Why the f*ck not me? The Neuroscience of Imposter Syndrome

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Why the f*ck not me? The Neuroscience of Imposter Syndrome

Keep reading if you’ve ever felt, said or done these things: 

  • A crippling fear that any day someone is about to jump out and scream: 'you're a fraud, you're not a proper adult.'

  • "I can't do this; I'm going to mess this up; I'm going to look stupid." 

  • Instead of saying "thank you" in response to someone congratulating you on a recent success, you say, "I was just lucky."
  • "They're so experienced; I could never do that." 

Still here? Well, welcome, my fellow self-doubters and sabotagers; imposter syndrome has reared its ugly head and left its mark on you too. 

Imposter syndrome is a cruel mistress and affects more people than you think. Everyone (and I mean everyone) will have one moment in their lifetime when feelings of imposter syndrome have hit hard. Here’s mine… 

As a wee 23-year-old, I got promoted to Sales Facilitator EMEA for FedEx and within the first few months, I was asked to go to a European Sales conference in Barcelona to present in front of 250 salespeople. Terrifying right?

To add to the pressure, I was presenting to a hungover audience. The group had a social the night before, so I knew the crowd would be quieter than usual, but still, I brought the energy and was doing pretty well, and then it hit me. 

The Senior VP of EMEA walked into the room and watched from the back. Suddenly, it became this one senior leader's face in a sea of 250 people, and I just blanked.

I did not feel worthy of speaking in front of someone so senior. Who was I to train this person with all that experience? 

The pressure of impressing this one person led to a complete mind blank on stage. It was full-blown; you could hear a pin-drop silence. Fortunately, I was saved by a co-facilitator who came to my rescue by jumping in, but still, I will never forget that feeling. 

But, imposter syndrome doesn't just come for the inexperienced. You’ll commonly see it in high-achieving people who secretly question their intellect, skills or accomplishments behind closed doors.

So, let's look into the science of why so many of us feel imposter syndrome, when we shouldn’t! 

Debunking imposter syndrome - let’s break it down 

What even is it? The science 

  • Imposter syndrome is a behavioural reaction most easily categorised as self-doubt.
  • It’s all linked to your psychological health - how your brain processes information, your productivity and any anxiety you’re feeling. Audrey Ervin, psychologist says “Clinically, I don’t see a lot of people with imposter syndrome who don’t have anxiety.”
  • It’s also linked to your mood, when you’re feeling lower levels of serotonin, you’re more likely to indulge and spiral in self doubt.

But, why do we feel it? The neuroscience 

  • You could be prone to self-doubt: We feel fear or anxiety about doing something we’re uncomfortable with; it can even be as simple as raising your hand to ask a question in front of a crowd, and the emotional part of our brain (the Limbic System) kicks in. And the part that processes fear (the amygdala) becomes overactive, triggering feelings of exaggerated self-doubt. 
  • You could be prone to overthinking: Another part of the brain guilty of causing imposter syndrome is the prefrontal cortex, which is the decision-making part of our brain.

If you're someone who, at the end of a long day, is overplaying the day's events and thinking, 'god, did I really say that?', it means you could have an overactive prefrontal that can quickly lead into unnecessary self-criticism. 

  • You could be influenced by the original influencers: Sometimes, neurotransmitters (chemical messengers to the brain) influence our feelings of self-esteem and self-worth. The big three contributing to imposter syndrome are low dopamine levels, serotonin and oxytocin. 

Why the f*ck not YOU? How to eradicate imposter syndrome 

I’m not promising a quick fix to the neuroscience behind your feelings of imposter syndrome; it’s more about a change in mindset. So next time you feel imposter syndrome rising, follow these three steps in the moment. 

  • Step 1: Become aware of your thoughts 

Pay attention to the thoughts in your head. Listen to the language you use about yourself and be aware of saying things like “I should, I must, I have to”. This kind of language is limiting your beliefs; it’s tricking yourself into believing you aren’t capable. 

And trust me, you absolutely are capable. 

  • Step 2: Change your belief

The next step is to work out what your underlying negative, limiting beliefs are. The inner works of imposter syndrome is a lack of self-belief; it’s the feeling of “I am not good enough. I am a fraud. I am a failure.” Even though you have the accolades, the big job, the success is all there on paper, but you deep down don’t believe it.

When you have these moments, recognise it for what it is: an untrue story. A belief that limits you from being who you really are. Then, I want you to practise positive beliefs such as: instead  

  • Believing you are worth it, you are.
  • Believe you are happy, you are.
  • Believe you are confident, you are.

By telling yourself you are worth it, happy and confident , it will become real in your mind, and you’ll start to feel it. 

  • Step 3: Make decisions based on your new belief 

As you are imagining your new belief in your head, shut your eyes, step into it, take some deep breaths and feel it fully. How would a person with that belief feel? What would they be thinking? What would they be doing?

Then, make your next decision based on that new reality.

At first, these steps will feel unnatural. Even the first 20 times will feel like an effort, and you’ll need to force yourself to think differently cognitively. Still, slowly, new neural pathways will solidify your new inner belief and suddenly you’ll find yourself feeling great and making confident decisions without a thought. 

So, when you get that feeling of immense pressure and imposter syndrome, I want you to take a deep breath and think:

  • What exactly is the pressure you’re putting on yourself at that moment?
  • How can you decide to let go of that limiting belief and replace it with a helpful, positive belief?  
  • What decision would a person with that new belief make? Then do it.

And lastly, let’s end with a mantra to live by, in the words of Mindy Kaling, I want you to think “Why the f*ck not me?”. 


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