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You’re no doubt familiar with the concepts of impostor syndrome and burnout. Across many different professions, these concepts have become buzzwords for a reason—they resonate. What often doesn’t get discussed, however, is how these two phenomena are, in fact, linked.
Impostor syndrome, at its root, is a feeling of self-doubt coupled with a fear of being found out. It has been studied extensively since 1978, when the term was first coined, and research has consistently found that women—and particularly women of colour—tend to be the most intensely affected by it and for longer periods of time.,1,2,3
This doesn’t mean they’re the only people who experience it, of course. Impostor syndrome is essentially a form of negative self-talk, which most people have experienced in some form or another. This is why in my coaching work I choose to teach and unpack not just impostor syndrome, but also what I like to call the “High-Achiever-with-the-loud-inner-Critic” (or “HAC”) cycle.
I modified and adapted the HAC cycle from concepts described in the book The Impostor Cure by Dr. Jessamy Hibberd4 and from my own years of study on impostor syndrome and burnout among high achievers.
At its most basic, the HAC cycle starts out with a nondescript, seemingly harmless statement like, “I don’t know.” This statement can create discomfort in your body without you even realizing it, and this discomfort can ultimately activate your inner critic to start using destructive phrases like “I’m not good enough” or “Why did I think I could do that?” Left unchecked, your inner critic may play these demoralizing phrases on repeat.
The inner critic of a high achiever typically drives a desire for perfection, because when things (or people) are “perfect,” the high achiever believes they have finally succeeded. If you’re a high achiever, you know that the drive for perfection can have a ripple effect, creating a pattern of overwork that can cause you to spread yourself too thin, say “yes” to too many projects, sacrifice sleep, and/or work at a pace that’s unsustainable.
What’s more—even when high achievers with loud inner critics are successful, the feeling of success doesn’t last long. These individuals typically move quickly to the next goal or item on their checklist, and they often discount what they’ve just accomplished. Does this resonate with you? Or maybe you’ve seen this behaviour in others, whether at work or at home? This tendency to underestimate or undervalue achievements completes the HAC cycle and closes the circle of negative self-talk.
Glossing over successes also makes it easy for any high achiever to use the same nondescript language to start the HAC cycle the next time a challenge or transitional period presents itself. Every rotation you take around the HAC cycle causes psychological distress, bringing you closer and closer to burnout.
Many people know what burnout feels like, but what is it, really? Researchers have separated burnout into three categories: 1) exhaustion, which may be emotional, mental, physical, and/or spiritual; 2) mental distance, which includes cynicism, irritability, and detachment; and 3) the feeling of a lack of personal accomplishment.5,6
This third category is where impostor syndrome can insert itself. If you consistently tear yourself down, diminish your confidence, or convince yourself that you need to keep proving your worth, you can stay stuck repeating the same patterns over and over again.
Breaking these patterns requires introspection, because if you don’t look for answers inside yourself, you’ll likely place the blame solely on external factors, like your job, your work culture, or even your family. This was a piece of “the Great Resignation” puzzle during the pandemic—COVID-19 gave individuals more opportunity to reflect, and many switched jobs in the hopes of finding something better.7 Here’s the thing: Job jumping won’t fix the problem if the problem is internal to you. The honeymoon phase will pass, and old patterns will re-emerge. And without introspection, the high achiever might again assume the environment is to blame and set about finding yet another new job.
Since “introspection” is a vague and broad term, I’ve created six checkpoints to help make it more tangible. These checkpoints are designed to help you “HACk” the HAC cycle:
- Do a body check – A study done in 2014 that asked participants to “body map” their emotions confirmed the correlation between emotional feelings and bodily sensations.8 For example, emotions like anxiousness caused parts of the body to become activated, similar to “butterflies in the stomach” or a hot sweat, while emotions like sadness caused parts of the body to lose sensation, more so in the legs and arms. Doing a body check is a way to identify when physical discomfort is being caused by uncomfortable emotions—once you recognize the correlation, you can address the root cause of your distress. Doing regular body checks will also help you recognize that these kinds of physical sensations—although uncomfortable—aren’t actually going to hurt you.
