Woman wearing glasses sits at a laptop. She is in a thinking pose. Perhaps she in wondering if what she is experiencing is imposter syndrome, fear or self doubt.

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Evaluate yourself: is it Fear, Self Doubt, or is it Imposter Syndrome?

Know when you’re experiencing Imposter Syndrome, so you can deal with it faster.

As you move through your career trajectory, it’s inevitable you will experience periods of Self Doubt, Fear and for 70% of individuals globally, you may also experience Imposter Syndrome. Even the most successful people are not exempt from this. 

But the degree and frequency of these experiences are not just about you, they’re about the environments you’re exposed to as well. For those experiencing Fear, Self Doubt or Imposter Syndrome, the steps required to move past them can often be different too. 

Self Doubt can be chronic but it can also be surface level too. 

Imposter Syndrome is tied to self worth and deeply rooted limiting beliefs of ‘not being worthy’ or that you’re going to be ‘found out as not capable’. 

Due to this there are no quick fixes to Imposter Syndrome but with the right help you can learn in a matter of weeks, how to begin to disrupt the Imposter feelings. 

And then there are other forms of Fear that can show themselves in so many ways, some are literally paralysing whilst others are far easier to overcome. 

Which is why it’s important to learn the difference and not just group ‘all body’ responses, feelings and emotions, into the same ‘label’ or ‘bucket’ . 

The language we use to describe these experiences has a profound impact on how we feel and how long the negative feelings can hang around. So labeling how we feel and what we are experiencing correctly like Self Doubt, Imposter Syndrome or another Fear entirely is important to find the right help and path forward. 

Fears & doubt manifest in many different ways at work such as:

  • fear public speaking
  • fear of being exposed as an intellectual fake, phoney or fraud 
  • fear of being less capable or less intelligent than other people think you are
  • excessive fear of failure
  • fear of making a mistake 
  • fear of success
  • fear of sounding stupid or inept
  • fear of rejection

There’s a lot of similar threads in these fears and experiences, but they are not all related to Imposter Syndrome. 

That’s why it’s important to evaluate yourself. 

Developing your self awareness across what you’re feeling and why you’re feeling it is a great start to learning to name these experiences correctly and then begin to redirect what you’d usually describe as a negative into a more positive ‘label’ emotion. 

When is it Fear?

Humans are born with just two fears; the fear of falling, and fear of loud noises.

As we grow, we develop other fears based on what we’re exposed to. 

A common fear of spiders relates to fear of a real physical danger. But we also experience psychological fears even when there is no physical risk.

Real Situational Danger

In an evolutionary context, the sight of a pack of wolves would set humans’ bodies into fight or flight mode or ‘acute stress response; heart racing, high cortisol (stress hormone), and fast breathing. This reaction primes our bodies to fight to protect ourselves, or flee to safety. Other reactions include freeze (unable to move out of fear, or the need to stay still to hide) and fawn (act to try to please to avoid conflict).

In a modern context, an oncoming car about to crash into yours, or seeing a toddler fall into a swimming pool, will set off the same physical response to danger. Your body prepares you to act immediately to avoid danger.

Psychological fears

Fears in the workplace are all psychological and they can manifest in various ways. 

It’s the fear of public speaking you might feel before a big presentation, or fear of failure or fear of looking stupid when someone puts you on the spot with a tricky question. It’s uncomfortable, but it can’t injure you.

Plus some confusing fears, like fear of success, which is more about fear of the (usually imagined) consequences of success. Fear such as “If I’m the first person in my family to go to University and earn a high salary, will that mean my family will reject me for not being like them, or for being ‘better’ than them?” 

And even though you know on a logical level there is no risk of physical harm involved in these fears, your brain still puts you in a heightened, excited – and often panicked – state. 

It’s the same symptoms of the fight, flight, freeze or fawn response; heart racing, high cortisol (stress hormone), and fast breathing. These are all signs of fear and stress, which feel just as real as if you were in physical danger.

The psychological stressors of our modern workplaces can put us into a primal fight or flight mode, even when there’s no physical danger, and living in this state for long periods can lead to burnout. That’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing so many cases of workplace burnout recently.

Is it Fear or Excitement?

Believe it or not, your body can’t tell the difference between fear, anxiety and excitement; the emotional responses are essentially the same in the body. 

