Episode 112: Why We’re Ditching the Term ‘Imposter Syndrome’ with Dr Sarah Goulding
Have you ever felt unqualified to do your job or felt undeserving of your accomplishments? Maybe you’ve received a promotion, but now feel in over your head?
You’re not alone.
Most of us have experienced self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness at some point in our lives. However, telling ourselves we’re suffering from “Imposter Syndrome” isn’t the most helpful way to resolve them – and these feelings may hold the key to ways you can grow, both personally and professionally.
In this episode, Dr Sarah Goulding joins us to talk about imposter syndrome and why we need to drop the word from our vocabularies. We also discuss how self doubt can be helpful to us. Finally, she shares tips for overcoming wobbles and incorporating more self-compassion into your life.
If you want to get over your imposter syndrome and practice self-compassion, then this episode is for you!
Here are three reasons why you should listen to the full episode:
Uncover the reasons people experience imposter syndrome.
- Learn how to get over unhealthy perfectionism.
- Discover how to cope with negative self doubt.
[03:46] The Imposter Syndrome
Many people today use the phrase ‘imposter syndrome’ without much thought.
- Even if you are experienced and talented, impostor syndrome can make you feel like a fraud.
- It is a catchall term when people doubt their abilities.
[05:38] How Imposter Syndrome is Triggered
Imposter syndrome affects those who believe they don’t deserve their professional success.
- It’s best to expect not to know everything while starting a new career. Learning along the way is normal.
- Most medical professionals feel pressured to prove themselves.
[08:37] Take a Break
Learn to give yourself a break. You can always practice improving.
- Professionals who work in high-stress environments are more likely to be harsh on themselves.
- When everything in your job is designed to stifle your advancement, it’s unfair to hear that you have impostor syndrome.
[11:03] Imposter Syndrome and Gaslighting
Find out why someone supposedly has imposter syndrome — it may be a more significant problem than you expect.
- The problem may be organisational or systemic.
- Telling someone that they may be experiencing imposter syndrome can be a subtle form of gaslighting.
[13:47] How Self Doubt Can Help You
Doubting your abilities might motivate you to work harder and achieve more success.
[13:51] Sarah: “Sometimes there are advantages to feeling that you’re not quite good enough. It can spur you to make you work harder, try harder. You can do things that feel uncomfortable.”
- Self doubt is healthy when you associate it with a growth mindset.
- Even influential leaders experience self doubt. You are not the only one experiencing it.
[15:22] Change The Way You Think
It’s unrealistic to be perfect all the time.
[17:18] Sarah: “I think we need to have a healthy filter through which we decide what external messages mean for us.”
- We are human — expect mistakes. We can, however, grow and change.
[18:36] Sarah: “We are just human beings, and we are going to do our best. And we are allowed to grow and evolve and change.”
[19:07] Sarah’s Definition of Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome is a harmful belief that you must be perfect in all situations and that failure is unacceptable.
- It may also be a harmful external label that toxic cultures use to relieve themselves of responsibility.
[21:14] Getting Over Unhealthy Self Doubt
No one has everything figured out.
- Examine your thoughts and decide to be kinder to yourself.
[22:18] Spotting Unhelpful Thoughts
Mindfulness and journaling can help you overcome negative thoughts.
- It’s crucial to share your thoughts with friends, mentors, and coworkers so that you can reflect.
[24:59] Leadership and Vulnerability
It’s helpful for leaders to reveal their vulnerabilities.
- When people cannot find areas where they can improve, it means they have a fixed mindset and are resistant to change.
[25:30] Sarah: “If somebody can’t find an area for them to improve on, then I’m worried; because it means that they think they’ve got it all sorted, and they have that fixed mindset, and [aren’t] willing to challenge.”
[27:31] Leaving Does Not Mean Failure
- Many professionals opt to stay in careers they dislike to prove they are capable.
- It’s fair to leave a job when your unique abilities and talents aren’t a good fit.
- You are not a failure if you are having difficulties at work. It just signifies that you have unfulfilled needs.
[29:43] Rachel: “…when they are struggling with a role, it’s not that they are defective or broken as a human being. It’s that they are a human being with unmet needs.”
[31:36] The Need For Supervision
- Medical professionals have access to many coaching and mentorship programs, but they rarely take them.
- Coaching programs do not tell you what to do; instead, they encourage you in examining your thoughts and determine what is most important to you.
[33:06] Sarah: “[Coaching is] all about sitting alongside you, and giving you a space to inspect some of these thoughts and discomforts and work out what matters to you and how you can move those thoughts along.”
[35:45] On Inviting Self-Compassion
- Imagine yourself speaking to a loved one and consider what you would say to them if they were in a similar situation.
- Acknowledge that you are worthy of self-compassion.
[37:10] Be Vulnerable
- Vulnerable leaders demonstrate honesty and genuineness.
- When you’re grappling with self doubt, it’s okay to ask for help.
[39:39] Change The Way You Think
- Consider the higher purpose of what you’re doing instead of thinking you’re not good enough.
