© 2019  Ashlea McKay

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The mean girl within: my experiences with imposter syndrome

April 17, 2017




About a year ago, I attended a leadership focused webinar during my lunch break.


I connected myself into it on a whim after receiving a message from a colleague. I don’t remember who ran it or where it was from but the one thing that stuck was the discussion around living with our ‘inner mean girl’.


Most people have one and they allow us to think it’s ok to tell ourselves things that we wouldn’t dream of telling our closest friends and family. From being a little too hard on ourselves when we make a simple mistake all the way to full blown imposter syndrome, our inner mean girls can wreak some serious havoc. I can tell you that because I live with the more extreme end of that scale.


I want to be clear that not all inner mean girls are female or even have a gender at all. I feel that mine is female and that’s how I’m going to refer to her for the rest of this piece.


There’s a lot of stuff out there at the moment on imposter syndrome — I’ve even contributed to some of the thought leadership on the subject as an interviewee. I’ve decided it’s time to add my voice directly into the mix and tell you about my constant inner raging battle with imposter syndrome and what that experience has taught me.


For those who don’t know, imposter syndrome is the belief that you are a fraud and that you don’t belong. It’s accompanied by the constant fear that you will be exposed as an imposter so you overcompensate by working harder and doing more. Trouble is, every achievement feels like a fluke and every failure — no matter how big or small- serves as confirmation that you are in fact an idiot who doesn’t belong. When you’re in your inner mean girl’s grip — there is no way out. You cannot win.

I’ve felt this way for as long as I can remember.


To my peers and on paper I might seem accomplished and quite successful. I’ve been told that several times. I was first published at the age of 14. I have a high IQ and I did very well through all levels of my education. I’m good at music, art and I have knack for language learning. I run my own business and I have a job. I’m a thought leader and an expert in my field. I’m a keynote speaker and I hold a National level volunteer position at my Firm in the Diversity & Inclusion space. I could keep going but I think you get the idea.


Rationally speaking, you would think that I would be on top of the world right now but I’m not. Far from it. Everything I do is plagued by imposter syndrome. Some days I manage to keep the inner mean girl quiet while some days I am completely paralysed by her. It comes and goes in waves.


I feel like maybe I should give her a name but that would give her even more power so, inner mean girl it is.


Every time I achieve something significant, a crash follows within a week. I call it a crash because it is characterised by an extreme high followed by an equally extreme low and the switch happens in seconds. Like a sugar crash. Sometimes the whole ride happens in a matter of minutes.


A few years ago, after giving a talk at a conference, I experienced one of these expedited crashes. When I came off stage that day, four people on this planet can tell you that I completely fell apart. I hid in the bathroom in tears while I sent off apologetic text messages to conference organisers for my ‘terrible’ performance onstage. My inner mean girl was brutal. You’ve let everyone down. This is it — your UX career is finished. Better go find a new job! You don’t belong up there onstage!


When I emerged from the bathroom, I snuck downstairs to the building’s foyer to plot my escape. I was going to go back to the hotel to hide under the doona in shame.


A friend found me and gently talked me into returning to the conference where the closing keynote was about to get underway. When I did, I was quickly plucked out of the crowd by two conference organisers who also happen to be dear friends of mine. They asked me what was going on and they both looked at me in disbelief when I apologised profusely through my tears for my ‘shocking’ presentation.


Some creative use of the F word and a few hugs later, I realised how wrong my inner mean girl had been. They loved it and more importantly so did the conference attendees. I couldn’t walk two metres at the after party with being approached with congratulations by another speaker or an attendee.


I’ve since gone on to give several talks both at home and overseas and every time I feel even a twinge of imposter related fear before or after a talk, I remember that day. I remember the look on their faces. I remember the after party and I remind myself that I’m OK. More than OK.


More recently, the hold of my inner mean girl sabotaged a project of mine from before it had even gotten off the ground. Multiple mistakes were made, people were left feeling upset, goals weren’t achieved and I was devastated. The whole thing spiralled wildly out of control. Don’t get me wrong, I accept full responsibility for what happened and I’m not making excuses or shifting the blame onto my inner mean girl- she is me after all. She’s the worst part of me. 


From the moment the project landed on my desk, she was there niggling away at me and fuelling my existing bad habit of putting too much pressure on myself. This has to be the best project you’ve ever done. It has to be perfect. You’re finished if you don’t do an amazing job on this one.


There were things on this project that I came across that I had never done before. Great! Learning opportunity right? Nope. Every single mistake was met with inner mean girl scorn. Oh you should have been able to work that one out! You’re not qualified to do this job. You must have tricked them at the interview. You are so stupid!


