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Embracing Authenticity: Imposter Syndrome in an Always-On World


Katie Ford Imposter Reflections
Dr. Katie Ford MRCVS

Introduction:


I sat in contemplation last week, having spent so much time off work with a back injury. I've appreciated having more time to do this. This is what came out of my head and onto the page:


"What a bizarre thing that we are encouraged to identify our talents and gifts, and then we're thrown into a world that expects them on demand, in endless supply, 24/7. Performance is praised and treasured publicly, yet the quieter seasons and need for recharge are left out of the conversation. We leave individuals doubting their abilities, and feeling less than enough, for not being able to perform to society's unrealistic standards on tap." - Katie Ford

I have been honoured to speak on stages across the globe on the topic of imposter syndrome, and share my story. I have studied further, trained as a coach, and each year, I have deepened understanding, and perhaps a higher level of consciousness.


Off the back of the musing, here goes:


We live in a fast-paced world.


Talents, skills, and gifts are revered, and there is pressure to find them from school. Am I the singer? The smart one? The actor? The determined one? The sports star? The scientist? Many of us have gone through life being praised for what we do, or maybe in pursuit of finding something to be praised for. Perhaps for some of us, high performance and good grades were a safe option at some point in our lives, and subconsciously the stakes were much higher than percentages on a report card alone.


However, we aren't taught much about caring for these things* - which for argument's sake, we'll call 'talents' - not without acknowledging that we often ignore the work that went into honing our skills. Growth mindset, right?


*Or ourselves in general.


It's easy to fall into believing a story that our skills are something we either do or don't have. If an instance comes along that we can't turn on the 'talent tap' and perform at whim, or at 100% output, that internal narrative says we are fraudulent. I cover far more on imposter syndrome thoughts here - as I constantly say, this is really common and it's not a diagnosis or fault, yet it's often oversimplified. (Imposter experiences have many individual components from societal stereotypes, early life experiences, cultural pressures, co-morbidities, and more).


Our 'talent' (or job title) often becomes a whole identity - if things go to plan we feel as though we duped the 'audience', or we were lucky that day - and when things don't go to plan, we ask what is wrong with us. We start putting results down to fate, coincidence, or luck. This was what I lived for many years in clinical practice as a vet - been there, done that - maybe I need to make some t-shirts.


I see many people that feel like imposters and default to working harder to overcome it. Maybe just a few more good grades? An extra certificate? A few new tools to go into the shed? And again I say this without judgement, because this was also me - and many, many, many people in the world. I'm here to start calling out some of these stories for not being useful to any of us.


Let's remember the human underneath the stories you never chose, and what they need to be nurtured with. You are more than your talents or productivity. You are valuable regardless of them, anyway, not that the world will tell you that any time soon. Take your power back.


Alexander Den Heijer said “When a flower doesn't bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”


How can you apply that to this situation? This quote isn't about blame, it's about nurture and care, and realising that if we choose to show up, there is value in treating ourselves as valuable.


And in that environment come societal stories, of which we can all be a part of the change.


Let's stop expecting our talent on tap 24/7, or that of others, - and open up the conversations of looking after the person underneath.


Let's delve into this concept and discover how embracing authenticity and self-care can be important if we experience imposter thoughts in an always-on world. This is your cue to step out of the fast lane with the self-worth carrot dangled over it, and to give yourself a chance to think about what you need.


The Bizarre Concept of "Talent on Tap" and how it links to imposter syndrome


In a society that glorifies constant productivity, creativity, and the display of talents, we often find ourselves trapped in a never-ending race to meet expectations. The notion of "talent on tap" without nurturing and self-care diminishes the potential of our unique abilities and fosters feelings of inadequacy. Let's call out this detrimental concept and question its validity - maybe it's not that any of have been 'duping' anyone.


This is a reminder that we are all human. Nobody is 'on-it' twenty-four seven. We will all have days where we don't perform as well, which sometimes may bring opportunities to learn and reflect for next time, and other times it is out of our control.


Let's shatter the illusion that a change in performance means you are an imposter, that you don't deserve it or that you're less worthy.


Feeling a bit less creative recently?


