Dr. Sharp: [00:00:00] Hello everyone. Welcome to The Testing Psychologist podcast, the podcast where we talk all about the business and practice of psychological and neuropsychological assessment. I’m your host, Dr. Jeremy Sharp, licensed psychologist, group practice owner, and private practice coach.
This episode is brought to you by PAR.
PAR offers the SPECTRA: Indices of Psychopathology, a hierarchical–dimensional look at adult psychopathology. The SPECTRA is available for paper and pencil assessment or administration and scoring via PARiConnect. Learn more at parinc.com/spectra.
Hey, y’all. Welcome back to The Testing Psychologist podcast. It’s great to be here with you. I am so excited to share this episode with you. My guest today, Dr. Lisa Orbé-Austin, is talking about a topic that is so common [00:01:00] and so important for many of us. It’s imposter syndrome. This comes up all the time in our work both intrapersonally and with our clients, and this is a fantastic conversation.
So let me tell you a little bit about Lisa. She is a licensed psychologist and executive coach. She’s got expertise in imposter syndrome as well as career advancement and leadership development. She’s a co-founder and partner of Dynamic Transitions Psychological Consulting, a career and executive coaching consultancy, where she works mostly with high-potential managers and executives.
Lisa earned her Doctorate in Counseling Psychology from Columbia University and she has been featured all over the place as far as media and media outlets. She gave a TEDx talk entitled The Impostor Syndrome Paradox: Unleashing the Power of You. Lisa is an author. She has two fantastic books, [00:02:00] Own Your Greatness and the most recent one, Your Unstoppable Greatness released in December 2022. Both of those will be listed in the show notes if you want to check them out.
As you can tell, Lisa is a fabulous, knowledgeable individual who is highly steeped in this topic of imposter syndrome. Our conversation was awesome. We dug into the basics and definitions of imposter syndrome. We talked about the overlap with constructs like self-esteem and shame, and people-pleasing. We talk about how imposter syndrome manifests and how we can talk with our clients about it, how we can work with it internally, and many other things. We share some personal information, our own experiences with imposter syndrome. So a fantastic conversation that I think you will greatly enjoy.
Just a small heads-up, there is one [00:03:00] f-bomb, that was my fault but that’s how we roll sometimes here. It happens closer to the beginning of the podcast, so if you have kids in the car or anything like that, just be mindful of that.
All right, let’s get to my conversation with Dr. Lisa Orbé-Austin.
Hey Lisa, welcome to the podcast.
Dr. Lisa: Jeremy, thank you for having me.
Dr. Sharp: Glad to have you here. I’m honored to have you here. You’re a legit famous person based on everything you’ve done. So I’m very grateful that you’re here to chat with me today.
Dr. Lisa: That makes me laugh but thanks for saying that. I really am happy that clearly, the words have gotten out because I’ve gotten to get my [00:04:00] work out which has been really the most important part for me.
Dr. Sharp: That’s great. Yeah, it’s all over the place. It’s really cool. I have a lot of questions for you. We’re talking about something that is so ubiquitous, I think, in our field, and of course among other folks out there, imposter syndrome. I always open with this question of why this? Why is this important? Of all the things you could spend your time and energy on in your life in our field, why imposter syndrome?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, because probably, for many of us, why we got connected to this because it personally touched me. So for me, it was something I had lived with my whole life throughout my educational experiences, my early professional experiences, and clearly learned about it through my process of graduate school when I heard about it.
And then it came to a point in my own life [00:05:00] where it came to a head where I had a really toxic boss after graduate school and it was very clear to me impostrum was operating and my inability to leave the job and to find something different. I had all these narratives in my head that were very impostrum. Narratives about nobody else will want me. I’ll never get another job. This is the best I can do.
And they were preventing me from even searching or looking or talking to anyone, instead, I was just sitting and saturated in the toxicity of my workplace. And then something happened, I was sitting in a staff meeting of all women and my boss is a man and there’s music playing in the background, and he said, what is that music that’s playing in the background? And he said, “It’s music to soothe the savage breast.”
At that point, I decided I can’t live like this anymore. He clearly knows he is being toxic to [00:06:00] all of us. It is not an accident. I really need to get out of here. I went back to my office, I called my husband and I said, I need to quit this job. And he is like, I’ve been asking you to quit it for months. So I cleared out my office that weekend. I went on Monday to quit the job. He was clearly very disturbed and he threatens me and said I’d never work in education again. He said why was I leaving? He was crying. He was yelling. He said the money was encumbered which in grant language typically means it’s already been spent. So you can’t spend it on anything else.
It was very traumatic and very difficult. All my worst fears came alive in that moment. And it was hard. I left. I still walked out of there and left and didn’t stay, but I came home and literally had a panic attack. And like I remember, just pacing my living room in a circle. Having a panic attack, feeling like I just blew my whole life [00:07:00] because he was threatening me so it definitely felt real.
Dr. Sharp: Sure. Of course.
Dr. Lisa: I think in that one moment I decided I just don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to live in this narrative with these kinds of cycles in my life anymore. I really want to change it. It was the first moment for me to change it. So the reason I’m passionate about its because I wanted to change it for everyone else. Anybody else who’s ever had it, I want them to feel the freedom I feel on the other side of it. That’s the reason.
Dr. Sharp: Oh, that’s incredible. That’s an incredible story. I’m guessing there are so many people out there who are listening just like nodding and maybe crying and like, oh my gosh, this is my story too. That sounds completely ridiculous. Can I just go back to clarify one thing? Did you say the music was called music to soothe the savage breast?
Dr. Lisa: Somebody had asked, what is this music that’s playing? It’s one of the women on the senior staff had asked that, and he said, it’s music to soothe the savage breast.
