteem. This prepares you for the next instance of anxiety, to which you again apply positive self-talk, and so forth.

Five: Be Realistic

Saxena explains that we need to have a more realistic appraisal of what’s achievable. She explains, “I can’t necessarily show up with perfection and poise and with the ability to deliver at the highest level in every realm of my life.” She agrees with the principle that “perfectionism inhibits success.”

Instead, maintain a “done” list of achievements, as well as the usual “to do” list which it is too easy to fixate upon. Saxena also recommends keeping a journal and celebrating those achievements in writing, as well as being honest about setbacks.

Final Thoughts

If you find you’re struggling to make yourself heard in a room where the loudest voice wins, then it may be time to work on communication skills. Here too, journaling can help, because you can look back for examples of when your communication was effective and draw conclusions for what strategies to employ in future.

Alignment is important – ensuring that your unique skills and abilities are fully aligned with your business. Meanwhile, areas where you are less competent can be covered by trusted colleagues. Saxena works on such challenges with her clients at Elicit Consulting – drawing out and maximizing their unique abilities.

Imposter Syndrome, finally, is not a rare or shameful tendency that only some entrepreneurs fall into. At some point in everyone’s career or life, they will experience it. Knowing this should make you feel less alone. Imposter Syndrome is a universal condition that can be defeated with a more positive outlook, and a realistic appraisal of your own abilities and achievements.