Friday, April 19, 2024

Turn Your Inner Critic To An Inner Coach: How To Stop Feeling Like a Fraud And More Like Yourself

Here’s Part 2 of our chat with Dr Bex Bell, a personal-development coach who speaks in organisations about Impostor Syndrome-related issues, and the author of Inner Critic to Inner Coach: How to Heal the Impostor Syndrome, End Self-Sabotage and Own Your Greatness. Is Impostor Syndrome more common in women, and what did Bex’s time in prisons teach her?

You mention that sometimes people with Impostor Syndrome fall into the trap of people-pleasing.
Look at the T-shirt I’m wearing! It says ‘people-pleaser anonymous’.

Nice! Is that your own merch?
No but I’m thinking about designing a line of ‘wearable healing’ items like that to open up conversations. But yes, people-pleasing is totally part of Impostor Syndrome because we rationalise that ‘if I can just be everything to everyone, I’ll finally feel good enough’.

Did you feel like an impostor when it came to writing your book?
When I was approached by my publisher to write it, my Inner Critic said, ‘you’re not good enough to write a book!’. Also I had that ‘natural-genius’ belief that real authors just sit down at their laptop and freely write with the structure already figured out. Then I realised, ‘hang on, I’m experiencing my own ‘impostering’ in real time while writing about it’, so I applied the strategies that I outline in the book. At times I still felt like an impostor though!

You say you often felt like a fraud throughout your time at Victoria University, even when your PhD thesis in forensic psychology was praised highly?
Yes. That’s the thing with Impostor Syndrome: we look for external validation to try and feel good enough, but no amount of external validation is enough because we still discount the validity of that evidence.

You did research in prisons for your PhD?
I didn’t work for corrections, but I worked in prisons over seven years for the duration of my PhD– it took me a while to complete, ironically because I wasted so much time feeling like an impostor! Alongside doing my own research for my thesis, I was also involved with other research projects in our psychology lab. I and other masters and PhD students conducted research in prisons across the country under the supervision of Professor Devon Polaschek.

Typically our research was conducted within the Specialist Treatment Rehabilitation Units that are focused on rehabilitating and reintegrating high-risk violent offenders, and sex offenders too. Our research covered a range of topics related to offender rehabilitation and reintegration, but my PhD research specifically investigated ‘the contribution of cognitive impulse control to criminal risk’, for high-risk, typically violent offenders. More specifically, [research] about what actually underlies poor impulse control in order to better able to target treatment efforts in a helpful way.

You write in the book that spending time in prisons taught you that we all wear masks?
Yeah, obviously wearing a mask of trying to be powerful and staunch as a gang member is very different to wearing an impostor mask. But underneath it all, we all just want to belong, be accepted, matter, be loved. Our Inner Critic develops because we feel that it’s necessary to help us get that acceptance and belonging. People can be walking very different paths in life, but we’re all humans underneath it. I also learned also how privileged I was to have the upbringing that I had, compared to the experiences of a lot of these people [inmates].

You mention that there’s some stigma and shame around Impostor Syndrome. Do you think that leads to people not talking about it?
I think so, because you might feel like you’d be admitting you’re a fraud or fluking your way through.

You’re an advocate for ‘impostor-related education’ in the workplace?
Absolutely. Feeling like an impostor shouldn’t just be ‘on the individual’, because the environment we’re immersed in can trigger feeling like this too. I go into workplaces to share messages about what it [Impostor Syndrome] is, why it happens, and what you can do about it.

Lots of people say ‘I thought I was the only one who felt like this!’. They find having conversations about it liberating. I’d like to see these kinds of conversations become normalised in the workplace, without involving shame. Ideally, I’d like to create some training for leaders and for people managing other people who might feel this way.

Maybe some CEOs have Impostor Syndrome too!
If CEOs admitted that sometimes they don’t get everything right, I think that would make for a much more human, empowering, uplifting workplace. I’d also love to see wider education around improving workplace culture.

One woman told me that she couldn’t admit to having Impostor Syndrome because then her workmates will know she’s an impostor!
Yes, in some environments, it’s psychologically unsafe for people to admit that they’ve got Impostor Syndrome. You’re not allowed to have self-doubt. You have to come across as bulletproof, with everything under control.

You mention that a study by KPMG showed that 75% of women in executive positions had experienced impostor feelings. Do you think more women experience Impostor Syndrome than men?
There’s no straightforward answer. Everyone’s different. But, speaking generally, I think many men feel they’re supposed to suck things up and get on with it, so maybe they’re less inclined to openly talk about it. But I just observed last week than more men than usual are turning up and speaking openly at my talks [in organisations].

Your book has a case study, Jenny, who returned to work after maternity leave and tried to recreate that previous level of success, but had a ‘split focus’. Is that something common among mothers returning to work?
Anecdotally, absolutely. It’s holding ourselves accountable to that superhuman standard. How can you be highly performing at work when you’ve been up half the night with a sick child? What if we said ‘some days we’ll excel at work and maybe less so as a parent, and vice versa, and that’s okay’?

Is having case studies in the book important to you and why?
Yes, because it’s part of answering ‘what does this look like and how can it help in the real world, not just the conceptual world’.

Your book has many practical resources, including document templates, that people can draw on as part of their ‘toolbox’ during the Critic To Coach Journey.
That’s so important to me, as I’m passionate about translating psychological science into actual tools that help. I feel like now that I’ve done the learning, it’s my duty to make it useful for people.

You suggest creating a ‘winning at life file’, to help focus on your successes rather than replaying negative thoughts. Or even a post-it saying ‘Inner Coach!’ on your fridge or computer?
Yes. Your brain thinks thousands of thoughts per day, and the majority are negative. So, you need positive reminders around you about your reasons for what you’re doing and how will it improve your life.

You mention a misconception that listening to your Inner Coach is the equivalent of ‘always think positive’ or toxic positivity.
Yes – it’s essentially gaslighting, to be told you shouldn’t feel the feelings or have the thoughts you’re having. Firstly, it’s annoying. Secondly, it doesn’t work. You can’t ‘just think positive’. The negative stuff is there and it’s okay to acknowledge that and create some space for it.

You mentioned some calming, grounding techniques including five minutes a day of Cyclic Sighing: a breathing technique that has particular emphasis on a slow exhale. And you suggest hugging yourself. Some readers will think ‘oh it’s just breathing, it’s just a hug, it won’t help’.
Obviously it’s not going to fix everything on its own! But we have to have physiological, somatic strategies as well the mindset stuff. They might sound airy-fairy weird, but there’s a lot of evidence behind them. Sometimes simple stuff is the most powerful and effective.

I like how you say that small children live under an Inner Coach, with all their playful energy and without perfectionism.
Yes, that’s our natural essence, but it gets conditioned out of us. So it’s about learning how to hear your Inner Coach again.

Some people argue that, fundamentally, people don’t really change.
Well, previous behaviours are often a good predictor of future behaviours, but that’s absolutely not an indication that it’s impossible to change something about yourself. The evidence shows yes, we absolutely can change. There’s that neuro-plasticity in the brain. But the change process is hard, and it’s non-linear, so it’s accepting that sometimes we regress into earlier stages, then we can make progress again. It’s a daily practice, and a lifelong journey

Do you hope that normalising talking about Impostor Syndrome can have a positive ripple effect?
Yes! We need to share our stories, because we’re not alone in this. There’s heaps we can do about it. Heaps of hope.

Check out Bex’s book and website

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