Dr. Sharp: Oh my [00:08:00] gosh.
Dr. Lisa: And clearly it wasn’t that. The original quote is actually that but everyone knows people say it’s music to soothe the savage beast but it was intentional of him using the original quote like that because we were all women in the room. He was often very much very controlling of us, very toxic. He was sexually harassing me and perhaps more than just the rest of more. So it was very meaningful that statement because it covered how we were being treated. Maybe just me. I doubt it was just me, but I knew it was me.
Dr. Sharp: Oh, yeah. This sounds like a complete personality issue with this guy and just coming out in all the worst ways. My gosh, what courage, the way you tell that story, I can feel it like how anxiety-provoking, the hard to have been to go through that process.
Dr. Lisa: Yes, it was a lot of things. It was anxiety-provoking, it was depressing. It was like, [00:09:00] this is what I got a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university for, to work for someone like this? Is this what’s happened to my life? So it was all kinds of really demoralizing things and I just felt no agency. I felt zero agency to change it. I think him doing that changed everything while it is a dramatic story and it woke me up. It was like being punched in the face. I just was like, whoa, whoa, what happened here?
I was finally able to hear everything. I’d been talking about what was going on with me to family and friends, and I couldn’t take in their feedback. I couldn’t do anything with it. I felt paralyzed in it, and it was the first moment I didn’t feel paralyzed anymore. That was after he had said that.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. So many questions. Do you have any idea, what shifted for you at that moment? How things coalesced right at that point to create a tipping point?
Dr. Lisa: I think it was the blatant [00:10:00] disrespect. Oftentimes it’s like, well, maybe it is me. Maybe I’m not performing well enough. Maybe that’s why he’s yelling at me in public. You see you can always personalize it but in that moment, I could not personalize any of that. That felt like you just really want to be clear about the fact that you are in control of us and you’re just communicating that very directly to all of us.
I just was like, okay, it is what I think it is. This is not me being incompetent or less than whatever narrative he was drawing. This is a man who wants to control me and sees my vulnerability to this because I struggle with imposterum, I struggle with people pleasing and he is attempting to say that I will be controlled.
And so there were a lot of things going on in that dynamic I could have also picked up on. For example, I found out at some point, my co-partner, the person who did the same exact job as me was being paid $30,000 more than I was making. [00:11:00] At the time, I was making $60,000, so a significant amount of money more than I was. She was a white woman, I’m a woman of color. I actually advocated to get paid equitably and he lashed out at me and said he’d have to help all these other people get paid equitably before my turn.
And so there had been many instances of either racial bias or gender bias. There was all this stuff going on, but I really was having trouble taking it all into that moment. To that moment, it all was like, oh yes, this is what’s happening. I know it, I knew it. And it’s clear to me he also knows it.
Dr. Sharp: Of course. It makes me think about, not as extreme and experienced by any means, but some similar experiences through graduate school primarily. I wonder if you had this sense of just that question of like, is this normal? Is this how it is supposed to be? This seems weird but [00:12:00] maybe this is how it’s supposed to be, so I’ll just stick with it. And then it really takes a flashpoint to step outside that and realize no, this is actually pretty fucked up. I shouldn’t do something different here. This is insane. I don’t know. Does that part resonate?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. That resonates deeply. I think partially it resonates for me deeply because it was also like that in my graduate school experience. I talk about this in the second book, Your Unstoppable Greatness. But one of the things that we’ve talked about in Book 1 was really about how to deal with the intrapersonal, like what’s going on with your imposter. Book 2 is really about the systems and organizations that sustain it and also our likelihood to be predisposed to certain types of environments because they are triggering us in a way that’s familiar, that embeds the imposter syndrome.
And so, yes, I was the queen of finding myself in a toxic work environment because when someone challenged my competence, instead of being like, that’s messed up, that’s on you. I was like, oh no, I need to [00:13:00] prove myself than I need to pursue this opportunity or this situation because they’re clearly questioning and I need to prove myself. So it induced me to, instead of saying no, I said yes to these kinds of environments.
So the first day I was in graduate school, I was young, I was 24 maybe on the first day of my doctoral program and I was sitting in a room of my other cohort mates, maybe there were five of us. It was a small class. And it was really intimidating. I think all of them were older than me and they had all had significant experience and had done all these things. Most of the day, we were talking about all their experiences. I had very little. I had a year of training.
And so at the end of that day, I walked out of the room and I remember my mentor that had been assigned to me saying, how did the day go? And I said I don’t know if I belong here. I think it’s been a mistake. Everyone’s so much more experienced than I am. I don’t have half of what they have. [00:14:00] And he said, well, we’re about to find out.
And that really characterized our relationship for the rest of graduate school where he was constantly making me have to prove myself over and over again. And so I was very familiar with dynamics that I started to think of as normal but were completely not normal. But I definitely had to check my own crap around the kinds of environments I was drawn to because they didn’t feel like I was good enough. So I was going there to prove that I was.
Dr. Sharp: Right. There are so many strings here to pull on and I’m going to hold back a little bit and back up so we can orient folks to everything that we’re talking about here. There are these elements of trauma and abuse and manipulation. There’s just so much wrapped up in this, but I want to put it in context before we dive super deep. So could you walk us backward a little bit? [00:15:00] I would love to hear just your working definition of imposter syndrome.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, sure. Imposter syndrome is the experience when you are competent, skilled, accomplished, credentialed, and yet you haven’t internalized that. As a result of not internalizing that, you fear being exposed as a fraud. And so in order to cover up that exposure of fraudulent or that feared exposure of fraudulent, you either do one of two things. You either overwork or you self-sabotage. You can do both. You can actually do both but in a moment, you’ll choose one or the other usually.
