Impostor Syndrome and Other Fear-Based Hindrances to Performance

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Impostor syndrome and other fear-based hindrances are common impediments to expressing our potential.  How can we combat these fears?

Many of us experience the effects of fear that impact our ability to express our fullest potential.  Fear of physical illness, injury, and/or survival are not considered within this context.  Rather what will be discussed is non-physical impact of fear that limits our ability to pursue our best performance.  Most commonly this takes the form of impostor syndrome; fear of other people’s opinions, judgements, or critiques; or fear of missing out on something.  At one point or another, we have all likely experienced one or multiple of these fears in at least one, if not several, of the roles and domains of our life.

Impostor syndrome is typically considered to be the fear that at some point, others will discover that we are not as competent or capable as we appear to be.  As a result, we may compensate by limiting the expression of our fullest abilities, capabilities, thoughts, and/or feelings.  Fear of the opinions, judgements, and critiques of others is the worry that if we were to fully express ourselves in our chosen modality, that there will be overwhelming judgement or criticism from observers.  As with impostor syndrome, a common compensation to this is self-limitation.  Fear of missing out on something is the concern that if we don’t participate in all activities or accept all assignments that we will miss an important or significant opportunity.  This may lead to taking on too many tasks which can result in overwhelm.

The common element to each of these hindrances is fear.  When considered from an evolutionary perspective, these fears are likely the manifestation of our historic need to be a part of a larger group or tribe for survival.  As a result, our brain may have developed networks to detect any potential threats that may lead to being excluded from the group.  In historic times, such exclusion would have led to near certain death due to attack from predators.  In modern times, our physical survival is much less dependent, if at all, on being a part of a group.  The evolution of our neural pathways, however, occurs much more slowly than does social transformation.  As such the fear- based hindrances discussed above can be considered the result of adaptive processes of the brain and neural pathways occurring in particular contexts in which they are no longer needed.  While this may have been a necessary function in the distant past, it is not necessary for survival in current times, however our brain is not able to distinguish between cues of threat that are historic in origin.

It is informative to consider whether these fear-based hindrances are constantly present in our life or if they appear, or worsen, in certain situations.  Most of us do not always experience these hindrances.  While they may arise at times, or become more noticeable or severe at other times, they are usually not constantly present or impacting our daily function.  What explains this observation?

From a polyvagal informed perspective, the intermittent nature of the presence or severity of these hindrances could be understood on the basis of our physiological state at the time of the situation.  For example, cues of threat or risk leading to fear are more likely to be detected and impact us to a greater degree if we are in a sympathetic or dorsal vagal state.  This is consistent with the concept of physiological state as an intervening variable (described in a prior article).  Given this understanding, we can surmise that these fear-based hindrances to performance are not a real and actual threat to our safety and survival, otherwise they would likely result in the experience of fear in all circumstances and at all times.  Rather the presence of these hindrances can be considered to be a reflection of and dependent upon our physiological state.

The most commonly encountered methods to address these fear-based hindrances are variations on emphasizing our cognition.  The common concept is to change our thinking and mindset to try and reduce the presence and impact of these hindrances.  These strategies can be effective, particularly when we are in a grounded, ventral vagal state.  Such a state is typically amenable to changing our thinking and considering different perspectives.  Many of us have likely had the experience of finding these hindrances less threatening when we are in a grounded state or are not in high consequence environments.

What happens when we encounter high stakes situations or are feeling more mobilized, towards a sympathetic state or shutting down within a dorsal vagal state?  Usually it becomes much more difficult, and perhaps impossible, to effectively utilize these cognitive strategies to manage the fear-based hindrances.  Why is it that a strategy that was seemingly effective when we were in a grounded state loses its effectiveness in a different state?  As described above, the explanation may lie in the principle of physiological state as an intervening variable.  When we descend the performance hierarchy towards a sympathetic or dorsal vagal state, we tend to express more negativity bias in our thinking and have more difficulty exploring other perspectives and mindsets.  In essence, our body and nervous system impacts the more rational aspects of our brain, effectively taking it ‘off line’.  This likely leads to less effectiveness in the cognitive strategies, thereby allowing the fear-based hindrances to manifest further.  In essence, our thinking and mind cannot overcome what our body is experiencing through the nervous system.

If the above description is accurate, polyvagal theory and its principles and frameworks should provide an effective approach to reducing the presence and impact of these fear-based hindrances to performance.  Following the tenets of the polyvagal informed perspective, we begin by identifying and acknowledging without criticism or judgment our physiological state.  We then utilize previously developed skills and strategies to shift our state towards a preferred state.  By following these two steps, we should be able to reduce the manifestations of these fear-based hindrances.  This will concurrently allow the cognitively based strategies to be more effective as the body and mind will be in more similar physiological states.  It is important that the skills and strategies of identifying and shifting our physiological state be developed in advance of high consequence situations so that we have an established proficiency with the skills.  They will not be maximally effective without advanced training.

The polyvagal-informed perspective of The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete provides an optimal strategy to combat the impact of impostor syndrome; fear of the opinions, criticisms, and judgments of others; and fear of missing out.  Reducing the manifestation of these hindrances allows us to better express our fullest potential and promote our health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.

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