- Everyone is capable of improving themselves by seeking training and mentorship.
- We frequently associate success with massive victories. But it could also mean celebrating the small wins.
[43:23] Sarah: “I think we can often set ourselves these goals that are almost insurmountable, and then crucify ourselves for not getting there…So breaking it down into smaller bits. ‘What will be a success for you today?’ is a fantastic question.”
[44:38] Sarah’s Top Three Tips
- Examine the source of your self doubt.
- Share your thoughts with others.
- Practice self-compassion.
Dr Sarah Goulding is a practising GP who serves as the Training Program Director at the Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust. She also works as an appraiser and head of coaching for The Joyful Doctor.
Sarah is passionate about her career as a coach and mentor for doctors. She helps struggling medical professionals figure out their career options and their purpose. She also offers local and international webinars and small group coaching services on well-being
You can find out more about Sarah on her website and YouTube channel. You can also connect with her on Twitter, Instagram, and Linkedin.
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Sarah Goulding: If somebody feels that they identify with the title ‘Imposter Syndrome’, and I know it’s really common—almost like it’s a badge of honour. But who’s given you that label? Is it you or has it come externally? Actually, it has more of a toxic connotation and that it suits other people to put you in that box? Because it makes you feel unworthy and therefore, that’s an advantage to an organisation, or another person.
Rachel Morris: Have you ever been accused of having imposter syndrome when you’ve been working somewhere where the culture is undermining you at every turn? Perhaps you’ve let self doubt and fear about your own ability hold you back from doing what you really want to do? Maybe you do identify with imposter syndrome, but don’t really know what to do about it. In this episode, I’m joined by Dr Sarah Goulding to talk about imposter syndrome, what it really is, and why it can be such an unhelpful term.
We all suffer from self-doubt sometimes. This can be healthy and spur us into action, but what should we do when our own worries and fears are becoming unhelpful and stopping us doing our job? Well, Sarah and I discuss how imposter syndrome might actually be unhelpful perfectionism and the ways in which that can show up in our lives. We also explore how accusing someone of having imposter syndrome may be a subtle way of gaslighting them— making them think that all the issues in their work are due to self-belief, rather than the obstacles in the system.
Listen to this episode, if you want to find out why a bit of self-doubt can be helpful and spur us in to action; how to change some of the stories we’re telling ourselves to get over unhealthy perfectionism and how to tell if you need to change your own behaviour, or get out of a toxic system.
Welcome to You are Not a Frog, the podcast for doctors and busy professionals in healthcare and other high-stress jobs if you want to beat burnout, and work happier. I’m Dr Rachel Morris, a former GP, now working as a coach, speaker and specialist in resilience at work. Like frogs in a pan of slowly boiling water, many of us have found that exhaustion and stress are slowly becoming the norm. But you are not a frog. You don’t have to choose between burning out or getting out.
In this podcast, I’ll be talking to friends, colleagues, and experts, all who have an interesting take on this and inviting you to make a deliberate choice about how you will live and work.
It’s really great to have with me back on the podcast Dr Sarah Goulding. Now, Sarah’s a career coach for doctors. She’s a practising GP, she’s a training program director, an appraiser and mentor. So welcome back, Sarah.
Sarah: Thank you. It’s lovely to be here.
Rachel: And I’m just wondering how you fit all that in?
Sarah: It’s a carefully woven portfolio that actually—it wouldn’t suit everybody. But it keeps me going and it’s really flexible. I love it.
Rachel: Well, we got you back, Sarah. Because your episodes have been incredibly popular. I think there’s a real interest in career development, and also the sort of mindsets that we get in that stop us—creating a really happy working life for ourselves. One of the things I know many have been talking about a lot is imposter syndrome, this phrase imposter syndrome. Actually, it bugs me a bit and I’m gathering it bugs you too. Is that right?
Sarah: Yeah, I think it’s a phrase that we—it feels like it’s been around forever. I feel like it’s used and abused and I think it can really hold people back potentially. I think we know that about 70% of us will have it. It’s not gender-specific, it’s not specific to any particular role. It’s actually time to get rid of imposter syndrome? And I would argue, yes.
Rachel: Yeah. I mean, when people use it, what do they typically mean?
Sarah: The classic, and I think it came about in the sort of 70s, 80s, and it’s taken to mean, ‘I am functioning in a way where I don’t actually have the skills that people are expecting me to, and I’m going to be found out.’ It’s a fear of being found out as a fraud. ‘I’m not capable in the capacity usually related to work in which I’m employed.’
Rachel: So it’s the sort of blanket phrase used when everyone’s a bit uncertain about their inability, basically?
Sarah: I think so but I think it’s a lot more complex than that and I think that’s me kind of banging the drum here, is to try and really drill down. If that’s the word that’s popping into your head or the phrase or somebody else is giving it to you or labelling you with that. What do you actually mean by that? Because I think there are myriad other things that could be going on in that situation.
Rachel: When people typically come to you, either in appraisals of mentoring or for coaching, and they’re talking about the fact that thing, they’ve got imposter syndrome, what are the sort of spectrums of issues that you see that there’s just put this blanket label on?