And then you get feedback, because we’re very poor in internalizing positive feedback, we usually ignore it, dismiss it, discount it, and then move on and get caught in the cycle all over again. Or when we get negative feedback, we will hyperfocus on the negative feedback trying to overcorrect so that we never make those mistakes again and still get caught in the cycle all over again. So that’s my working definition of what imposter syndrome is.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah, that’s fair. [00:16:00] I like how you separate the two courses of action into either like self- sabotaging or overworking. I think overworking is an easy thing to wrap my mind around especially thinking about just the context of graduate school and our field and so forth. Can you talk about these examples of self-sabotage? I think that’s a little harder maybe for people to identify.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. And so people often ask me how do I determine when somebody working underneath me is experiencing imposter syndrome? What I say is sometimes they’re the best of the best, and sometimes you think they’re awful. You’re like, I can’t understand why you’re so awful. And it’s because self-sabotage is at play. So what typically self-sabotage will look like for people with imposter syndrome is its long periods of procrastination followed by short, intense bursts of overwork.
So we’re going to attempt to complete the [00:17:00] thing usually, but sometimes certain things can’t tolerate the procrastination. A good example is a dissertation. You can’t really procrastinate that thing. You really do need to have a systematic process of attending to it consistently or you’ll never finish it.
And so I do think there are certain things that you can get away with doing in that paradigm, and then certain things that fall apart and then create moments of failure for us that in essence then reinforce the idea that we truly are a fraud. Meanwhile, it’s really how we’re managing performance anxiety and dealing with the triggers. It is really the issue, not our competence, skills, abilities, things like that.
Dr. Sharp: Mm-hmm. What are some of the things that people, in your experience, maybe the tapes, I guess, or scripts that play in people’s minds when they’re self-sabotaging? There’s maybe a sub-question there, are people typically aware when that is happening or is it more of a subconscious process as far as you can tell?[00:18:00] Dr. Lisa: I don’t think they would label it as self-sabotaging. So I think that piece is definitely unconscious. I think they’re reacting to the performance anxiety. Oftentimes some of the scripts that are going on are like, there are too many places where I could go wrong. I do not know if I can do this perfectly. I’ve got to figure out and do more research in order to make sure that I do this perfectly. They get buried in the research and don’t start fast enough. Things like I do not know if I’m competent enough in this. Maybe I have to build my competence in this area. Start educating themselves way more than they have to do these things.
So they’re often having these imposter syndrome narratives going on that are keeping them from actually doing the thing. Sometimes they’re actually preparing for the thing, but over-preparing or they’re avoiding the thing because they don’t want to think about it because it causes so much distress. But that period is costing them as they’re not executing the task itself. And then is making this self-fulfilling [00:19:00] prophecy of, see, I’m not good enough, because usually something.
Sometimes they get it right and it’s fine, but then oftentimes they get caught in some moment or things didn’t get looked over well enough and there’s an issue or there’s some set up to be like, see, I’m not as good as people think I am.
Dr. Sharp: Well, and the piece that you mentioned about how it is a little bit of a self-fulfilling cycle really hits home. The more that we procrastinate or put things off or don’t do it, then it does create more opportunity for, I guess, you could say failure or just things going wrong or whatever it may be. And then it reinforces that narrative.
It’s really resonating. It’s got me thinking, I’ve always had this process of avoiding certain emails, maybe. It’s always email for me but it’s usually situations where there’s an opportunity for me to be rejected. [00:20:00]
So it’s like when I’m recruiting for my mastermind groups or maybe we’ve made a job offer to someone and I’ll see the replies, but I just will not read those emails. And then it might be like a week or two weeks and then the moment is passing where maybe it was a positive thing and I could have just accepted the offer and been like, okay, let’s get started, or whatever. And then sometimes the moment has passed and then they move on. I don’t know, is that an example of what we might be talking about?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, I think it’s a really great example. I think the piece that you’re doing that most people don’t do is having the reflection on what the actual trigger is, like the fear of rejection which I think is a really common piece of imposter, it’s the fear of success and the fear of failure. It’s both of those pieces and so to know it makes it more empowering than to be able to do something about it or make a choice about doing something about it. I think oftentimes they’re not aware of why they’re not dealing with the thing.[00:21:00] And that’s such an important piece of the process of helping them to understand what’s the trigger point? Why aren’t you dealing with X or Y or Z? And let’s figure out how to help either modulate the anxiety around it or the stress or whatever’s happening. And then you can do the thing or figure out some new strategy to deal with what’s happening. But I think oftentimes that’s outside of their awareness.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. I definitely want to spend some time on how to build more awareness and work with this in folks. You mentioned this idea that it’s a fear of failure which I get, and the fear of success. Can you say more about that?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, so the fear of success is interesting because I think it also is very much connected to the perfectionism that often exists for people with imposter syndrome. Often the idea is when they are successful, it often feels also threatening. And the way [00:22:00] that it feels threatening is because success can only be internalized or accepted if it’s perfect, and none of our successes are ever perfect. There’s always some issue somewhere.
And so the highlighting of their success can often feel very threatening and scary because they often are afraid that you’re going to find the one thing that they did wrong that they know very well, or maybe the multiple things that they did wrong in the success. So I hear this oftentimes, oh, I got this award. And I say, well, did you share it on LinkedIn or did you try to attempt to leverage it for your own career purposes? And they’re like, no, because there were 10 more people who deserved that award more than I did. I don’t want anyone calling me out saying, and there’s this perception that you’re going to be exposed for the lack of perfection in the success. And so that’s often what underlies the fear of success.
