Harvard Business School students—many of us would identify them as a privileged elite who are bound for professional and financial success.
But according to research, 75 to 80 percent of them experience imposter syndrome.
And according to Dr. Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist, author, and speaker who lectures on the psychology of leadership and influence at Harvard University (and gave the second-most viewed TED Talk of all time), impostor syndrome is preventing most of us from being our authentic best selves, too.
But first, what is an authentic best self?
When we spoke to Dr. Cuddy about how we can feel powerful in life’s toughest moments, she was quick to point out that “authentic best self” is a phrase that’s frequently used, but not well defined. Here’s the meaning she intends:
“Let me just take a moment to say by authentic, I don’t mean unfiltered, right? I mean, there are times where we need to be mindful of who we’re speaking with and be respectful in our interactions and you could still be authentic.”
“I’m talking about the person that you are in the best moments of your life. If you think back, over the last, say, two or three years, think about the very best moments. These moments would be times when you feel totally connected,” she says. “You feel on, you feel seen, you feel heard, and you feel that you’re seen in hearing them and you feel happy and relieved. That’s your authentic best self.”
Dr. Cuddy concludes that impostor syndrome is keeping many of us from tapping into that state and exuding our best qualities and points out that we’re too distracted by fear in many interactions to tap into our authentic best selves.
This brings us to the definition of impostor syndrome, which the Harvard Business Review identifies as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.”
Sounds like the fear Dr. Cuddy is referring to, right?
I asked her how we can bring that authentic best–self presence into situations where we’re interacting with other people, the stakes are high, and we feel like we’re being judged. What I wanted to know: “How do we bring presence to those types of situations and what prevents us from being present in those high-stakes environments?”
“Well, I think the key is that we feel powerless in these moments. Feeling that you’re being judged and being very focused on the outcome as opposed to the process. Again yeah, feeling that the stakes are very high makes it really hard for us to even remember who we are well enough to be able to access that person and present that person.”
Imposter syndrome often involves a feeling of lying to others and ourselves and a fear of being caught in the act.
Dr. Cuddy says, “It's about feeling powerless, it's about feeling that you somehow accidentally got the job, or the award, or whatever it is and that you're going to be found out at any moment.”
She highlights that it’s an inability to stay present and authentic that contributes to this behavior—and the fear.
“When we're not present, it reveals itself to others, right? In some ways, not being present is the same as not bringing your authentic self to the situation. It looks like deception.”
When it comes to overt lying, there’s an asynchronicity between the words we use and our body language because we’re suppressing our true story and “telling another, different, false story.”
This involves suppressing our true story with words—which most adults are pretty good at—but also suppressing the emotions that go with the story.
Dr. Cuddy says “It's almost impossible for us to do that,” and goes on to share that “what happens is that we see these asynchronicities between the emotions that go with the words and the emotions that are leaking out through people's body language. When you're nervous and not authentic, the same kinds of things happen. People seem asynchronous. They seem off. Their words don't quite match what they're doing with their bodies, because you have too much to think about and not enough cognitive bandwidth to be telling the story and also matching your nonverbals to it. That's too much choreography.”
Of course all this comes into play when we’re experiencing imposter syndrome, which is a lot more common than you might think.
Dr. Cuddy says part of the imposter syndrome experience involves “pluralistic ignorance”—“we think that everyone else who has that job or goes to that fancy school is feeling great and confident and deserving. They're not.”
Dr. Cuddy’s advice to anyone whose experiences with imposter syndrome are putting them on edge:
“The first thing is to realize that you're not alone. Everyone is feeling imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. If you are in a situation with people who've really excelled and in a competitive situation, chances are a lot of people are feeling that way.”
Is Imposter Syndrome a Gendered Issue?
Interestingly (but perhaps not surprisingly), Dr. Cuddy shares that “when impostor syndrome was first studied in this 1970s by a woman named Pauline Clance, she originally thought that it was much, much more common among women than men. Then she learned pretty quickly that it wasn't. It was just that women were more comfortable telling her that they were feeling that way.”
Dr. Cuddy says, “This is one of the ways in which gender stereotypes I think really hurt men,” and goes on to say that “men are feeling like impostors. I think the burden on men—so this whole idea that it's a woman's problem—is not only bad for women. I think it's bad for women, because it's like another thing to heap on top of the pile of all of these things that women are afraid of. It's also a burden on men because men believe that men generally don't feel like impostors and [if] you do feel like an impostor, that's really going to make it even harder on you.”
Dr. Cuddy says some 85 percent of men have probably have felt like imposters.
Regardless of your gender, Dr. Cuddy says an important first step in addressing imposter syndrome is noticing when you feel it.
She says in some senses, it’s like a game of whack-a-mole: It just keeps popping up, especially in situations where you feel very public or exposed, for example, a winning an award or being recognized for something you did well in front of a group or crowd.
Of course, it can also rear its head during the first few weeks on a new job or working on a project that feels “out of your league” or “beyond your wildest dreams,” even if you have all the prerequisites and have done a great deal to earn the opportunity.
“Use your body to change your mind.”
Rather than trying to escape imposter syndrome with self-talk and mental acrobatics, Dr. Cuddy highlights the potential to change the mind using the body. She notes that we lose personal power for so many reasons, from unfair inequalities to illnesses to chronic unemployment, and associates certain physical movement and behavior with exercising—or, in a sense, practicing—healthy personal power.
These poses, movements, and awarenesses can loosen the clutches of imposter syndrome, especially when we know a high-risk interaction is on the horizon.
Before going into a stressful situation, she suggests preparing yourself by using the following:
Stretch. “Stretch out, make yourself as big as you feel comfortable doing, but in private, right? Not in front of other people. You want to do it in private because you don't want to...offend people, [and] you also don't want to feel that you’re being judged. Do that before you walk in.”
Practice expansive postures. “Carry yourself with a sense of pride, but not in a way that's domineering. You're not challenging somebody to a duel—you're trying to have an interaction where you connect with them, where they see you as confident, but they also see you as likable and trustworthy and engaged and as somebody who wants to be there, who doesn't feel that he or she is the most important person in the room, but is someone who's there to connect.”
“You're not going to man spread when you're sitting in a job interview, you're not going to stand like a superhero or in the victory pose when you're in a job interview, but you can do it in advance,” she says.
Gesture intentionally. Dr. Cuddy says, “Palms up for example, [shows] that you are comfortable being there.”
Breathe. “When you breathe deeply and expansively and really fill your lungs, you are triggering what's called the relaxation response,” says Dr. Cuddy. “That is a complex circuitry in your mind that's telling your body that you are not in a threatening situation. You are in a safe situation. You don't go into fight, flee, or faint mode. You feel comfortable.”
Be mindful. Feeling 100 percent the imposter in a given moment? Stay attentive to your body language. If you suddenly “close off,” crossing your arms, touching your neck, or slouching, be aware. “Try to figure out what happened,” says Dr. Cuddy, who goes on to ask “How can you get things on track again?”
“Notice the times when you start to slouch and make yourself small and see what you can do to correct that,” she says.
“Pay attention to other people's posture.” When you’re in any interaction, she says, “Remember that presence begets presence. When you're present, you are inviting others to be present. When you're present, you're saying ‘I am authentic. I am here. You can trust me.’ They respond in kind.”
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