Sarah: I think it’s classically when people are moving up into a new role and they are getting themselves really, really stressed about it. They go home, they can’t stop thinking about something they’ve done, they’ve not done, what might their colleagues be thinking of them, because other people are bound to be perfect, and I’m not. That’s one of the assumptions. But I think it can also come about when there are people that are thinking about going for roles. They then also make assumptions that they aren’t capable, they’re not worthy, they don’t have what it takes to step up into those roles, or step sideways.
Rachel: A lot of it is around self-doubt, a lot of it is around fear. But as you were saying that I’ve just been making some notes, moving up into a new role thinking, ‘Well, I’m not qualified for this.’ Well at the very heart of it, you will be qualified because no one would employ you in that role if you didn’t have the qualifications. When we’re saying I’m not qualified, that means am I good enough at what I do to do this? And I just look at the thinking, well, course you’re not, because if you’re moving up to be a manager, or a leader, or a clinical director, you’ve never done that role before. You probably don’t have all the skills that you need for that role, right?
You’re probably going to have to learn some, it’s like when you’re a junior doctor, when you’re starting with your FY job, you’re qualified and that you’ve got the medical qualification, you’ve passed your exams, and you’ve done your sort of skills training. But oh my goodness, how much stuff do you need to learn on the job to be competent in that role, and no one ever expects you to have all that knowledge before you start. I think this idea that we have to be qualified or completely competent before we move into any role is just ridiculous. Am I alone in thinking that?
Sarah: No, not at all. I think particularly as medics we’re funnelled through this training system, where it’s very outcome-based. Once you have passed this exam, you are then worthy of doing x y z. I think it’s particularly common when people have sort of reached what they consider or what the hierarchy considers the pinnacle, or because they get there, and then they’re expected to do more stuff, maybe extra responsibilities, maybe more challenging things, that there isn’t an exam, or there’s not a course for this to how do I prove that I’m good enough? How do I prove that I have the personal skills to perform highly in the way that I would like to?
I think that can be challenging, particularly for medics, and I’m sure it’s true in other high-stress careers, there isn’t a piece of paper that’s going to tell you, ‘Okay, now you’ve got what it takes.’
Rachel: Yeah, and the problem is you don’t get enough feedback ever really, do you? Positive or negative to have something to benchmark against and benchmark your progress? Like, ‘Am I good enough? Am I doing what needs doing?’ I think we always underestimate or we mostly underestimate our own abilities. But also we don’t give ourselves a break and go ‘Well, of course, I’m not good enough, because I’ve not done it before.’ Therefore, I’m not good enough yet. But I’m gonna practise but we find it very difficult to say this “yet” thing.
I think there possibly are some people that get this mindset more than others. I mean, the obvious thing to quote is, and I don’t know what study it was from looking at when men and women are applying for new job. Men will often apply to something aspirational that think, yeah, I’ll be able to do that in the future. Women won’t apply to something unless they know for sure that they can do it now.
Sarah: Absolutely. There are so many elements to this. We could talk for days about it. But we’re often perfectionist when we’re in these high-stress jobs and so it will be incredibly hard on ourselves. There’s a lot of critical self-chatter, and we may be falsely extrapolating. Okay, well, I perceive that something I did at this time didn’t go well. Therefore, that means I’m never going to be good at anything. Or my parents held me to a very high standard of education, that’s how I ended up being a medic. Therefore, I have to keep pushing myself because unless I do, I’m not worthy of praise.
It’s just a very complex area. Also, there’s so that’s the internal stuff and then I think it’s really important to look at the external. I think we both acknowledge, we’re both white middle class, cishet women from a position of privilege. We will look around us and see a lot of people like us, not as many as men as we see. But there are lots of other people who will not see people like them around them. There are systems that are not set up for them to succeed in so in a very real way, they may not feel that they are the right fit for the job, because they can’t see anybody else like them doing it.
Rachel: Yeah, that’s such a good point. I remember reading an article, I think it was in Harvard Business Review, I think I shared it with you, Sarah—written by a black woman, and it stopped telling me I have imposter syndrome when everything in this workplace is set up to tell me that I’m not good enough or to put barriers in my way. But I’m told the problem lies with me and that was a really powerful article.
Sarah: I think this is where it’s really key. If somebody feels that they identify with the title, imposter syndrome, and I know it’s really common whenever I’ve put polls on my Instagram about it or asked friends who say, ‘Oh, yeah, of course’, almost like it’s a badge of honour. But who’s given you that label? Is it you or has it come externally? Actually, it has more of a toxic connotation, and that it suits other people to put you in that box, because it makes you feel unworthy. Therefore, that’s an advantage to an organisation or another person?
Rachel: Because if you could just say to someone, ‘Well, it’s you, Sarah, if you just had a little bit more self-confidence in your own ability, then actually probably, you’d be performing better, and you’d be able to sort these issues out with your team.’ Meanwhile, the team is like, half of their members have left because of stress, and everyone’s infighting. And then there’s toxic management that says, ‘Sarah, I think you’ve got imposter syndrome here, and you just need to put yourself out.’