I remember when I finished my dissertation and I was walking up the [00:23:00] library steps at Columbia to deposit it. I don’t know why, but I just happened to thumb through it quickly as I was about the steps. I happened to open up to a table that needed correction that didn’t get a correction. I had this moment where I almost walked back down those steps and thought about having it reprinted, having it rebound, and then I would’ve missed my graduation date because it had to be deposited on that day or the next day.
And for years afterward, I felt like Columbia was going to call me. I would get these alumni calls for money, they soliciting fundraising and I would be certain they were going to say, we found the mistake in your dissertation. We’re going to rescind your Ph.D. I had these haunting fears of being exposed. Even though I was having this moment of success delivering my dissertation, this iconic library of Columbia, all I could think about was how I screwed up for [00:24:00] years.
Dr. Sharp: I think that it probably sounds very familiar to a lot of people who are listening. There’s a joke going around, actually, it just got posted the other day in our Facebook community about, you become the best editor in the world after you send a report off to a family, and all of a sudden, and then it’s this crashing spiral of self-doubt and berating yourself and all this.
Dr. Lisa: Yes. All the yeses.
Dr. Sharp: Yes. So it’s this idea that the more successful you become that increases the exposure and then the likelihood that someone is going to find out that you actually should not deserve that success or that you’ve done the things that you actually need to do to warrant all that success.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Or that’s something you’ve done that was not fully complete or perfect and you’re going to get called out for whatever that thing is.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah, I can understand that. It is easier sometimes to fly under the radar and not subject yourself to [00:25:00] more scrutiny. I get it. I’m curious, it seems like there’s a lot of overlap between imposter syndrome and “people pleasing.” What’s the relationship between those two, if any?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, there is a pretty significant relationship between people-pleasing and imposter syndrome, and I think it roots itself in the early origins of imposter syndrome. So oftentimes people who struggle with imposter syndrome have come from codependent families. One of the common things is the codependent family and narcissistic parents or families in which people pleasing is the expected norm to be considered good. You have to be doing the good things that are being set as norms in the family and violating that sometimes results in punishment of some kind.
And so this people-pleasing tendency is very much at the core of imposter syndrome. [00:26:00] Oftentimes, are the pieces around later on in life that affect our own ability to pursue what we want and what we dream of and what having dreams because we’re so caught up with what other external validation and other people, are they happy with what we’re doing? Are we getting acknowledgment around this? Or are they acknowledging us around this? So we lose ourselves oftentimes in this process because we’ve been conditioned early on to do that.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah, that makes sense. Do you happen to have, just thinking about all the dynamics here, do you know much about the, I guess, demographics of imposter syndrome? Your story at the beginning really got me thinking in that direction, like gender differences, racial/ethnic differences, class, and SES differences. Do we know? What’s that look like?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, we do. We know that you hear oftentimes that imposter is a woman’s issue. We know that not to be [00:27:00] true. I think that that initially got started because the initial people that were studying were women. And it was positive initially in 1978, that this occurred in women. About 10 years or so later, they started researching it in men and finding out that men experience it too. And to date, there has been no definitive research to suggest that women experience it more than men. That is probably equivocal in both men and women.
And so I do think that that is a mythology that goes around, around women experiencing it more. I do also know, though, that women do have more triggers because of, we know that underrepresented groups also have more triggers because they can be triggered by things like bias, discrimination, other things that people from privileged groups don’t experience. And so they may have more triggers and so we find they may experience imposter syndrome more frequently but doesn’t mean that as a population, they experience it more just to have a greater frequency of it.[00:28:00] The researchers found that women tend to be more counterphobic and so they will face the thing that they fear even if it’s triggering their imposter syndrome pretty consistently, where men they find tend to aim toward mastery and avoid risk and can affiliate with peers with less skill or less competence because they want to feel a sense of mastery. So it can affect their own advancement, and their opportunity because they’re avoiding risk and they’re avoiding any opportunity of being exposed. They may experience the frequency of trigger less often. And then what?
Dr. Sharp: I’m sorry, could I double-click on that a little bit?
Dr. Lisa: Yes, sure.
Dr. Sharp: That’s fascinating to me. You said women are more likely to face their fears basically, and thereby maybe expose themselves a little bit more to the trigger. Men on the other hand shy away from that a bit and go toward mastery and [00:29:00] avoiding some of the triggers. That’s really striking. I don’t know that it is surprising but it’s just striking to hear you say it. So with such clarity.
Dr. Lisa: And they’ve actually been able to show that, there was one study that showed that, for example, with imposter syndrome and STEM, that the women, even if they were struggling and they were being triggered for their imposter syndrome, they still kept pursuing the STEM, where the men dropped out. They would drop out at higher rates as a result of, I guess, being triggered for their imposter syndrome is the postulate. So it is been shown that this can show up, which I think of why is it’s also so important for people to be dealing with in men too, and not thinking this is a solely women’s issue.
Dr. Sharp: Absolutely. I know that this dips a little bit into the, what do you do about it discussion but that makes me think [00:30:00] about, of those two approaches, what do you advocate as far as working with imposter? I can see pros and cons, is exposing to the triggers better or experiencing more? Do you need to have some balance?
Dr. Lisa: What I would say is deal with your imposter syndrome. There are so many different ways, do not let it become a problem where it’s either that you’re facing the constant triggers and then dealing with the cycle, or that you’re avoiding it and inspecting your career, but to encourage them to deal with it.
I do think because men are triggered less often, they think that they don’t have it. It causes less stressor for them, so they’re not necessarily going to bring it to the fore as easily because we do see that in our work where most of the people who reach out to us, have read the book, generally, I wouldn’t say 90% of it is [00:31:00] women because I think that they’re more, because they’re facing the thing constantly. It’s causing an exposure.
