Weight Loss and The Impostor Syndrome
Have you ever landed your dream job and then sat at your desk feeling like a complete and utter fraud, wondering how on earth you conned your new bosses to think you were smart enough to do this work and you were just counting down the days until they found you out? Have you ever accomplished something significant and then immediately discounted your own role in the success? You might be feeling Impostor Syndrome.
Here is a quiz created by Maureen Zappala, Impostor Syndrome expert and author of Pushing Your Envelope.
True or False?
- I can give the impression I am more competent than I am.
- I rarely do a project as well as I would like to.
- I’m afraid others will discover how much ability or knowledge I lack.
- I compare my skills to my peers, and I fall short.
- Most of my success is the result of luck or timing.
- It’s hard for me to accept compliments about my work or skills.
If you answered TRUE to any of these questions, you’re not alone. According to a study of successful people by Pauline Clance and Gail Matthews, 70% of people have experienced what’s known as the Impostor Syndrome. The term was coined by American psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 and described it as, “a feeling of phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement” and become fearful of being exposed as frauds.
I personally felt this way as my memoir She’s Losing It! was being released. It tells my story about how I lost 50 pounds by entering a bodybuilding bikini competition and fixed my messy life in the process. It’s like a Rocky for moms, only I wasn’t feeling like Rocky, I was feeling like a fraud. Who the hell was I to write about weight loss? Lots of people have lost more weight than I did. And, yeah, I entered a bikini competition, but it’s not like I won it. And even though I did go on to win trophies, it’s not like I won first place every single time, always…
Perhaps you can relate? Did you know that famous people feel this way too?
Comedian Mike Myers said, “I still believe at any time the no-talent police will come and arrest me.”
Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg said, “Every time I was called on in class, I was sure that I was about to embarrass myself. Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone bad. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself – or even excelled – I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up…This phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt has a name-the impostor syndrome. Both men and women are susceptible to the impostor syndrome, but women tend to experience it more intensely and be more limited by it.”
John Steinbeck, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden once said, “I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.”
Lupita Nyong’o, winner of the Academy Awards Best Supporting Actress for her role in Steve McQueen’s movie 12 Years a Slave said, “I had impostor syndrome until the day I landed in Louisiana. I was certain that I was going to be fired. I was certain I was going to receive a call and they were going to say, ‘I’m sorry, we made a mistake.’ Every single day.
Neil Gaiman, a British fiction, comic and graphic novel writer was at an event honoring people in the arts and sciences and felt completely out of his element. “I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, ‘I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.’
“And I said, ‘Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.’ And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an impostor, maybe everyone did.”
Which leads me to today’s guest expert, Maureen Zappala, who worked for years at NASA and always felt like an impostor. In 2012 she started speaking about it and now speaks to businesses around the country about strategies to overcome this common feeling that can hold us back.
Here is a slightly edited version of our interview.
Lisa: “Thanks for speaking with me today. What is Impostor Syndrome?”
Maureen: “Thanks for having me. Impostor Syndrome is the disbelief of your skills and abilities. It is a disconnect between objective facts and your belief about what’s true.”
Lisa: “How does this manifest itself? Does it only impact Type-A people?”
Maureen: “It can impact anyone. People feeling this way tend to respond in extremes and in extremely different ways. A Type-A person will counter it with over preparation. So if they have to give a presentation they will research every minute detail so if they are asked a question they will know every single answer. The other extreme is procrastination, where they will avoid the work entirely and second guess themselves, and why they were given the assignment in the first place and then ask for help and pull it off in the last minute and think, ‘Whew! I got away with it!’”
Lisa: “Does Impostor Syndrome disproportionately affect women and if so, why?”
Maureen: “It effects both men and women, but we process it differently. Men often define themselves by their work. If they’ve done a great job or made a big sale, their biggest fear is, ‘How am I going to keep it up?’ Women tend to be afraid of their own power and how it impacts the quality of their relationships. The worry how they will keep their friends, with thoughts like, ‘If I’m too good no one will like me.”
Lisa: “Yes! I even wrote about that in my book, She’s Losing It! I was afraid that if I lost weight my friends wouldn’t want to hang out anymore or that other women would say mean things about me behind my back. And now, as a personal trainer, I hear from clients all the time that they don’t want to get ‘too in shape’ because it will upset their friends. Sometimes I hear clients say that when they do get in shape it won’t last because they are ‘a fat person hiding in a fit person’s body’. What would you say to people who feel this way?”