Sarah: I hear that so much, certainly in my mentoring role, young salary GP’s, who were told, ‘Oh well, everybody else is fine, maybe it’s you.’ When you actually go deeper into what’s going on in the organisation, and how they’re valuing people, the quality of the conversations they’re having, how people perceive themselves to be valued, and what that shows up as there’s a whole set of other things going on. And it’s in the practices best interest to have other people feeling that it’s them.
Rachel: So it’s not imposter syndrome. It’s gaslighting.
Sarah: Absolutely. In that situation, I would strongly agree.
Rachel: And it’s just so difficult to separate out, because you—in that practice that you just, talked about — very, very common scenario, it’s probably a bit of both the system is not set up. Also that that new portfolio GP has got some self-doubt, and is maybe a bit more reticent and worried because of stuff that’s happened in the past, because when they’ve tried to speak up, they’ve been quashed, they’ve been told, like you said, everybody else can manage it. So you do start to doubt your own ability and tasking you around ability is almost a normal part of being human. I think so we’re then pathologising a sort of normal psychological process.
Sarah: Absolutely and actually, let’s be honest, sometimes there are advantages to feeling that you’re not quite good enough it can really spur you on, it can make you work harder, try harder. You can do things that feel uncomfortable. It may have pushed us through quite a lot of difficult situations in the past. Does it make you focus more, or putting you into an uncomfortable situation that because you’re expecting, ‘Okay, well, that’s what I have to go through.’
You’re tolerating more discomfort than perhaps some might feel comfortable with. There’s sometimes there’s an advantage, but I’d rebadged it as self-doubt, or understandable worries about a new situation and I think what we were talking about before is this concept of growth mindset. I’m not there yet. But when you speak to leaders—Beyonce has to go onstage with an alter ego Sasha Fierce because even Beyonce doesn’t feel enough as herself. These incredible people everybody will say ‘I have elements of doubt.’
You’re othering yourself by saying, ‘I’m pretty sure it’s just me.’ I think that’s where connections and speaking to other people can be so helpful in terms of not normalising it, but maybe just ripping that plaster off. ‘Okay. It’s not that it’s something else and what can be done about it?’
Rachel: It’s just sort of recalibrating the way we think about ourselves, isn’t it? Because you obviously don’t want to think too much of yourself. Particularly in Britain, we don’t like show-offs. Do we? We don’t like people that think they are amazing, they’re boasting about stuff that can’t ever learn anything, because they think they’re always right. I mean, that is not good. But nor is it good to be that person who’s so self-obsessed that they won’t ever do anything or put themselves out because what might people think about me or what if I fail? I think that’s another side of the same coin in terms of self-obsession, and neither is right.
But I think it’s bad to be self-obsessed and that really sort of proud, ‘I’m amazing’ way. I think it’s almost pretty bad to be really self-obsessed, and that, ‘Oh, I can’t possibly fail and what will people think?’ Because then you’re just not giving yourself to other people in the way that you should be. The world can’t use your unique skills and abilities and it’s completely paralysing.
Sarah: I think it’s so common. I think I know, we talked before about burnout and how actually, when you really identify I am my career, I am a doctor, and you believe the martyrdom you receive and you staple onto your shoulders, the Cape of Heroism, that you then build up your own inner story about what that means and what that has to look like. It’s often reinforced, you know, as a mum at the school gates in the past, I’ve had people going, ‘Oh, well, come on. Sarah, can you tell me about this’, even though I’m in mum duty, you’re calling me for a problem, when I’m not on call, I’m not on call for the whole world. I’m a mom, I’m a wife, I’m a friend, I’m a mother— I think we need to have a filter, a healthy filter, through which we decide what external messages really mean for us.
But also, crucially, and this is what I’m really passionate about with my coaching and mentoring, is helping people look at what really is important to them. Because helping them look at the consequences. Okay, so if you have to be perfect all the time. What is realistic about that and what does it mean? If heaven forbid, you are not perfect? What then, what does that mean about your self-esteem? Helping them really get to terms with what that means? Because I think sometimes, again, we can take perfectionism on as a badge of pride. Oh, I’m this that classic thing in an interview? What are your faults? ‘Oh, I’m a perfectionist’ is one of the ones that [incorrigible]
Rachel: I’m so bad because I did everything to such a high level that it’s a real fault of mine, that I’m just damn brilliant. Actually.
Sarah: People can be the hardest to work with because they can crystallise themselves into this image, and actually be a bit judgy of others. But actually, we are just human beings, and we are going to do our best and we are allowed to grow and evolve and change. Goodness me, haven’t we changed a lot and had to grow in the last couple of years. And actually, I think that’s really healthy. And I know there have been some incredibly hard times? Identifying as a doctor is a big risk factor, the burnout, that so is perfectionism. It’s reminding yourself that it ain’t no good.