So if you were to ask me that, I guess, if I would say it’s better to probably be triggered by it because then you want to solve for it, if you put it under the surface, then it’s like, well, I do not know if it’s really affecting me, but it is potentially affecting then your advancement, your salary, all kinds of different things that you are not engaging with because you’re running from it.
So I do think probably women are more likely to seek help around it, which also helps them to get probably over it and be able to be on the other side of it more than that.
Dr. Sharp: Sure. I did a lot of work on men’s work in graduate school. That was one of my masculinity and emotional expression and all that stuff. I’ve gotten away from that over the years but it just brings that back home and just makes me think about all the maybe higher achieving men who, it’s just another thing, just add it to the list of things that get swept under the rug and buried [00:32:00] and we have to deal with, not to make men victim here in this situation by any means. They’re not.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. That’s another one of the things they may not be dealing with, if you’re working with them that probably should be looked at if you see some of the signs of it.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah, I do think about the guys who are in high-pressure positions and how much this must be at play to some degree. No wonder…
Dr. Lisa: And also how problematic it is. You often think about it for interpersonal issues, like for the individual, how problematic it’s for them. But when these men in high-power positions are in leadership, it’s also super dangerous because we see the correlation between imposter syndrome and certain leadership attributes.
For example, people who have imposter syndrome tend to be greater micromanagers. So they’re all over you about how you’re performing because they’re worried about how you’re going to represent them and potentially expose them as a fraud.
So they can be very micromanaging. They can also [00:33:00] be workhorses and not necessarily have a balance between work and personal life. So they can model that for their direct reports. They can be very bad at leveraging a valuable moment for the team. So as a result, the team becomes invisible. So there are all kinds of ways this shows up in leadership and management that become problematic for people who are taking on high-power positions, not only for themselves but for the other people they’re responsible for or engaging with.
Dr. Sharp: Mm-hmm. I would imagine that it’s a, I can’t think of the right word, but it creates itself as if you’ve got a person experiencing imposter syndrome, who’s then working hard and trying to achieve more and building a business or whatever it may be and then hiring folks, it just perpetuates and keeps going.
Dr. Lisa: Yes, easily.
Dr. Sharp: Yes. I’m not doing a single bit of projecting here. I’ve been thinking about myself. No, this [00:34:00] is great. I know there are a lot of folks out there who run practices and are business owners and are probably thinking about this and their clients, of course. That’s home. What about the relationship to self-esteem?
Let’s take a quick break to hear from our featured partner.
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All right, let’s get back to the podcast.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, so there is a direct correlation sheet between imposter syndrome and self-esteem. And probably not surprisingly so you’ll see a pretty direct correlation with it. And so it is important as you’re working on it to really work on those issues around self-esteem as well.
What’s really nice is working on imposterum often helps lift self-esteem. We’ve seen that in a pretty lovely way. The people who actually do the interventions work with us in our masterclass, when we see them on the other side of it, there’s a very different way they talk about themselves, they feel about themselves, they feel like they’re being expressed in the world because they haven’t changed. Nothing has changed in terms of their credentials or [00:36:00] anything, but the way that they have been able to take that in and also the value of that when it gets expressed to others really shifts.
And so there’s a really lovely correlation when you work with somebody on these issues. What you see in terms of their self-esteem and the way they talk, the way they represent themselves is completely different, which is lovely.
Dr. Sharp: That is lovely. It’s nice. It seems like it touches a lot of constructs, emotional and cognitive, and so forth. Working on it is important. When we talked before, when we were putting the podcast together, I had this, I guess, the assumption that imposter syndrome might be more powerful for higher achieving individuals but you mentioned that it’s actually pretty widespread. This happens at all levels. Was that right?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, and I think it’s been talked about like as high tumor. I think we do see it definitely there. Different numbers have been shot [00:37:00] bandied about, but it’s generally, people say about 70% of people experience imposter syndrome in their lifetime. So it’s a pretty significant amount.
And clearly, the people get highlighted are people who’ve experienced it like […] and Michelle Obama and Viola Davis. So all these really accomplished people but there are also people who are struggling because of that self-sabotage component where they may not have achieved so much and may not look like they might be a typical candidate for impostrum. The self-sabotage is so central to their imposter syndrome that they may not look on the surface as high achieving.
And we’re talking about the men too. Men also might show up in that way too. We talked about something too. I wanted to also hit upon this too around, you’d asked about race. There’s a whole conversation happening prompted by this article that came out in the Harvard Business Review about impression-causing imposter syndrome. And so this being really oppression and non-imposter syndrome.
And that really hasn’t been borne out by the literature. That’s [00:38:00] just clickbait, social media stuff. The research has actually shown that imposter syndrome is quite significant for people of color. And that for people of color: Black, Latinx, Asian Americans, imposter syndrome feelings are highly correlated to psychological distress and mental health issues.
More so it was gotten a say in 2013 by Cokley. It’s more so than minority status distress. So people think, oh, that your feelings of being a minority and the discrimination that you experience will contribute more to mental health than anything else. And actually, the study found that imposter feelings contributed more than their minority status distress, which is profound.
I think this narrative around imposter syndrome being this white privileged thing needs to stop because it’s so important to recognize that people of color need help specifically with it because it’s causing [00:39:00] a significant impact on psychological distress. There was even a study that was done with black folk that looked at this experience that when people experience discrimination and they’re black when they have imposter syndrome, the depression that they experience as a result of it is higher when they have imposter syndrome.
And so it is so important to dispel these notions that it’s a white privilege. I hear this all the time. I was just on this NPR podcast, whereas somebody did an article and the New Yorker, and they were told that oh, that’s a nice white lady privileged thing to say. I hope that narrative to stop because this is happening across the board it’s painful and people are struggling and it has significant correlations to all kinds of mental health issues that people need to not dismiss and think of it as some unreal experience.