During periods of creative stagnation or changed performance, it's crucial to remember that these experiences do not define our worth or expertise. I wish I could apologise on behalf of a global narrative we are all handed that tries to persuade us otherwise.


Having a period of time where we don't feel to be performing as well, doesn't mean we've been faking it, or that we've 'lost it'. The default conclusion many of us come to is that we must work harder. It must be something wrong with us. We must have hoodwinked the masses. You haven't.


We forget who we actually are in these moments - a whole, unique, one-off, valuable human - and we default to being who we think we need to be to survive and fit in. We hide parts of ourselves. We slap on a smile. We feel that pressure to perform at 100%, know everything and never get assistance.


Imposter Syndrome can be an insidious saboteur, making us feel like frauds who've deceived everyone around us, using pressures we'd never choose to put on anyone else. When it's written down, it's pretty ludicrous really, isn't it?


What if these feelings may signify a deeper need for something vital that our culture rarely encourages? What do we really need to thrive? Which pressures are we choosing to release, and which actions align with this?


A Powerful Blend: Rest, Connection, Support, Compassion and Authenticity


Always-on culture is exhausting, right? Here are five things that over the years I have found fantastic things to focus on when we feel imposter pressures, and potentially have evidence that our performance isn't what that internal narrative expects it to be. I have evidenced lots of resources.


The astute amongst you probably are starting to see a link to burnout and imposter syndrome that makes total sense - you'd be right - Vilwock et al found the strong links amongst American medical students in 2016.


So what are four useful areas to start to put our focus toward?


🌿1. Rest:

Yes, I mean rest. Real rest.


Finding the things that help you to actually recharge physically and mentally. I get it, many times I've been physically sitting still and my mind has been going through the mental gym thinking about my next five, and last ten, 'performances'. That was not rest for me. Let's start to try new ways of rest for us as individuals, ditching the societal shoulds and taking time to notice what helps you. I also know that parenting and caring responsibilities, along with busy lives, can make this feel trickier - but please bear with me and let's look for the small tweaks and marginal gains where we can. Rest comes in various forms.


According to Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith, a medical doctor and author of the book "Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity", there are seven different types of rest that our bodies and minds need to function optimally, including physical, mental, sensory, social, emotional, spiritual, and creative.


  1. Physical Rest: This is the most common form of rest and involves getting enough sleep and taking breaks to allow the body to recover from physical exertion and replenish energy. We are all pretty aware of this type of rest.

  2. Mental Rest: Mental rest involves giving the mind a break from constant thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making. Taking time away from mentally taxing activities can help reduce stress and improve focus and clarity. This might include reading for pleasure, meditation, mindfulness, nature-walks or outdoor activities.

  3. Emotional Rest: Emotional rest involves processing and releasing emotions, finding healthy ways to cope with stress, and seeking support from others when needed. It's about acknowledging and addressing emotional fatigue. This could include journaling, talking to a trusted friend or therapist, or some enjoy creative outlets as ways of expressing emotions. At Vet Empowered we talk a lot about breathwork and emotional regulation tools.

  4. Social Rest: Social rest involves taking time away from social interactions and responsibilities. It's about creating boundaries and spending time alone or with people who bring joy and positive energy. This might involve time alone, reducing social media time, drawing boundaries or having some time away from social commitments.

  5. Sensory Rest: Sensory rest is about reducing exposure to sensory stimuli such as noise, bright lights, and screens. Giving the senses a break can help reduce sensory overload and promote relaxation. This might include taking a digital detox, switching off the lights or listening to soothing sounds.

  6. Creative Rest: Creative rest involves stepping away from tasks that require constant ideation and innovation. Allowing the mind to wander and engage in creative activities without pressure can recharge creative energy. This might include hobbies with no pressure, allowing yourself to daydream, visiting exhibitions or engaging in playful activities.

  7. Spiritual Rest: Spiritual rest is about nurturing the soul and connecting with something larger than oneself, and isn't necessarily about religion or considering yourself spiritual. It can involve activities like meditation, prayer, spending time in nature, or engaging in activities that bring a sense of purpose and meaning e.g. random acts of kindness.