Rachel: So I’m just writing my own new definition of imposter syndrome that we try out with you. So this might be completely wrong, rather than it being about this belief that we’re going to be found out at any point that we’re not quite as good, is we’re telling other people we are. Actually, imposter syndrome is more like an unhealthy belief that you need to be perfect in all situations and that it’s not okay to fail at anything.
Sarah: Oh, I love that one. I’m not very good at coming up with a pithy definition because equally, I would change that into something about something in an internal, fixed unhealthy belief, and more along the perfectionism bit, or an externally given label. Somewhere along the lines of being in a toxic culture or you being in a minority, I’d want to pay tribute to the external factors too.
Rachel: So it’s either an unhealthy internal belief you’ve got to be perfect or an unhealthy, external label from a toxic culture to absolve them of any blame whatsoever.
Sarah: Yes, I like that.
Rachel: Okay, so given that we can only control what we do. It would be nice to be able to control those toxic cultures that are giving us those labels. But unfortunately, we don’t quite yet have the ability to control other people’s minds or actions. Although I’m sure, Facebook is working on that as we speak. What do we do? So Let’s ditch the whole imposter thing that I’m going to be found out and let’s just label it, that’s just normal to have some self-doubt and actually normal. It’s quite helpful because it lets us grow. As long as we don’t think that it’s an issue that we have those beliefs, as long as we keep with a growth mindset, that it’s okay to need to do some development in various areas. In fact, nobody comes as a fully formed thing. So let’s stick with growth mindset. What do we do about it, then?
Sarah: I think if we’re sticking with the internal aspects of it, I think it’s really getting those thoughts out of your head and, and going, what assumptions are you making here? Because so much of them are false. I’m assuming everybody else has got it sorted. Nobody ever has doubts. As we know, from medical exams, whenever something says nobody, never or always, that’s the wrong answer. I think the power to really inspect your thoughts and make choices about how you are going to choose kinder self-chatter. There are lots of different ways of doing that. But helping yourself tune into what am I telling myself to be true and what is true? Then I let that thought, just go by and go, ‘Oh, okay, that’s an interesting one. Off you go.’
Rachel: So how do you spot those unhelpful thoughts? How would you get a thought go ‘That’s not helpful.’ That is?
Sarah: I think it’s like a muscle and one of the ways of doing this is mindfulness. There’s a lot of evidence about the value of mindfulness and your neuroplasticity in terms of helping you create new patterns of thinking. Some people find journaling, incredibly helpful. Just put it all down on a piece of paper, don’t necessarily look at it, but just note within trust what comes up without having any judgement to it. There’s doing it—I work well with talking to other people. Because as it comes out, I know what I think and I don’t necessarily know that.
I think those are some of the ways and obviously, through speaking to friends, colleagues, or mentors, or coaches can help you pick those up. Just sharing your thoughts with trusted colleagues or allies and going, ‘Hey, I’ve been feeling a bit of this is that do you feel like that? Do you feel like we should be feeling that way?’ But being clear on why you’re asking that question without having to pursue the external validation, just having a bit of that triangulation. Because I think it’s incredibly powerful. Normalising these feelings, we know that only over 70% of people have these perfectionist imposter syndrome type thoughts. We’re in the majority. And I think if we normalise it, it’s going to take the power away.
Rachel: I’m interested you said triangulation because when we did the podcast about Gaslighting with James Costello, he talks about triangulation there as well. That really important thing about knowing that it’s not just you. And so, you would triangulate with gaslighting to know it’s not just you, but you can triangulate with your own thoughts to realise that it’s not just you as well. I guess that’s one of the reasons why I’m doing this podcast writing. I’ve had lots and lots of emails from people go, ‘Thank you, because it’s made me feel I’m not alone.’ I think it’s really important that we get together with our peers and our colleagues.
We’re honest about what we’re feeling the story’s going on in our head. Not because like you said, we don’t want people to get ‘Oh, no, no, Rachel, you’re wonderful. Don’t worry.’ Although that’s very nice, he wants people to reflect back the stories in your head and maybe the stories in their head, and when you hear someone else saying it, you’re like, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous. Why are you telling me you can’t get that wrong? How are you supposed to know you’ve only been in that job for three months?’ Then it’s suddenly ‘Oh, yeah, that’s true. That’s made me feel a lot better.’ It’s quite difficult to do that for yourself, isn’t it?
Sarah: It is and I think it’s so healthy when you as a leader to role model that vulnerability. Sometimes when you go through your career, you feel like you should know everything because you’ve got the experience, you’ve got all of this time that you’ve spent in mastery of your job. But actually, one of the red flags for me as an appraiser of over 10 years is if somebody can’t find an area for them to improve on, then I’m worried. Because it means that they, they think they’ve got it all sorted, and that has that fixed mindset and isn’t willing to challenge. I think, as parents, we’re always espousing this way of thinking to our children, ‘Okay, well, you can’t do it now, yet.
