What is real about the imposter Phenomenon

As a psychological coach, I have heard many clients use the phrase ‘I am suffering with ‘Imposter Syndrome’. I am immediately curious when I hear this phrase, as using the word ‘syndrome’ infers ‘disease’ and suffering is emotive and can provide an insight into this individual’s struggle.

So what is imposter syndrome? It can often be useful to explore how this phrase was developed. The originators of this concept (Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978)) didn’t use the word ‘syndrome’. They used the phrase ‘imposter phenomenon’. They were writing in relation to a group of high-achieving women in the States with a phenomenon they had noticed. Phenomenon implies they were regular occurrences of particular beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that were consistent amongst their study group. If we follow their intention and research and replace the word ‘syndrome’ with the word ‘phenomenon’, we are immediately provided with a very different perception.

There are many ways imposter syndrome has become an issue for my clients and I thought it would be useful to explore two polar positions and yet my clients will create one narrative – I have imposter syndrome.

There are many ways imposter syndrome has become an issue for my clients and I thought it would be useful to explore one of the areas that often arises: “Am I competent?” And underneath this: “Am I good enough?” To explore this I would like to see what might have encouraged this identify challenge and use the Dunning-Kruger effect as a lens.

Is Stress in the Mind or in the Body?

The answer is … yes you guessed it – both! Stress is a physiological and psychological response to a perceived threat or challenge. When we experience stress, the hypothalamus in the brain signals the adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones prepare the body for the fight-or-flight response, which can be helpful in certain situations. However, if stress is chronic or overwhelming, it can have negative effects on our physical and mental health.

Impact on the Nervous System

Stress also impacts the nervous system. When we experience stress, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, which can lead to increased heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. This response is helpful in short bursts, but chronic stress can lead to over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system and a decreased ability to relax and recover.

What does positive/negative stress look like?

Positive stress, also known as eustress, is the type of stress that motivates us to take action and achieve our goals. It is evidenced in the body by increased heart rate and respiration, as well as increased levels of cortisol and adrenaline. The mind has greater focus and motivation and all behaviours and actions tend to increase productivity and goal attainment.

Negative stress, or distress, is the type of stress that overwhelms us and causes negative physical and mental symptoms. It is evidenced in the body by physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches and fatigue. It also can have the mind being influenced by negative thoughts and emotions. There is often decreased productivity and avoidance of tasks.

What is the tipping point?

The tipping point of stress can be thought of as a glass of water that slowly fills up as stressors accumulate. At first, the glass can hold a fair amount of water without spilling over, just like we can handle a reasonable amount of stress without feeling overwhelmed. However, as stress continues to pile up, the glass gradually becomes fuller and the water level rises closer to the brim.

At a certain point, the glass reaches its limit, and even a small drop of water can cause it to overflow. Similarly, when stress reaches a certain threshold, it can become overwhelming and trigger a range of negative physical and psychological symptoms.

And this tipping point between healthy stress and overwhelm is different for each person. Generally, stress becomes unhealthy when it is chronic and overwhelming, leading to physical and mental exhaustion, burnout, and chronic illness. However, stress can also be beneficial when it is short-lived and motivating, leading to increased focus and performance.

Final Thoughts

As we can see, there is no one truth about stress. It depends! What we do know is that by having a healthy practice of self-care and self-regulation and with healthy support around us (whatever that healthy support looks like) we are more able to deal with stress and work alongside the challenge rather than be overwhelmed by the challenge.

Pheona Croom-Johnson is Co-Founder and Academic Director of Sandown Business School. She has been in the OD field for over 35 years and mainly partners with C-Suite and Senior Leaders. Pheona is a triple credentialed Master Coach, Master NLP Trainer and credentialed Supervisor all with strong foundations in psychology. Book a call to find out more about coaching, leadership and/or supervision.



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