Contrary to common misconceptions, taking time to recharge is not a sign of weakness but an acknowledgment of our humanity. Embracing periods of rest can boost creativity, productivity, and overall well-being.


Rest helps us to show up in so many ways, but also to remind ourselves that we are worthy of care regardless of our productivity. There's a certain irony that often when we feel like imposters, we turn to working more and forget this aspect when we often need it the most.


2. 🤝 Genuine Connection


Surrounding ourselves with people who value us beyond our talents and accomplishments on paper can be transformative. Authentic connections with individuals who appreciate us for who we are, both on and off the 'stage,' serve as a powerful source of support and inspiration. Let's find the people we don't have to perform for, or at least the ones who welcome us regardless, especially at times when we are feeling the demands. You will find your people, sometimes in the most unlikely of places.


Three insights to share anonymously from coaching clients over the years, that gave me permission to post these to help strengthen this lesson. These are just examples, and won't be the same for everyone reading this:

  1. "I am more to my team than my skill sets" I coached a wonderful new graduate veterinary surgeon as she started a new role. She performed an exercise to identify her strengths, and part of this was to ask the thoughts of a trusted colleague. The list she received was things like "you are so thoughtful", "you take your time with the animals", "you always make everyone feel so welcome". There were some happy tears on the call, as she told me how she'd had the realisation that they valued her as a person, not for how fast she could spay a dog.

  2. "It was a relief to find the spaces to embrace all parts of me" I coached someone as they stepped into a management role, having previously been part of the same team. They identified that one of their main struggles was feeling alone at times in the challenges of the new role, and a pressure to know everything. They recognised and outlined how they'd like to show up for their team, still being a compassionate and authentic leader, but also which parts of the role they'd like to process away from the team, and how they'd like to draw boundaries. They wanted to ditch the pressure to know everything, and didn't want the team to feel that either, so they wanted to show how they sought out information they weren't sure on. Equally, they said they would find it helpful to have a separate space to connect, vent, and remember all of the other parts of them too. They sought out a mentor at their company via a work based scheme, and also rejoined their local Crossfit box. They said this made a huge different - "when I was back squatting a PB, nobody even asked what I did for work which was a relief, they just know me as *name* - and my mentor helped me to realise there were people further down the path to help me."

  3. "My gran didn't really know or care that I'd raised £2million of funding, she still tried to wipe my face with a hanky" This client runs multiple businesses, and came to me for personal coaching. He said he felt as though he had forgotten who he was, and the hustle and bustle of start up life meant he kept showing up as who the world wanted him to be - and thus the imposter vibes came along. He identified that some of the spaces he felt most himself were when he was with his gran, who didn't really care so much about his accomplishments as much as she loved him for being him. He realised he hadn't actually spent much time with her recently, and decided to start adding in a weekly visit - of course to see her, and equally to reconnect with that part of him. He actually took his gran to his office one week to meet everyone, which he says strengthened his connection with his team as they remembered he was human too.

This doesn't have to be the result of coaching. Who helps you to feel like you? Who do you want to spend more time around? Where could you meet new people?


3. 🤲 Embracing Support:

When the pressure to have the talent tap on 24/7 feels present, and perhaps we have some imposter vibes starting to weave their way in (or they came in like a wrecking ball) - remember the value of support. Asking for help is a strength. Seeking support from peers, mentors, coaches or professionals can lead to breakthroughs and personal growth.


This also means remembering that we don't have to do everything alone.


Could you imagine if Beyoncé decided that to prove that she was indeed talented, and could put on a good performance, she would also need to sort the stage lighting, and the sound, and the ticket sales?! No way!


If her vocals were suddenly off form, would you decide that she didn't deserve her previous bestselling albums? Or would you look back and reflect on how maybe she had done a little more than her body could cope with, or that maybe she should take a rest, or see a doctor? Right? Would we think it was a problem with her, or the way things are set up?


You certainly wouldn't consciously put her back into the exact same situation again. You wouldn't say she just wasn't resilient enough. You'd look for the resources and ways to find a way for it to work for her.


Let's be a little more Beyoncé about seeking support for ourselves too. You are valuable too, and that's with net-worth or singing ability being completely out of the equation.