But you will do and keep going and that discomfort is really normal. As human beings, we are not set in stone, we are allowed to evolve, and improve. I think one of the downsides of some of this toxic positivity that you can see around you have to always be smiling and grateful, and everything has to feel amazing. Or you’re failing, I think, permission to be kind to ourselves and go there’s a discomfort here, what is that discomfort because some of this might be that you’re not in the right organisation, you’re not working in a team that you feel values you that allows you to be your best self, that actually maybe are not very interested in the job you’re doing. Or you find it incredibly stressful, and you’re just not at your point of thriving and comfort, and you’re not able to perform because of where you are in your career.
Rachel: That is really interesting to me because I have had coachees in the past who have been in incredibly, incredibly tough jobs that are burning them out that obviously, they’re not a very good fit. But they’re sitting there going, ‘I must make this work, I must make this work.’ They have been told, or either they told themselves or they have literally been told by their boss, well, those who managed to do it, ‘So what’s wrong with you?’ And then they’ll say, ‘Oh, I’ve got such imposter syndrome. Because, I don’t think I should be here.’
It’s like, it’s not imposter syndrome— It’s the truth. But the truth isn’t, it’s not because you’re not good enough. It’s because this job does not suit you and your unique skills and abilities and strengths. It’s not that you’re not good enough. I’ve noticed that so many people won’t leave a difficult, bad, bad situation. Because they will not accept the fact that they need to leave because they feel like they’ve failed. Because it’s all about I’m not good enough. But it’s nothing to do with not being good enough. It’s just a day with this job. 100% doesn’t suit you, and you’ve heard that as well.
Sarah: Absolutely. I think there’s such a sense. This is really such a kind of 1950s Victorian era, you have a career, you stay in your path no matter what and there’s this concept that even if you’re at the top of it in inverted commas, you should stay there even if you’re flamin’ miserable. I certainly felt like that as a part. Now, when I wasn’t happy, and I burnt out, I thought, ‘Oh, it’s just because I’m rubbish. Everybody else around me seems to be doing it well and it’s that availability and confirmation bias. You’re in this role and you can see other people that seem to be doing it and enjoying it. I’m the odd one out, it must be because I’m not good enough somehow, or by my failure, or they appointed me and I wasn’t the right fit.’
Whereas actually, it’s totally okay to not want to be where you are. Absolutely, I have loads of conversations about this. ‘Or maybe I won’t be happy in any job.’ That’s really not what I see. I’ve seen people move teams, I’ve seen people move career paths. I’ve also seen people have a look at what’s making them unhappy what they can control, and make little changes that have big effects on their satisfaction. But that’s why I’m so passionate. Really, I think we’re both on the same hymn sheet about just what is it what’s going on for you here and what’s the discomfort?
Rachel: Yeah, I just really wish that people could get into their heads that when they are struggling with a role. It’s not that they are defective or broken as a human being, it’s that they are a human being with unmet needs. What’s happening is that their body and their brains are just doing what a normal body and brain would do under that situation. But people take it as ‘I am weak, I am not good enough, I can’t cope.’ And it’s really nothing to do with you can’t cope, it’s to do if you’re reacting completely normally, as anyone with your particular makeup would be reacting in this situation, but we feel it as a failure.
Sarah: Absolutely. I certainly felt that way, I felt very ashamed. When I left my job when I didn’t really know what I was going to when I burnt out. That’s why I’m so passionate about talking about it. I’ve had people say to me, ‘I’ve been off for six months, I was miserable in my job. But I thought it was just me, you’re the first person that’s ever talked about it.’ And you just think this isn’t how it should be. And I really, I also feel that we should kind of have something along the lines of supervision or build in either career counselling, or a space in which to examine your feelings.
On a regular basis, when we’re in these high-stress situations, we have a huge amount of responsibility. Where do we get that support? How do we be kind to ourselves? I think a lot of this comes down to self-compassion. But it’s very hard to do that when you might feel that you’re working in a broader organisation that doesn’t necessarily care about all that, oh, it doesn’t feel like it gives much attention to it.
Rachel: Yeah, I completely agree with you, Sarah, one of the things that has constantly surprised me having trained as a coach is you and I, as a coach, we have to have supervision. Psychologists have to have supervision, quite rightly, to debrief what’s been going on. But as a practising doctor, you get an appraisal once a year, and some departments do supervision, but most general practices I know, don’t at all. Then we wonder why we have just been left alone with these beliefs that then self-perpetuate and reinforce our brain because we’ve not actually been able to talk them through. I mean, I know that when I’m in my coaching supervision, a lot of it, I’m saying, ‘Well, this and the coach and the supervisors going, but what story you’re telling yourself about that, Rachel?’ , I’m going ‘Oh, yes’, and it’s just so helpful. But we don’t have that structure set up.
And the thing that I don’t understand is that there is a lot of coaching available for doctors, a lot of free coaching available for doctors, a lot of coaching and mentoring schemes set up in lots of different areas, and they’re not being accessed, the people aren’t seeing the value of it.
