I’ve never been a fan of public speaking – not many of us are. It tends to push our stress hormones through the roof and make all of our insecurities come out to play at the same time.
However, standing up and speaking in front of 30 people is exactly what I did last week – over the course of the day I had to do it several times. I want to share my experience with you to demonstrate that any of us can do it, no matter how “not ready” or “unqualified” you might feel at times.
Many of us feel insecure or struggle with imposter syndrome, myself included.
Imposter syndrome is the feeling we get when our brain decides to remind us how we are “not enough”, “don’t really deserve the job/title/relationship/praise” that we get.
So last Saturday I co-hosted an event and was speaking and leading workshops during the day. Considering that I’m prone to a bit of the old ‘imposter syndrome’, talking about myself and my work to a room full of women, including clients and peers is quite a challenge.
There is nothing quite like standing in front of people, one hand trying not to grip the lectern, feeling like my knees are knocking together loudly and then inviting questions from the audience.
Not only do I have to speak in coherent sentences while my nerves are doing Le Can-Can – but I also have to know the answers to any random question that might come up, or else be proved an imposter.
Or at least, that’s what the paranoid voice in my mind is warning me about, very loudly, as I try to quiet it and focus on my PowerPoint presentation.
As a coach, if a client of mine told me that they felt they had to know the answer to any possible question that a person might ask them, I would be quick to point out that this isn’t a realistic or fair expectation. In fact, it sounds more like a superpower.
We do not have to be more knowledgeable than Google, but of course, when it comes to ourselves, we do lose this perspective and put unfair demands on ourselves.
On Saturday, both when I was speaking and when people were asking questions, I started to question what is this whole imposter syndrome thing really about? And it started me down the path of realising that I have the tools to help you if you have it, but I don’t honestly fully understand why it happens.
Yes, I know our brains want to protect us. But why instead of, for example, reminding us of the 99 things that we are not expert at, can’t our brain remind us of what we are amazing at? Wouldn’t that be a more helpful feature?
I know that we have these mental mechanisms in place as a way of protecting ourselves from harm and staying safe – but when our mental voice is being cruel, telling us we don’t know what we are doing, then I have to question if that’s of any use at all!
Let’s ask an expert
The voice of my imposter syndrome is typically heard saying things like; “who are you to call yourself an expert”, or “you don’t know what you’re doing, let somebody else take charge.” So in certain situations, I honestly do tend to step back and allow others to take charge.
Of course, we rarely catch our inner voice being that mean about our friends, people we like and care about – which brings me back to questioning why we do this to ourselves.
A friend of mine has a background in neuroscience and personal development, so without judging her ‘expert’ vibes, I asked her about imposter syndrome.
She tells me that imposter syndrome is pretty much like any other negative belief that us humans develop, and yes, it’s about self-protection too. When we are in our ‘formative years’ we are forming a great many “truths” (beliefs) about who we are – we are forming our impression of the world and our place in it, as well as forming into a future adult.
At some point we will receive a blow to our sense of identity, and this blow hurts our ego. The emotional lessons are deemed important by the brain, as we don’t want to get hurt again. Of course I’m sure you’ve heard me say by now that our brain’s priority is to protect us from harm, to keep us safe.
So, if as a youngster we are hurt in P.E. then an obvious conclusion for our brain to form is that we are not good at sports. How could this manifest in your life? You may never choose to be involved in sport as an adult, or if you are, perhaps you never feel good enough. Perhaps you will feel that you don’t deserve your medal for crossing that finish line. If it’s a team win, you will feel that the other players did better than you.
Here’s the other thing – it’s not always easy to spot in others. It’s worth knowing that just because others around you appear to be more confident, doesn’t mean that they are. Where imposter syndrome in one person may show up as holding themselves back, in another person they may overcompensate for secretly feeling ‘less than’ by outwardly acting ‘more than’.
I’m sure we all know people who are quite loud about their achievements or those of their kids. Or we see friends or acquaintances on social media who make attention-seeking posts about their accomplishments. Sometimes this is coming from a place of insecurity.
In one of my talks, I mentioned that we all need to have more compassion for ourselves, and not beat ourselves up for beating ourselves up, if that makes sense!
What I’m driving at here is this. When we catch ourselves slipping into that imposter syndrome thinking, we can simply observe it and recognise it for what it is. Remind yourself that your brain is doing this to you for a reason, and also remind yourself of a few good reasons why you are qualified, or worthy, or whatever your brain is trying to tell you that you are not.
Take a breath, be brave, and do your thing.
Walking the talk
That’s right! Once you’ve provided your brain with that initial evidence, to really solidify your new belief that you are worthy, it’s time to start walking the talk. Sure, belief is a big part of the battle – but to really step it up, start proving to yourself that you are good at what you do by doing those things boldly – even if that’s a little scary at first.
So this was me last Saturday. I was out of my comfort zone. Initially, I was a little scared and the butterflies were making me feel shaky at times. But I gave my workshop presentations, and you know what, I got some great feedback from the attendees. So next time I’m going up to speak, yes you heard it here, there will be a next time (and that is progress!), I can remember that positive feedback as more of that evidence my brain needs – I can feel more confident and less of an imposter.
If this post resonates with you in a personal way, then let me just say, you are not alone. Imposter syndrome is really common. So is the fear of public speaking, or even anything that makes you visible to the outside world. I call this putting your head above the parapet and it can feel pretty daunting.
It is normal and human to feel pulled back to your place of safety. But if you have dreams and goals, they are just a little bit outside of your safe place. Could you be brave and reach out just a little bit further? I can tell you that whenever I do that, it is always worth it.
That feeling you get when you know you’ve done whatever it is you were afraid of, there’s nothing like it.