Dr. Sharp: Right. Otherwise, like you said, it’s easy to just dismiss it and ignore something that’s super important for that group. [00:40:00] That is surprising. That’s actually surprising to hear that that is more distressing than just minority distress, I suppose. Yeah, that is very powerful.
So I think we’re segueing nicely into how to help folks with this. I feel like I could talk to you forever about just the ins and outs of imposter syndrome, but the what to do about it is important too. And as clinicians, I think a lot of us probably are curious about this. You work with a lot of folks, I think with imposter syndrome and I’m curious, where might we start with this in terms of intervening?
Dr. Lisa: I think the joy and the beauty of what I’ve gotten to do is the visibility that I’ve gotten is that I’ve [00:41:00] been able to take, the first book is really taking the literature, the 40 years of literature and being able to develop a bit of a model around how to overcome it based on the interventions that have been shown, the research to actually change the experience.
And so oftentimes, through our graduate school, reading all this academic literature and all but it’s not being distilled to the public in a way that they can actually utilize. And so that’s so much of our passion and our focus. Some of the things that have been really helpful are, first being able to help people locate how this actually got started. Because oftentimes people feel very, like how did this happen to me? What is wrong with me? They often feel a lot of shame for feeling these feelings. But when you can organize it for them and help them understand some of the common roots of it and for them to be able to identify what are the common roots of it, it is really bizarrely empowering because they don’t feel like it was random or that…
I also hear this too, oh, my boss created imposter in me. [00:42:00] Likely, not. Likely they’re triggering it but you’ve probably been sitting with it for a while. Because the other thing is oftentimes people think, oh, if I leave this workplace, it’ll go away and then it doesn’t. So I do think understanding the origins is really helpful.
The other thing that understanding the origins is helpful too, is sometimes the origins relate very much to the circumstances they keep getting pulled into at work that are reinforcing the imposter syndrome. And it helps them make different choices about those relationships and what they say yes to and what they say no to. And it helps them be alert to that. So I think that’s really helpful about understanding origins.
But then we also are helping them also understand triggers, what are their common triggers? What are the triggers that are unique to them? And then what to do to break the cycle. So how do you take a look at the cycle, understand how the cycle works for you, and then decide when you get triggered to do something different with one of those points in the cycle.
So we’re teaching them that. I’ve come from a very multi [00:43:00] theoretical approach, so we do a lot of CBT work around like having them understand the automatic negative thoughts that result as a result of the trigger, and helping them see the common ants that are common to imposter syndrome and then learning how to really counter those ants. Coming up with different chat, realizing the narrative that is in your control, and how do you really think about the narrative in a way that’s accurate and reflective of reality rather than the distortions that’s really empowering for them.
Also too, imposter syndrome is highly correlated to burnout because of the overwork factor. We often teach them about self-care and instituting self-care as foundational in their life, not with whatever time is left over, but thinking of it as foundational and structurally important, overcoming imposter syndrome.
We’re also teaching them not to deal with this alone and building community around it because the aloneness really feeds and festers it even further that they need to be talking about how it’s operating and having a team around them of [00:44:00] people that we talk about which kinds of people are the best to have around in terms of archetypes.
And then I think also too, really challenging some of the roles that impostenum puts you in. For example, we typically are always the super person who always come and save things and take them to the, even if it is to our detriment, we’re often pulled to the very boundaries of our existence and taking on so much. So challenging those roles and trying to adopt different, healthier, broader roles. Not to feel only valuable when you show up in one way.
So those are some of the intervention points that we use that are really practical, easy to use, easy to adopt but definitely take some practice and pushing for these kinds of ways of looking at things in different ways than the familiar, routinized way of dealing with it.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah, there’s a lot to unpack there as far as the intervention component. Just as you describe it, it seems like their elements [00:45:00] of CBT, certainly. There’s an interpersonal component. There’s, I heard, some IFS stuff with the parts and like the superhero.
Dr. Lisa: The narrative. It’s very integrational in the sense that we’re taking from what works, not from one particular theoretical orientation, but what is working.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. Well, and a component that really stood out to me is, as you describe it, I hear a lot of parallels to attachment theory to, this feels very like attachment style-ish in terms of how it’s developed and it goes with you in whatever environment and it’s going to show up in different relationships. It’s not like created by an external thing necessarily. I don’t know if that resonates or not.
Dr. Lisa: That resonates totally. That’s why I think so much is why the origin matters, the origin story because there is a lot of attachment relational components to why it develops. And [00:46:00] then how it shows up is attachment and relational. The kind of the outcome of all of that.
Oh, you see people being attracted to particular types of environments and bosses and you see the pattern. You’re like, why is it always that? It’s because unconsciously we’re drawn to certain kinds of triggers and they welcome us like a siren song. Learning to break that up and come up with different ways of relating to ourselves and others becomes super important to breaking up some of that workplace stuff that comes with it.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. I’m going to ask a question that might go nowhere, so my apologies if that happens. But with all this talk of it being relational, do you see any differences in folks who work for themselves or alone versus folks who work in a more, [00:47:00] I don’t know, a bigger organization or a sit. I’ll think about an author for example, someone who, I don’t know, just writes books in the Cabin in the Woods. I’m curious how this shows up in those different settings given the relational component.
Dr. Lisa: Yes. I think it’s a great question. What I see with entrepreneurs or people who work on their own individually, is that there are also people that they have to interact with that will take up those roles. So whether it’s their editor or then they’re dealing with like a challenging editor or challenging experience with the editing process because they’re a writer or they also do it to themselves, so they become a mean boss to themselves. And so the taskmaster is not external, sometimes it’s internal and so they’re like, that’s not good enough.