Sarah: I think it speaks to this whole concept that if I do that I must be struggling or failing. I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about what it is or what it can be. I’ve certainly spoken to people, friends who said, ‘Well, if I go to coaching, they are going to tell me this’, that no, that is not how it works at all. It’s all about sitting alongside you and giving you a space to inspect some of these thoughts and discomforts and really work out what matters to you and how you can move those thoughts along. I think it needs a PR campaign doesn’t it, Rachel?
Rachel: Well, we’ll jump about PR for coaching campaign. I think that’s one really good way to to deal with when you think you’re, you’ve got imposter syndrome or someone said, you’ve got imposter syndrome, or you’re really struggling with those stories in your heads. Check it out with your colleagues, spend time sharing how you’re feeling with each other. Get some coaching or some mentoring or something sense check stuff, keep a journal, practise self-compassion and some mindfulness as well. I’d love to know any other tips you’ve got Sarah in a second. Having had this conversation with you, Sarah, I’m beginning to see quite how toxic this concept of imposter syndrome is.
Because not only does it blame you for the problem, rather than external forces, which might be in play. It actually blames the wrong thing. It’s blaming self-doubt, which is actually okay and can be really used for good if we get the stories right in our heads. It’s not blaming this perfectionism, this inability to fail or consider that changing things is okay. It really puts the emphasis on it’s yourself out that’s the problem and it doesn’t acknowledge what the real problem is. So I think we need to completely ditch it.
Sarah: Agreed, bin it.
Rachel: Get it, dump it, but we should be called instead?
Sarah: I think it is too diverse to give it a name and in a way, I’m anti-rebadging something else.
Rachel: I think actually we could call it being human and working in a difficult job. Right? Because you wouldn’t feel like that in the jobs that we all do. Right? Unless you’re a psychopath.
Sarah: Or a narcissist!
Rachel: We know that you’re out there. I don’t think this podcast is probably for them. This is for the rest of us mere humans trying to struggle on with a probably a downplayed version of who we are in our minds because none of us really see ourselves in the way that other people see us. So Sarah, okay, let’s get us out of this. What can we do about it? What top tips have you got for people?
Sarah: What can be helpful when you’re trying to recruit some of these thoughts of self-compassion is to step out of yourself and imagine that you were talking to your best friend, your sister, your partner? How would you talk to them about the same situation? Because that can be a really powerful method of treating yourself in a completely different way that shows much more self-compassion, because acknowledging that we find it hard to receive self-compassion is part of their part of the challenge, I think.
Rachel: I love that. In fact, I was just recording another podcast about how to have difficult conversations. Again, it’s a treat that person as if they were your best friend, be kind of people where we find it hardest to be kind to absolutely ourselves. I did hear someone say, if you could hear the self-talk that goes on in your brain, you’d be utterly horrified. Like, he would never say that not even to an enemy. They just catch yourself doing it. So okay, so you can do that. What else can you do?
Sarah: We’ve talked about journaling. We’ve talked about coaching, mentoring, we’ve talked about talking to colleagues, but with a caveat on that. They may be part of the same groupthink, so that is not always helpful. I think there’s some really interesting stuff to read about this. I think the marvellous Brene Brown has written a lot about vulnerability and shame. The power of allowing yourself to be vulnerable and I think that can be really transformative is just saying, ‘It’s really okay to be honest about who you are, and authentic.’
An authentic leader, an authentic doctor and that doesn’t mean if somebody asks how you are you have to go, ‘Oh, I feel awful. I’ve got an ingrown toenail. And I didn’t like the way the milkman looked at me.’ It can be. ‘Yeah, I’m—’ and this is to the right person. ‘I’m having some doubts about my work, or this week has felt really hard for me, and I’m not really sure why or interacting with these types of people is a struggle and I’m not sure.’ It’s allowing yourself to, again, it’s a way of looking at those thoughts, but going, that’s okay, they are my thoughts. All of my thoughts are valid. But how can I be vulnerable, but not feel ashamed of.
Rachel: Such a great advice colleague of mine, Corrina Gordon-Barnes, who’s often on the podcast too, she’d say about these thoughts that we can identify about some of these stories should say, the question or should ask the question, ‘Why would I be without this thoughts? If I was incapable of thinking this sort of believing it? Where would I be? How would I be acting?’ And that’s like, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting thing.’ If I didn’t think that, well, I just do this. Why don’t you just go and do it, then? That’s been quite harmful and I think asking for help is really important. Not just in a sort of coaching, mentoring, talking to colleagues way. But I think the problem with this belief in imposter syndrome, that self-doubt is bad.
It’s that we then never ask for help if we believe that we have to be perfect and good and feel perfect. We then don’t show vulnerability and not asking for help, can be really, really serious, particularly in medicine, where you could make a massive mistake, if you’re not able to admit that you don’t know or admit that, you might not have the skill to do this, you do need to ask for help. I think understanding that it is okay to fail and make mistakes is really difficult. I’d refer people back to previous podcasts on that.
