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Your brain on Imposter Syndrome

My life changed when I gained an understanding of the brain and how we think. I consider imposter feelings to be a faulty survival mechanism and in this article I will take a deeper dive into what’s going on in our brain.

When I have an Imposter experience it feels like I am caught in a vortex of circular negative thinking.

I’m approached to deliver a talk, it’s a topic I am passionate about and have bags of experience in. I don’t think, I just say ‘yes!’ It doesn’t take long for those old familiar feelings of dread to surface. The fear of not getting it right, of looking stupid, of disappointing others and not meeting expectations.

Nagging self-doubt and sleepless nights follow.

I waste a lot of time. I worry. Catastrophizing and thoughts of ‘what if’ freezes me into non-action, well non productive action. I flip between over preparing [I’ve bought 3 new books on the subject, listened to 4 Ted talks and read a dozen articles]; distraction I binge watch Masterchef Australia; and procrastination,I leave creating my slides, speakers’ notes and delegate sheets, until the last minute.

I am tired and under resourceful. Now that I have reached p-day ‘presentation day’, I have painted a picture in my mind where the audience are going to be bored and a professor on the subject is going to stand up and tell everyone I am a fraud and know nothing. I feel a bit sick. I look at the audience, I feel awkward and wonder what I am doing here.

I get great feedback.

I think that was lucky. They are just being kind.

Let’s take a look inside my brain and see what’s going on

Think of Imposter Syndrome as an experience fuelled by an unhelpful ‘thinking strategy’.

Experience = activity +thinking

All experience is made up of an activity or situation plus our thinking about that activity or situation.

The activity is neutral, it is neither good nor bad. It is only when we start to add our thinking about it, that it becomes an experience.

While I am preparing for my presentation I am also thinking and having feeling about presenting which creates my experiences of presenting.

Imposter Syndrome is a collection of thoughts and feelings around the idea of ‘not being good enough’. The limiting belief that what I say won’t be good enough creates self-doubt and anxiety, which in turn triggers my habitual stress responses and unhelpful behaviours.

I believe what is at the heart of Imposter Syndrome is fear.

Our brains prime role is to keep us safe and it’s really good at it. We humans have evolved to be highly risk averse. Just think about that for a moment. Our ancestors that survived long enough to breed were the ones that didn’t get eaten, poisoned or abandoned. Caution and fear was a helpful survival instinct for us. However, in our modern world we can react to our day to day challenges with the same level of ferocity as if we were facing down a sabre tooth tiger.

In our brain are two almond shaped clusters of neurons called the amygdala. The role of the amygdala is to spot threats to our safety and they can do this faster than conscious thought. Once danger is detected the amygdala sparks off a chain reaction called the ‘amygdala hijack’, which if uninterrupted will prevent us from accessing our whole brain, particularly self-control and the parts that help us think creatively and problem solve. In this flipped state we will: drop up to 10 IQ points; lose our self control; and become emotional and reactive.

Despite our best intentions we will revert to habitual behaviours and instincts.

So, why does our brain do this?

To keep us safe.

Imposter experiences are fueled by anxiety. When we tell ourselves things like: ‘we’re not good enough’; ‘we don’t belong’; or ‘we don’t deserve peoples’ confidence in us; we are triggering alerts in our brain. To our brain, thinking is thinking. It doesn’t judge whether a thought is helpful or unhelpful or true or untrue — it just thinks. Our amygdala hears all of this negative chatter and it detects danger. It starts the threat response because it’s job is to keep us safe. Safe from exposure. Safe from ridicule. Safe from any harm.

Why would thinking about messing up a presentation signal danger?

Social pain registers in the same part of the brain as physical pain. We become threatened when our status, relationships, choices or certainty are threatened. In the past exclusion from the group could lead to being cast out, cutting us off from the shelter, food and support of the tribe, which in turn could lead to death. We are not solitary creatures, belonging is a part of our safety mechanism.

You can find out more about our brain an social pain in the Tedx talk below

When we believe we are not good enough, we don’t feel safe and use a collection of protective mechanisms to keep us safe.

When our amygdala triggers us into survival mode we typically respond to whatever is creating stress for us with survival strategies based around the primal stress responses of fight, flight, freeze or fawn.

Flight we want to run away from danger

Fight we face danger, head on, and battle our way out

Freeze we keep still and wait for the danger to pass

Fawn we peace make, placate, acquiesce and apologise our way to safety

The fears underpinning an imposter experience trigger the brain’s stress responses and in this flipped state we revert to habitual patterns of behaviour that our brain runs to help us survive whatever ordeal we perceive we are facing.

5 survival strategies triggered by Imposter Syndrome

When I am struggling with imposter feelings these are the 5 unhelpful behaviours I use as a part of my ‘survival’ reaction against fear.

  1. Procrastination: putting things off until the last minute
  2. Perfectionism: over preparing, fussing over little details that don’t really matter
  3. Escapism: distracting myself with TV or eating my body weight in portable snacks
  4. Catastrophizing: circular thinking around imagining the worst thing that can happen
  5. Deflection: letting any praise or positive feedback bounce off me

How does knowing about the brain help with Imposter Syndrome?

Your brain doesn’t care what it thinks, it just thinks. Your brain doesn’t filter, thoughts come and go, they can be helpful or unhelpful, they can be jabbering nonsense or profound, to your brain ‘thinking is thinking’.

Once you realise that you are not your thoughts and that some of your thoughts are triggered by a primitive protection mechanism, you can start to question your thoughts and not take them at face value. Knowing that you are not your thoughts, you can start to choose your thinking.

When you choose your thinking you can take back control of your life from those old habits that are no longer serving you.

When you choose your thinking you can do anything.

If you would like help with imposter syndrome I am running an event in Sheffield on Tuesday 19th November, you can find out more here

Shift your thinking, brain friendly ways to beat imposter syndrome

Amanda Cookson

Amanda Cookson


I'm an experienced Professional Coach working in the tech, digital and creative sector. I work with founders and senior leaders, combining understandings from neuroscience, psychology and Conversational Intelligence® to help people at all levels of the business flourish and reach their full potential. Prior to becoming a professional coach and establishing my own consultancy I was a part of the SMT for a global leader in adult learning, e-learning and e-assessment. I have expertise in business excellence; customer experience; organisational change; and teaching and learning. I have had a lifelong interest in personal development and firmly believe that we can make whatever we want happen. I received my first training in coaching in 2001 and from then on have honed my skills and embodied coaching into my approach to leadership. My Coaching Style is client lead. I use deep listening to create high levels of trust and psychological safety. I draw upon my extensive knowledge of coaching techniques and philosophies; alongside understandings from neuroscience to intuit the right approach for my clients to achieve the transformations they seek. I believe change comes from awareness, acceptance of responsibility, understanding our choices and taking decisive action. I support my clients across their personal change journey and help them to gain greater insights, perceive wider choices and develop effective strategies

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