I see this, people have to do certain things that they feel fearful about, whether it’s their marketing or other pieces. They’re not doing any of it because they don’t want to be exposed. [00:48:00] They’re having these narratives around, it’ll never be good enough. People will say she’s a completely fraud and a fake. So they’re doing it to themselves as the voice is so internalized. It can be external and can be the boss, the client, the other person and it also can be yourself doing it to yourself because you’ve internalized the voice so well, you can play multiple parts in it.
Dr. Sharp: Mm-hmm. Yeah. So it’s going to come out somehow, basically.
Dr. Lisa: It typically does. So that’s why I made the point around not getting convinced a boss did it to you because you think, you leave the boss and you start your own business, you do whatever, and it’s still there because it’s not the boss. The boss was triggering it and the boss was doing the whatever you think the boss was doing, they were doing, but what you’re carrying is not from that boss and that’s why it doesn’t go away. You’ll find it again in some weird moment.
Dr. Sharp: Wherever you go, there you are.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. I’d love to go back to this origin concept, and I’m curious how you might lead people [00:49:00] to discover that. Are there strategies, stories, ideas, how do you approach that with folks?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. And probably I’m super direct as a therapist, and so probably I’m like, these are the common correlations to parental and early childhood experiences. Do you identify with any of these? And so I’ll talk through some of the early family dynamics. So conflict avoidance, rigid rules in the family, things like people pleasing, the narcissistic family dynamics.
I’ll explain things where people don’t understand the full. Breath of what it looks like. Codependent family dynamics. Also two childhood roles, getting caught in rigid roles in childhood. One of the three roles is like intelligent one, the one in the family who everyone thought was smart. And so the minute you had to work hard, it was evidence that you weren’t as smart as everyone thought you were.
Second one being hardworking. One, usually there’s someone already labeled as a smart one. So you get this idea that [00:50:00] everything has to come from hard work for you. And so we also see a correlation between the hardworking one and people who have learning differences especially as they had to, before they got diagnosed or got the help that they needed, had to overcompensate to keep up with peers that they have to feel like this idea of hard work begets everything this extremely overexerting experience.
And the last one is survivor. So this experience that nobody was telling you with the hardworking or the intelligent one. There was either neglect or abuse in the home so your achievements were a method of getting out or surviving. And so oftentimes the achievements feel, it feels really fragile and if anything happens, you feel like it’s all going to go away, even if that’s not necessarily true.
So being able to talk through some of the most common, and then for people to be like, yeah, I think I was this. Sometimes they’re a combination of roles. Almost 100% of the time they’re going to identify with certain characteristics. We talk [00:51:00] about what that means for how the imposter syndrome then developed in them. What are the characteristics that stand out for them, particularly as it evolved?
Dr. Sharp: Right. How do you find that people respond to this? My idea, I suppose, is that imposter syndrome is an easier concept to latch on to than a more complex psychological thing that we might describe. Even like attachment style or abusive home. I don’t know. Do people tend to accept this or are they like, hmm, how does it fit? I’m curious how it lands with folks.
Dr. Lisa: I probably have some selection bias going on because most people who come to me are ready to deal with it. They’re struggling with it. But I do think, when I do invite the conversation around origin, people really frankly feel relieved. Even if they have to contend with some early [00:52:00] childhood stuff that’s traumatic, they feel like, because oftentimes it feels mysterious and I think the mysterious nature of it make it feel unsolvable and make it feel really terrifying. Like how did I end up with this thing?
And I think when they can root it in actual things that occurred in their lives and see the connection between what occurred in their lives and how it’s showing up today, I think for most people that I work with, there’s a sense of like, ah, there it is, and it just feels relieving, even if the thing was traumatic and difficult, it feels like it makes sense. Or that ability to organize and make sense of the situation, I think feels empowering oftentimes for people rather than pathology.
I don’t generally see that. They just feel a sense of, oh gosh, there it is as opposed to this feeling of like, things broken in me that I have these thoughts and that feels dangerous and scary.
Dr. Sharp: Right. That reminds me of that shame [00:53:00] component that you mentioned a while back. It seems like that’s a big piece of this too. Talking about it and getting it out in the open is so therapeutic just to acknowledge some of these patterns and some of these behaviors.
Dr. Lisa: One of the things we’ve seen that I think has been surprising to us is how much we see really incredible growth in people when they can do this also in group settings because there’s something really powerful about them saying, I’ve experiences and someone says, me too. And someone that they respect and see as an equal. I think there’s something really powerful because many of them have been dealing with the shame and dealing with in isolation. And so to be able to see other people doing it, taking risks and working on the skills together, it’s pretty powerful to watch it.
I’ve worked with an individually with people and it’s still great and amazing work, but we can get diverted to other things and it’s not as linear, but when they work in a group, there’s a linearness to [00:54:00] it that they really stick to the steps and they really push themselves at each other. It’s a really lovely and surprising thing given the very lone-wolf nature of imposter syndrome sometimes.
Dr. Sharp: Right. Yeah. I’m such a believer in group for many things and it really seems like it. This is a perfect thing to work on in a group setting. It makes me think about, I’m part of this accountability group that’s two other larger group practice owners, and we have this, at this point it’s like a running joke, but this idea that, we call it the house of cards, that something’s going to happen and our entire practices are just going to fail in a week’s time if we do this one thing. But it was so validating to hear others describe that experience and I imagine it’s a similar thing with other manifestations of imposter syndrome that’s rampant.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. And I [00:55:00] think it all, like with your group, it allows you to dispel this idea that you can make a mistake and the practice doesn’t collapse in a day, and for them it’s the same experience that they can experience this together and that they can push some of these irrational notions that they’ve been living with silently forever, and that have been just building steam because they’re doing it alone or thinking it alone.