4. Being a little (lot) more compassionate


I don't know about you, but I had classes at school on chemistry, calculus, cooking, citizenship, computer science... but never on one of the most game-changing things in my life: compassion.


Dr. Kristin Neff is one of the global leaders on self-compassion, and for those of you that want evidence that being kind to ourselves is helpful, you'll find thousands of papers on her website. Can you believe we live in a world where we need so much proof this works to consider trying it? She also posts tonnes of resources, I love her book, Mindful Self-Compassion, too, I talk a lot about self-compassion, but I'll never gatekeep the source.


In short, self-compassion is extending the same love and kindness to ourselves as we do others. You might have read my original post in the context of other people on this Earth, and nodded along "Yes, it's ludicrous Katie! Imagine the world asking us to perform 24/7 and then us thinking it's a fault with us"... make sure you consider yourself in that too. I know when we all listen to that inner critic in whatever way it shows up for us, telling us we aren't enough, it feels true - but just a reminder that you're the one underneath, listening.


Neff's co-author and business partner, Dr. Chris Germer, says "compassion is when love meets suffering and stays loving".


I think that's really beautiful. Soak it up for a second.


We are human. We will feel all the emotions. We often suffer at the hands of others, unexpected events, listening to stories in our mind that we never chose (of which my own mentors, Richard Wilkins and Liz Ivory call the script), or we have circumstances out of our control.


When we feel burned out with the pressures of society, we feel that criticism to keep performing, or that we are an imposter - we are experiencing a moment of suffering. The same for when we make a mistake, it hurts. When we've been told 'positive vibes only' or that certain emotions are to be avoided, an extra layer of criticism appears about how we should or shouldn't feel. This is the time we need love the most - and sometimes we need support with that, or to take it at our own pace.


These are times for acknowledgement that this is indeed something that the vast majority of people will experience at some point in their life (doubt, tiredness, shame) - not to trivialise, or minimise, but to make us feel less alone, and that we aren't doing it wrong. We are often listening to allsorts of stories we never chose. And before you say it - actually there's evidence to show self-compassion improves our performance and motivation - rather than us being too 'soft' on ourselves. This is a post for another time.


Let's start asking ourselves what WE need, and what works for US. We'd never expect someone else's talents on tap, would we? Think of someone you love and respect, would you think less of them if they never did the thing they're 'good at' ever again?


Some find it useful to work with a professional, to understand the different stories they listen to, their origins and to acknowledge that it isn't the whole of them. This again is another post for another time.


5. Rediscovering Our Authenticity


Amidst the clamour for constant productivity, it's easy to forget that we are human beings, not machines.


Authentic: real, genuine, not a copy.


It doesn't say anything about being capable of 100mph, 24/7, robotic, cold, productive. Yet authentic is the opposite of imposter.


It's time to dismantle the illusion of commoditising our output and embrace our true selves. That's definitely a post for another time, but perhaps thinking about what helps you to feel like you? What's important to you? Where can you start to dip a toe into embracing that? Who can help? How can you reminder yourself of this in the imposter moments?


Let's remember who the heck you were before the world got its hands on you. 1 in 400 trillion, one off. Valuable.


By fostering a culture that values authenticity and self-care, we can build more resilient and empowered individuals and teams.


Conclusion


As I reflect on my own nine-week hiatus from action with a back injury, the importance of self-care and authenticity becomes increasingly evident. I feel fortunate that I have the time to be able to recover and the resources to rest, but I still notice with curiosity the automatic thoughs of performance and productivity. I have been sharing my rest on my social profiles to normalise it.


My talent is not on tap. I need rest, connection, compassion and to keep remembering who I really am.


(I know there are so many people reading this at different places in life, so always remember there is someone to listen to you - especially if it is impacting your mental health negatively. Whether you're in the UK vet profession and it's Vetlife, it might be your GP, BACP or an employee assistance programme. That might also be a friend or loved one.)


References

Villwock JA, Sobin LB, Koester LA, Harris TM. Impostor syndrome and burnout among American medical students: a pilot study. Int J Med Educ. 2016 Oct 31;7:364-369. doi: 10.5116/ijme.5801.eac4. PMID: 27802178; PMCID: PMC5116369.


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