The feeling of butterflies in your stomach can come from nerves (which we perceive as a negative) OR excitement (which we perceive as a positive). 

But what causes it to be Fear or Confidence-boosting is the label we give it. 

“OMG I feel so nervous!!” (negative fear/nerves) 

vs 

“Wow I’m so excited!! (positive anticipation)

Heart racing, fast breathing, and cortisol are all the same levels in your body, so the difference is in perception and labels. We can’t necessarily stop the reaction in our bodies but we can channel it into ‘good’ by what we label it. 

Now, I know you might be thinking, even if ‘I tell myself I am excited when I am crazy nervous I won’t believe it’ and my answer to that is no, you probably won’t. But just labeling it in a positive context is enough to make you take action. And it’s that action that begins to push you through the Fear and boost your Confidence along the way. 

When is it Self Doubt?

Self Doubt is the feeling of lack of Confidence in yourself and your abilities.  

Self Doubt is a common element of Imposter Syndrome. But they are not the same thing, so I’ll explain the difference.

Standalone Self Doubt is common in situations when:

  • you’re undertaking a challenging task that feels beyond your expertise
  • you start comparing yourself to others based on tasks or experience 
  • you receive any kind of negative feedback
  • you’re almost at the finish line of a big, important project

New situations can feel uncomfortable and make you doubt yourself. That’s a common feeling that’s tied to a lack of Confidence and lack of belief in your abilities. But when you’re experiencing stand alone Self Doubt you’re usually not questioning yourself as a person or fighting off an ongoing feeling that you’re going to be ‘exposed’. Imposter Syndrome induced Self Doubt makes you doubt your previous skills, experience and accomplishments as well as question the present and the future.

When is it Imposter Syndrome?

The key characteristics of Imposter Syndrome are the fear of being ‘found out’ as an intellectual fake, phoney or fraud due to an ongoing belief that you’re not as smart, capable or competent as others believe you to be. 

People with Imposter Syndrome truly believe they’re not worthy of their success or accomplishments despite the evidence of their hard work. 

It stems from deeply rooted self limiting beliefs that leave us questioning ourselves, our identities and if we ‘belong’ or ‘deserve’ success. We make a lot of ‘I’ based statements: I am not worthy, I am not good enough, I will never be able to perform like that other person. We tend to internalize anything perceived as negative even if there is evidence of environmental or social factors and we feel shame at even the smallest mistake. That is because those experiencing Imposter Syndrome have different views on what it means to be competent. We set incredibly high standards for ourselves, anything less than perfect is often considered not good enough and we can fall into self sabotaging cycles that have consequences on performance, mental and physical health.

Evaluate yourself in the moment

When a triggering situation causes your fight, flight, freeze or fawn response to activate, use the descriptions above to assess whether you’re feeling a certain type of Fear, standalone Self Doubt, or Imposter Syndrome.

Then you can start to move forward, knowing what you’re dealing with.

What to do once you know if it’s Imposter Syndrome, Fear or Self Doubt:

If it’s Self Doubt, you can focus primarily on building your skills and Confidence and seeking help for those who are experienced or can teach you what you want to know. Remember, there is always a learning curve to something new, nobody was born with all the answers, what matters is that you keep taking action and seek the answers that will help you. 

If it is a Fear, lean into the feelings. Fear wants to keep us stuck (freeze) or even force us to run away (flight) but when it comes to psychological fears we really want to move ourselves into (fight) mode so we can take action. Understand what that fear is, where it came from, and who you can seek help from. 

If it’s Imposter Syndrome, you can work on understanding the origin, triggers and beliefs that caused your feelings of being a fraud. 

But just know this, feelings are not facts. 

You might feel like an Imposter but you’re not an Imposter, in fact you’re incredibly capable. You’re just temporarily blocked from seeing it. 

And regardless of which one of these experiences you’re having at what time, remember this, your body can’t tell the difference between fear, anxiety and excitement; the emotional responses are essentially the same in the body. 

So let’s lead with, I am excited, I have happy butterflies, oh I am nervous but nerves are good, I am thrilled! 

You may not believe it but as long as you take action you’re heading in the right direction. The feelings will follow the action. 

© Copyright Alison Shamir Coaching 2022

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