Maureen: “When you say that you’re a fat person living in a skinny person’s body you are completely discounting your own experience and not believing the data. Look, we all know that being in shape is more than just a weight. It requires consistent discipline. You have to choose to eat nutritious foods. You have to choose to workout out at 4 a.m. When you only look to something external, like your current weight, and discount all the work that goes into achieving that fitness, you do what I call ‘Compare and Despair’. We tend to use that weight to define our worth and it spirals down from there. Challenge your assumptions. ‘Is it true that I am only as good as the weight on the scale?’ Often we are sloppy with our discipline, so it’s no surprise our thinking is sloppy as well. We need discipline with our thinking. Take hold of your negative thought and question it. Just because it’s a thought in your head doesn’t mean it’s true. When I was hired by NASA I felt that I had to be charming, friendly and funny to cover up my stupidity. I thought, “I was just hired because I was a girl.’ I had to capture that thought and cross-examine it. Is that really the only reason I was hired, not that I had skills and could do a job well? Would any woman on the street be hired in this position?”
Lisa: “What are the steps that people can take to overcome these feelings of insecurity?”
Maureen: “Impostor Syndrome has a big element of shame. Remember that other people feel this same way too. In my book Pushing Your Envelope I give five strategies to match your confidence with your competence:
- Allow for Illumination
- Examine the Accusation
- Cultivate some Conversation
- Collect your Documentation
- Build a Strong Foundation
Lisa: “So illumination is identifying those negative thoughts?”
Maureen: “It’s not about identifying negative thoughts, but about learning more about the Impostor Syndrome: the symptoms, the likely victims, the effects, etc. This is so you can begin the process of defeating it. You can’t battle an enemy unless you identify and study the enemy.”
Lisa: “Gottcha. So examining the accusation is when you cross-examine it like you did above?
Lisa: “How do you cultivate conversation?”
Maureen: “Realize that you’re not the only one who feels this way. Teach something you know to someone. This confirms that you know what you’re talking about.”
Lisa: “What sort of documentation are you supposed to collect?”
Maureen: “These are your data and facts to support that you are the real deal. I kept every paystub I had from NASA to prove to myself that someone thought I was qualified enough to work there. If you win trophies, get a promotion, build up a strong resume, were mentioned in news articles or someone sent you a thank you note for sharing your story or helping them, keep those things and refer to them when you are feeling insecure.”
Lisa: “How do you build a strong foundation? What does that mean?”
Maureen: “When I challenge people to establish a foundation, I’m challenging them to know their core values and beliefs, their “WHY”, or their purpose for life, and the part of life that confirms their own worth. It’s how we deal with shame, which is at the core of Impostor Syndrome: We fear being revealed as sub-par or shameful. Being focused on a purpose and knowing their own intrinsic value (which often has a spiritual, or transcendental root) provides rock-solid stability when we question our worth. It can be the driving force to pushing us through a chink in the self-confidence armor. But since shame is a deeply personal and intimate experience, almost a spiritual experience, establishing a foundation to battle the shame must also be a spiritual experience. It’s not woo-woo, and it’s not necessarily religious. But it’s deeply personal and transformational. Definitely not a “rah-rah, you can do this” self-pep-talk thing.”
Lisa: “Once you learn these five steps are you cured of Impostor Syndrome? Is like one-and-done?”
Maureen: “It’s a forever thing, a daily thing.”
Lisa: “So it’s kind of like living a healthy lifestyle. You can’t just eat clean and then go back to McDonalds and expect to stay healthy. It’s like a garden, where you constantly have to weed out those negative thoughts?”
Maureen: “Exactly. If your ideal goal of success is almost impossible to succeed you will self-sabotage and talk yourself out of taking a job where you could be great or might turn down speaking on stage that could potentially help others. Talk yourself through it. Act decisively. Take that risk and take that opportunity.”
Lisa: “Thanks so much for speaking with me today!”
I hope you found this interview helpful, whether you apply it to fitness or your business life. For more information about Maureen Zappala, check out her website: www.maureenz.com
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Lisa Traugott is a personal trainer, Mom’s Choice Award writer, original cast member of FOX/John Cena’s “American Grit” and has a monthly fitness column on Bowflex.com. She won Ms. Costa Rica Sports Model 2017 and her transformation story was featured in Muscle & Fitness Hers, Good Day Austin, Great Day Houston and Austin Woman Magazine. She blogs at ShesLosingIt.com and is passionate about her clients.
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