One thing that I found really helpful recently is changing the stories in our head to ‘I choose to do this so that x, y ,and z.’ If you are working in a job, you’ve got some self-doubt, you’re not quite sure if you’ve got the skills needed. Or you’re thinking ‘Ah, am I good enough?’ You say ‘Well, I’m choosing to work as the leader of this team, so that I can help this department progress in this certain way’ or ‘So that it will free up this other person.’ So I choose to work in this job, even if I don’t feel fully qualified, so that and there will always be a reason—so that. Focusing on that rather than yourself, really, really helps.
If I focus on the fact I’m doing this for my family, I’m doing this for another reason, then actually, it doesn’t really matter, whatever I think about it. If I feel that I’m not quite good enough, I’m doing it for a higher cause and there are things I can do to help myself get better. So seeking training, getting some mentoring, asking for advice, all those sorts of things. This was illustrated really powerfully, for me recently, one of the members of our Permission to Thrive group, which is the membership that Caroline Walker and I run monthly CPD webinars with doctors. Someone came at the end and said, ‘Rachel, I just got to tell you that I’ve used all this stuff, and I was off work and I thought I was just going to leave, but I’m choosing to go back. So that—’ and she gave me the reason and that has really helped.
She said ‘—and if I feel that it’s not for me in the future, I will choose to stop.’ So that, and for her, it just made the difference between being able to go back to work and not being able to go back to work. And I just—Oh, I just love that I was so pleased that just changing this story in the head of ‘I have to, I have to otherwise this will happen. But I choose to.’ So that and that was really powerful. So I think that can help in this sort of situation as well.
Sarah: Absolutely can really help you feel like you’ve got some agency and I think it can be very common to feel that you don’t have any control. You don’t have any power, that you’re in a situation that you cannot influence. But just have even if you are unhappy with some of the areas if you can inspect it all go ‘Well, how can I maximise this, but still decide to stay? It is now my choice to stay?’ It’s very powerful.
Rachel: I think it applies to everything as well. When I first started doing the podcast I had no idea of how to do the podcast and I guess it would have been I’m choosing to put out this podcast, even though it’s far from perfect, and it is still far from perfect. Any feedback people have got for me, very gratefully received. But I choose to say that I can share all this stuff that I found helpful with other people. So I choose to risk failing, or not doing a very good job of it so that I can get better and so that the stuff gets out there. Does this make any sense?
Sarah: It really is. And I’ve, I’ve just started doing a six-minute success journal and it’s this brilliant book and it’s got lots of stuff about mindfulness and setting goals and values. But what I love about it is that it makes you write every day, this will pay will be a success. If and you can put that one thing, and that might be I order my online shop, or I buy home insurance. It’s up to you. I’ve chosen for that to be as small as possible because I think we can often set ourselves these goals that are almost insurmountable, and then crucify ourselves for not getting there. How do you get that reward, that dopamine hit, that feeling of success, if you’re constantly looking at something that’s really, really big? So breaking it down into smaller bits, what will be a success for you today is a really—I have found a fantastic question.
Rachel: I love that journal. Someone gave that to me for Christmas a couple of years ago, and I’ve just used it ever since. It’s brilliant.
Sarah: Well, thanks for telling me.
Rachel: It’s really helpful and I’ve noticed that I started off by — you’re right. Just going ‘Today will be a success if I finished this huge project’, and I do this and that. Actually, it’s enough today will be a success, if I managed to do those webinars I’m doing well. Let’s not put everything else in. Let’s just get through the work today and it really does change your perspective. I’d really recommend it.
We’ll put a link to that in the show notes for people, though. Right. We need to wrap up, Sarah? You’ve already given us lots of lots of tips, but three really quick top tips.
Sarah: Okay, so number one, are your thoughts internal or external? Are your self-doubts self-generated or is it the organisation? Number two, making sure that it’s not just you inspecting those thoughts rolling around your head and finding a way of doing that. Number three, finding a way to find that self-compassion. How can you treat yourself in a way that somebody else would be treated by you?
Rachel: Love that, my three top tips are: it’s okay not to be perfect and no one is. Number two, get a tribe around you. Get a tribe of allies who can feedback to you really neutrally about stuff or with compassion. And my final one would be just, use the phrase, ‘I choose to’. I think that would be very empowering for people. We agreed with ditching the phrase imposter syndrome.
Sarah: It’s gone. Right.
Rachel: I think I might call this episode ‘why we need to ditch the phrase imposter syndrome.’
Sarah: We’ll have to bleep it out every time somebody says it.
Rachel: Well, I can fit a whole course and webinars coming up there on this. You’ve got me thinking!
Sarah: It’s banned
Rachel: It’s banned from now on. Brilliant. Thank you, Sarah, so much for being on—so helpful. If people want to find out more about you and your work. Where can they go?
Sarah: Yeah, I’m basically drsarahgoulding.com is my website and I’m @drsarahgoulding, Goulding with a U in it at Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter, but they can email me at email@example.com.
Rachel: Fantastic, so we’ll put all those links in the show notes. We’re gonna get you back another time to talk about another thing around careers, around our internal thoughts, all those sorts of things when you come back.
Rachel: Brilliant. Thank you so much. Have a good day.
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