- Reframe your inner critic – Just because your inner critic says something doesn’t make it accurate or true. Start to activate your inner cheerleader by reframing what your inner critic is saying. For example, reframe “I learn more slowly than the rest of my new team at work” to something like “I can take my time and learn my new role at the pace that works for me until I become more proficient.” These reframes are longer because your inner critic will always seek proof that you are capable before it backs off.
- Reset your expectations – This is hard for the high-achieving perfectionist, but it’s so important. You can still set big, lofty personal and professional goals, but you have to remind yourself of all the small steps in between, even if some of those steps involve failure. If you pitch an idea that doesn’t go over well, that doesn’t mean you should never pitch an idea again or that all of your ideas are bad—it just means that this one wasn’t the one. Failure shouldn’t change your overall goal. Give yourself permission to grow and learn outside of the perfection box.
- Block out time – This helps prevent burnout. There will always be something important to do, but you should be the one who determines what your priorities are and how you truly want to spend your time. It’s easy to say that everything is urgent, but that really isn’t true, and the moment you realize this, you give yourself time back. When you do decide what is urgent, try dedicating a shorter amount of time to it than you would normally. If you’re a perfectionist, you may spend more time on priorities than necessary in your quest to get things “just right,” so experiment with different lengths of time for different tasks. Schedule this time into your calendar and stick to it. This even includes blocking out time to prioritize your health, your sleep, your eating habits, and your time with loved ones. Remember, time is finite—once gone, you can’t get it back so choose wisely where you want to spend that time.
- Acknowledge your successes – This one is a favourite of mine. It helps you build your confidence by acknowledging your successes, regardless of whether they’re big accomplishments or small ones. Start talking about the jobs or projects you’ve completed and are proud of—it isn’t bragging, it’s reminding yourself what you’re capable of. You can even create an alternative resumé and add to it over time. You can then use this resumé to provide the evidence needed when reframing your inner critic (see checkpoint #2).
- Prep for the initial thought – This is similar to reframing but is the hardest of all the checkpoints. Sometimes even after all the work we do to unravel negative patterns, we can’t always prevent that initial bit of intrusive self-doubt or self-criticism from occurring. However, we can choose how we react to it. We can also prepare for it by knowing our triggers. For example, if you know that an email from someone often activates negative self-talk, prepare yourself for an intrusive thought before you even open the email. Give yourself permission to see the thought for what it is—part of the HAC cycle—rather than accepting it as truth. Don’t allow this kind of thinking, or any accompanying bodily sensations of discomfort, to silence your inner cheerleader.
Once you’ve done your introspection, you may still feel burned out. That’s not unusual—after the inner work comes the outer work. Now is the time to assess your environment to determine what’s no longer working. There are different types of burnout, including workplace burnout, parental burnout, relationship burnout, and caregiver burnout. Assess all the areas of your life and determine if something needs to change, and then recognize that change will take time and won’t happen overnight. In fact, in the case of more severe burnout, it can take two to four years to fully recover,9 but that’s okay—the day you decide to start your introspection is the day you start to change what’s no longer working for you.
Jessica Metcalfe is an award-winning international speaker, best-selling author, and an expert on self-intelligence. Her practice as a strategic leadership and workplace culture consultant is informed by her work with other high-achievers and businesses, her own mental health journey, her background as a dental oncologist, and her experience as an education director for a world-renowned cancer centre. For more from Jessica, see “The Question Women CPAs Should Stop Asking in 2023,” published in the CPABC Newsroom on January 11, 2023.
This article was originally published in the March/April 2023 issue of CPABC in Focus.
2 Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander, “The Impostor Phenomenon,” International Journal of Behavioral Science, 2011, vol. 6, no. 1 (73-92).
4 Dr. Jessamy Hibberd, The Imposter Cure: How to Stop Feeling Like a Fraud and Escape the Mind-Trap of Imposter Syndrome, Aster: 2019.
5 Christina Maslach, Burnout: The Cost of Caring, Prentice-Hall Press: New York: 1982.
8 Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Ritta Hari, and Jari K. Hietanen, “Bodily Maps of Emotions,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, January 14, 2014, vol. 111, no. 2 (646-651).