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Imposter syndrome, burnout and the pressure on women to be ‘warm’ and ‘likeable’

by | Aug 4, 2023 | Burnout

imposter syndrome and burnout


Emily Blunt is the star of the hit movie, ‘Oppenheimer’ and one of the biggest British female movie stars of her generation. You may think you have very little in common with her.

However, in a recent article in The Guardian, Emily spoke of the pressure to be warm and likeable in order for others to do their job, so she could do hers, with the pivotal point being that her male counterparts appear to be under no similar mandate.

This is an experience to which many women can relate, whether through their professional or personal life and, in this way, we may have more in common with Emily than we think.

What experiences of being kept in your lane have helped to shape your dreams?

In my work on burnout prevention and recovery, I use a metaphor that we are like a high-performance car. We can do amazing things at speed but, without regular maintenance and upkeep, we risk ending up parked on the side of the road, waiting for roadside assistance. In simple terms, the power of our engine is at its capacity to overcome resistance.

Burnout generally refers to working too hard, for too long, often under challenging circumstances beyond our control. We end up doing too much and leave too little in the tank.

Imposter syndrome – a speed limiting device

To continue our performance car metaphor, speed limiting devices restrict the flow of air and fuel to the engine to prevent a car from exceeding a pre-determined speed.

Similarly, we receive messages, often from a young age, that serve to encourage us to stay in our lane. For example, my daughter, at age three years, being told she is “bossy”, while her bestie was praised for his “leadership” skills (my daughter came home crying because she was worried no-one would like her – which shows the generational impact this insidious bias can have).

Imposter syndrome is an example of a speed-limiting device. This is broadly defined as self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy in situations where there is limited evidence to support your negative self-assessment.

Research shows that women are often subject to systemic bias and exclusion in the workplace. So, feeling imposter syndrome, that feeling that you somehow fundamentally don’t belong, may not be an illusion. It could be the consequence of career-limiting behaviours being applied to you.

For example, often in the guise of mentoring or constructive advice, you may be given the message that you are “too… (ambitious / direct/ sensitive / intimidating, etc)”. The idea is that you need to, in some way, diminish yourself to enhance the comfort of those around you.

These insidious messages have an impact on our “driving style” and capacity to thrive.

By diminishing yourself, you may curtail your opportunities and experiences in such a way as to foster and exacerbate feelings of being a fraud and not belonging. When our very character is criticised – the essence of who we are – it engenders feelings of shame, fear of rejection, and activates our neurobiological survival instincts. We are likely to adapt to survive, rather than position ourselves to thrive.

When we continue to rev the engine, while applying the brakes, we risk exhaustion. Ever seen cars with smoke coming from their tyres? That’s burnout.

There is a compounding effect when we absorb the “stay safe, stay in your lane” messages of others into our very DNA, without properly interrogating the data for its applicability to our unique skills and attributes.

Check in with yourself the next time you become aware of a subtle speed-limiter being applied. Ask “Does it suit me to stay in my lane for now? Does my goal need me to take a risk to move into another lane for a while? Was I actually even out of my lane and if I was, what’s the problem?”

Moving past imposter syndrome

The answer to Imposter Syndrome isn’t to blame women for lacking confidence and encourage them to heal themselves; it’s to support women to recognise and respond to their inner coach, more often than they do to their inner critic – or the outer critics. This is achieved through fostering conscious awareness of how we speak to each other, and ourselves, about our strengths and weaknesses.

When tempted to provide supportive guidance and feedback that incorporates your judgement of someone’s (or your own) personality characteristics, check yourself – is your judgement about actual, measurable deficits or more about your fear of inadequacy?

Is it really that they/you are “too…”, or is it that you have judged yourself to be “not enough…”?

Any feedback we give to others, or ourselves, should be based on real evidence and facts from actual experiences, rather than assumptions or prejudices we might have. If the feedback is about someone’s personality, we are criticising the very core of who they are, and not something specific they did. We can change our behaviour, but it’s much more difficult to be judged as having a fundamental flaw in our character.

Limiting yourself by defining the scope of your aspirations and self-belief according to the expectations you have inherited from others, can lead to burnout. Either you strive for goals which are not aligned to your sense of meaning and purpose, or you stay in your lane for fear of seeing the morality police coming at you in your rear-view mirror.

Both mean your driving style is determined from a place of fear, and you are likely to be under-estimating your well-honed, hard-won, excellent road skills that can be relied on to get you from A to D.

Isn’t it time to feel welcome to drive your car according to the road conditions, and not based on what others think is best for you?

When coaching clients around burnout I encourage the use of personal values as the main guidelines for determining your behaviour and tapping into your ‘Something Larger’ to define purpose. In this way your goals become meaningful and it’s easier, when you hit a speed bump, to remember why you are on the road in the first place.

Oh – and, while you are at it, why not occasionally drive to simply enjoy the feeling of the wind in your hair and gentle sun on your face on a glorious day?! You have earned it!

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