Dr. Sharp: Right. It’s so easy to get stuck and thinking we’re the only ones who experience or think any number of things. I haven’t found anything like that so far. It’s truly unique. So tell me about the outcome. I’m really curious where you see folks come out on the other side and what it looks like as imposter syndrome starts to fade away a little bit and does it recur or, I’m curious about that whole process.
Dr. Lisa: So we have been, the model in the first book On Your Greatness, we have been testing it [00:56:00] out using a group coaching process over 14 weeks. We have seen their imposter syndrome scores decrease with a validated measure of reliable and validated measure by 30% in the 14 weeks. We’ve tested them six months in a year after, and the results are consistent. That they’ve been able to maintain that consistency.
And we always tell them it’s not that you’re not going to get triggered again for it, it’s just that you’re going to have tools now and deal with the triggers. Those tools will help you to avoid getting in the caught in the cycle. And if you get caught in the cycle again, you’ll recognize it and you’ll do something different next time. And so I think it’s the feeling that they have around the agency around the tools and that they’ve seen them work.
So we’ve seen that and then we’ve also seen amazing things that aren’t as quantifiable as a measure but things like people being able to reduce their work hours.
We had this lovely gentleman do [00:57:00] the group with us and he said that he cut his work hours by 25%. He was able to spend more time with his family. One day he was home from work. His wife closed the door and she said, did you get fired because he had been home earlier and he was like, no. And she was just like, I’ve never seen you home this often and this early. He was like, I’m just really working on trying to get some balance in my life and trying to deal with some things that are going on at work.
But I think sometimes the changes are so startling. People feel like they get their partners back, their friends, their families back because they’ve been so caught up in the dynamic of it, it’s lost their connection to a lot of things that are going on and around. There’s been all these lovely side benefits to doing the work, but we see people get raises, fight for more equitable pay. I get it.
We’ve seen things I never imagined. I want to just reduce some position, but I never thought they’d be making more money. And being in such [00:58:00] great place, I could tell a million stories about it. And it’s just been the most beautiful experience to take it full circle. To have been in that situation where I thought my whole world was ending. And then I was going to mess my whole career up and instead it’s now get to do that for other people and get to free them.
In a way it’s been like the most magical experience to have, is to really feel like I’ve helped other people do it too. It wasn’t idiosyncratic one time thing. I could actually help others do it. So that’s been really special for me.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah, I can only imagine how rewarding that is to take your own experience and turn it into all these downstream magical moments for folks. That’s super cool. Just to start to wrap up, I should give a nod to the assessment world. This is my audience primarily. I think about as we’re working with [00:59:00] folks and doing our evaluations or our assessments, you said 70% of folks experience this at some point, and we’ve talked about the implications and the distress that it caused for racial and ethnic minority groups. It seems it’s a serious thing, right?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Dr. Sharp: So that to me says like, we should probably be asking about this when we’re meeting with folks. 70% of people, that’s a lot. I’m curious how you might recommend that we broach that and these evaluations that we do.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, I think it’s a great question. And I think oftentimes when people are coming to us, whether it’s for a testing or whether it’s for therapy or some other thing that we do, it’s because they’re in distress of some sort, whether they’re having problems in school or work or whatever.
I think it’s a worthwhile thing to ask about their experience of moments of success or failure and what they do with them. And do they feel like a fraud ever? Do they [01:00:00] feel like they’re pulling the wool over people’s eyes? I said earlier that people with learning disabilities differences often experience this because oftentimes they’ve had situations in which they’ve had to work 10 times as hard to feel half as good.
So I do think it’s a worthwhile thing to do because you can refer them if you’re not doing therapy yourself to therapy or can see them for these particular issues. They are really addressable. You can quickly give them a set of tools that they can use pretty quickly to change it. And so I would assess for it. While it’s not a diagnosable condition and we all know that, I still think it needs to be taken very seriously because it’s correlated to many diagnosable conditions like anxiety, depression, burnout. So I think it’s really important to take seriously, because the distress from it’s super serious.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. It seems like those concerns that we are typically assessing for ADHD and learning disorders and [01:01:00] any number of other things are almost like risk factors for imposter syndrome. They have that built in, like you said, working twice as hard to do half as much or whatever might be.
Dr. Lisa: Completely, yes.
Dr. Sharp: That makes sense. Well, this has been delightful. Thank you. This is been fun.
Dr. Lisa: I’ve enjoyed the conversation. It’s been fantastic.
Dr. Sharp: Good. Yeah. I know there’s so much more we could dig into and who knows, maybe we’ll do that at some point. But in the meantime, folks can definitely check out your books. I’ll have those in the show notes. They’re fabulous. Again, just grateful for your time. Thanks for being here.
Dr. Lisa: It’s been a pleasure.
Dr. Sharp: All right, y’all. Thank you so much for tuning into this episode. Always grateful to have you here. I hope that you take away some information that you can implement in your practice and in your life. Any resources that we mentioned during the episode will be listed in the show notes, so make sure to check those [01:02:00] out.
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And if you’re a practice owner or aspiring practice owner, I’d invite you to check out The Testing Psychologist mastermind groups. I have mastermind groups at every stage of practice development; beginner, intermediate, and advanced. We have homework, we have accountability, we have support, we have resources. These groups are amazing. We do a lot of work and a lot of connecting. If that sounds interesting to you, you can check out the details at thetestingpsychologist.com/consulting. You can sign up for a pre-group phone call and we will chat and figure out if a group could be a good fit for you. Thanks so much.[01:03:00]
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