You’re about to step into the boardroom to present your case. After being recently promoted, this is your first time at the table. You try to rehearse your thoughts but they are overpowered by the daydream that is playing out in your mind in bright, vivid, living colour. In your mind, you walk into the room, open your mouth to speak and before you get to say a word, the room erupts in a cacophony of “who is SHE?” “She does not deserve to be here” “She’s just a kid” “What does she know” and the kicker, “She’s a fraud!”
We all know about Imposter Syndrome. Some of you may relate to that sense of self doubt, the feeling that you don’t really deserve to be successful, that fear that at any moment you’re going to be called out as a fraud. If Meryl Streep and Tina Fey report experiencing Imposter Syndrome, surely it’s understandable that we do. Right?
One of the things I’ve learned during my 20 years as a psychologist is that fantasies matter.
Self talk is important as it generates emotions and action. Values and beliefs are important as they directly guide decisions and choices in life. But your fantasies (both daytime and nocturnal) can fast-track your confidence and kick Imposter Syndrome to the curb – if you choose the right ones.
What the research says
Brain studies support the idea that our thoughts produce identical mental commands as our actions. Think about this: if studies show that you can increase your physical health by simply thinking about it, imagine what other domains in life you can impact by simply thinking in a positive way.
Perhaps the reason why Imposter Syndrome is so powerful and pervasive is because we keep reinforcing it with our unconscious storytelling. The research shows that when we mentally rehearse something, our brain can’t tell the difference between the rehearsal and the actual event.
One of the underpinning features of Imposter Syndrome is what I call the Exposure Fantasy. This is a day-dream where you are caught out, exposed, un-done or revealed for the fraud you think you are. Unfortunately, our brains are still caught in the Dark Ages when it comes to scanning our environment for positive and negative cues, and we naturally select the negative over positive most of the time. So an Exposure Fantasy (or any other negative, fear-based fantasy) is likely to feel like a rather natural place for your mind to land, especially when you’re anxious.
Be honest with yourself: Have you ever experienced an Exposure Fantasy?
When you have these types of fantasies, you are sharpening your focus on the negative things in your environment and increasing your anxiety levels that something bad might happen. This can send you into ‘fight or flight’ mode, thus decreasing your capacity to stay calm, think clearly or perform to your potential. Not surprisingly, this becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.
Let me share a (rather embarrassing) personal story with you. From as early as I can remember, I have been having Recognition Fantasies. Whether I was completing a school exam, a dance class, a meeting or just walking down the street, the same fantasy theme would play out in my mind:
I am discovered, recognised and celebrated for my amazing skills, attributes, talent (and sometimes, my awesome hair – hey, it’s my fantasy I can play it anyway I like). Sometimes I would be discovered by a Hollywood producer who would pluck me out of obscurity and into the movies; or I the dance teacher would move me from the back to the front of the class so everyone could follow me; or my boss would make an announcement to the whole company that I had done amazing work and would be promoted; or the gorgeous man in the bar would cross the room to buy ME a drink.
For many years, I was ashamed of this automatic thinking pattern. I felt that it was a sign that I was too confident or as we Aussies say “up myself”. But as I got older and started putting myself in more and more challenging life situations, I realised that my recognition fantasies were, in fact, my secret weapon. As I began studying and then practicing psychology, I realised that I was naturally engaging in positive visualisations and building my confidence through a fantasised version of mental rehearsal.
I believe my ability to put myself out there and back myself is a direct result of my fantasy world.
The biggest example in my life is my TV career. I remember watching TV as a kid and mentally projecting myself onto the screen – I’d send photos into TV stations, enter competitions and call in whenever there was a telethon. I saw myself as a TV person for 40 years before it came to fruition, and it continues to this day.
When it came to pitching myself to production companies and networks in recent years, it felt like a very natural, comfortable thing to do. Today, being in front of the camera has become my ‘happy place’.
Mastering your fantasies
So, how can you swap your Exposure Fantasies for Recognition Fantasies?
- Become Self Aware – the first step is learning to recognise WHEN your Exposure Fantasies are happening. They usually creep up on you unconsciously and before you know it, you’re in the middle of a full-blown self sabotaging disaster. It’s a good idea to start by checking in with yourself at regular intervals each day. Set reminders in your phone for every 3 hours with the pop up question “What am I fantasising about?”
- Keep a journal – jot down the content of your unhelpful fantasies. Over a period of 2 weeks you’ll likely start to see some patterns. This information will be very helpful in starting to understand what is driving your thoughts, feelings and actions.
- Design your Recognition Fantasy – spend some time thinking about your biggest goals and life ambitions. Choose one that is most important to you. In your journal, write about your fantasy of being recognised, discovered or achieving success in this area of your life. Write it like a story with as much colour and detail as you can muster. There are no rules or limits here – really go for it. Once your Recognition Fantasy has become clear, summaries it in one sentence. You can use this as an affirmation and keep it somewhere private, but easily accessible to you.
- Stop + Swap – after practicing for a while, you’ll start to recognise that you are having an Exposure Fantasy WHILE it’s happening. Some people find it helpful to use a little technique to signal to their brain that they mean business about stopping unhelpful thoughts: Saying out loud ‘stop’ or ‘no’ can be really powerful or try having a rubber band around your wrist and flicking it when the unhelpful thoughts emerge. This is where the gold is! Here is your opportunity to STOP the unhelpful fantasy and swap it for a more helpful fantasy. Refer to your fantasy affirmation and take a moment to play out the Recognition Fantasy in your mind.
I challenge you to give this a go and to keep in mind William James’ famous quote; “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another”. Remember, you have a choice and you can change your thoughts, your feelings and ultimately, your results.
Melanie Schilling is a Premium Member of Business Chicks, a psychologist and one of the relationship experts on Channel 9’s Married At First Sight. She is a regular contributor to all forms of Aussie media and is considered the go-to person for commentary on dating and relationships. Mel recently moved to Bali with her family where she runs her business remotely, offering video and online coaching as well as women-only retreats.
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