The errors started piling up and the spiralling spun deeper and faster until I made the mother of all mistakes. I misunderstood my purpose on the project. I was completely shattered when I discovered the mistake. My mind raced through all the implications. I’ve let down my team, my client, the client team, the project, my profession. This thought process went on and on until eventually my inner mean girl suggested rather strongly that I could lose my job over the mistake. You can’t even perform the most basic tasks associated with your job- why shouldn’t they fire you?! 


Instead of focusing on how to solve the problem, I was paralysed with fear for my financial security and wellbeing. I genuinely believed that I deserved to lose my job over what I did. Conversations that should have revolved around solving the problem and carving a way forward, were then focused entirely on job security.


Obviously, my inner mean girl’s perspective was a complete work of fiction and the problem was solved quickly. But the damage was done. Relationships were fractured and I was a wreck. I slipped further into her grip and couldn’t leave the house without second guessing myself. I cried for days and any shred of confidence I’d had was gone.


With the help of some very understanding people, I slowly built myself back up. I saw my therapist on a weekly basis and had daily 10 minute check ins with my team’s amazing HR manager. I don’t know what I would have done without her.

My next project went really well but it did take me awhile to believe that I had actually done a good job. My inner mean girl had a field day. That was far too easy. You’ve been wrong before about your purpose and you’ve probably missed it again. You were lucky you passed this time.


That’s just two stories of mine. I could go on for days but what really matters is, how do we silence our inner mean girls for once and for all?


I’m not the only person living like this and it has to stop. It’s abuse. We wouldn’t treat anyone else like this so why do we do it to ourselves?


The fact that I’m a late diagnosed Autistic definitely impacts on my ability to cope with her but I know imposter syndrome transcends neurology. It can happen to anyone.


She (or he or they) is really just a monster born from the deepest pit of our inner fears, so it stands to reason they can be vanquished or at the very least toned down to a breath of a whisper.


I’m still looking for the mute button, but here’s what I’ve learned so far:


Practice excellent self care

If I’m not well rested and haven’t eaten right, I can’t focus and I definitely can’t keep her quiet either. I used to think that looking after myself was selfish and would take too much time away from working or doing the things I love but that’s not true. Self care includes doing things that make you happy. I love colouring in and I was doing it long before the adult colouring craze hit- I spent my entire undergraduate degree doing it! I set aside time every day for it and I’ve started to carry colouring pencils and a small colouring book with me everywhere I go. Ten minutes is all I need to feel like myself again.


Use diaphragmatic breathing techniques

This is really good for dealing with stress in general but also helps me to shhh my inner mean girl because it clears my head. All you have to do is breathe in deeply (from your diaphragm) and feel yourself fill up with air and slowly release it. I like to breathe in for a count of 3 and breathe out slowly over a count of 5 or 6. It takes practice but I now do it without even thinking. It sounds like I’m sighing a lot, but it really helps me.


Recognise and call out unhelpful thoughts

This is something my therapist taught me. When the inner mean girl is sharing her 2 cents, it can help to stop and consider just how helpful that thought is right now. I ask myself, is this thought really going to help me achieve my goal? No? Well then zip it. Listening to her telling me I’m stupid or a failure isn’t going to aid task completion or problem solving in the moment. It’s not helpful. I push the unhelpful thoughts to the side and keeping thinking things through until I find a thought that is constructive. I need more practice at this one but so far so good.


Get a second opinion

My inner mean girl is almost always wrong and if she’s even a fraction on the mark, she blows it so far out of proportion that any sense of perspective is lost. A great piece of advice I’ve received is to talk things out with the people around you. Tell someone you trust how you are feeling and ask them what they think. Chances are it will be a much more constructive and well rounded perspective that will enable you to asses the situation logically.


Do the Wonder Woman pose in the bathroom

Whenever I’m feeling particularly weighed down by my inner mean girl, I always revisit Amy Cuddy’s incredible TED Talk on how adopting a power pose for two minutes can make you seem more confident. It really does work. I especially like the Wonder Woman pose of hands on hips, feet shoulder width apart and head held high. Two minutes of that has been shown to lower cortisol and raise testosterone. It makes me feel calmer and more capable of thinking clearly and other people notice too.


From time to time I do still feel like a fraud who doesn’t belong, but each day my inner mean girl’s voice gets a little softer and she pipes up a little less. One day I hope to be writing a follow up piece sharing how I got rid of her for good.






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