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Dr Robin Buckley of Insights Group Psychological & Coaching Services: How To Thrive Despite Experiencing Impostor Syndrome

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Imposter Syndrome can be debilitating in many ways. It can immobilize individuals by preventing them from taking risks or trying new things in order to avoid being “found out” as an imposter. People dealing with Imposter Syndrome tend to downplay their abilities, inaccurately assess skills to manage a task, and have unrealistic assessments of their competence. Individuals might also take on too much to overcompensate for their imposter syndrome which may, in turn, result in strengthening the Imposter Syndrome when they can’t meet the goals. At significant levels, Imposter Syndrome can result in self-sabotaging behaviors as a subconscious level. Consistently experiencing the fear of being exposed as an imposter can, over time, create social or generalized anxiety disorder.

As a part of our series about how very accomplished leaders were able to succeed despite experiencing Imposter Syndrome, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Robin Buckley.

Dr. Robin Buckley has her PhD in clinical psychology. She is an author, public speaker, and certified professional coach who works with executive women and high-performance couples. Her proprietary coaching model uses a business framework and cognitive-behavioral strategies to support women and couples in creating and executing concrete, strategic plans for developing their careers and relationships.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?

I started my undergraduate degree at Marist College as a communications major with the thought of being a journalist. After enrolling in Introduction to Psychology as a required course, I fell in love with the topic, changed majors, and followed this passion into my graduate work. As I took more classes, particularly in grad school, I became fascinated by the concept that our brains control much of what we feel and do and by learning to manage our thoughts, we can get the results we want. My initial work was within traditional mental health settings like clinics and schools, but in that work the part I did not align with was the framework of mental health services from an intervention perspective. I wanted to support people in a preventative manner, help them avoid crisis instead of getting help when they were in crisis. I also found that my favorite clients to work with were individuals who were motivated to actively participate in their improvement. I was introduced to coaching and I began my training, seeing coaching as a way to blend my education and love of psychology within a preventative, self-directed model. As my focus evolved to working with women who wanted to identify their wants and strategically achieve them, I often heard that when there were challenges in their relationships, it affected their professional lives. The problem for these women was that traditional couples’ therapy wasn’t what they or their partners wanted. So I began developing a different approach to couples’ work, using a coaching methodology that used a proprietary, business framework. These high-powered couples were used to success and were comfortable talking in “business terms”, and I watched as this approach created success for them in their relationships just as it does in their professional lives.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Well, this isn’t a story about my work but it seems apropos in terms of the topic of our discussion, but in an opposite way. About a year after earning my doctorate, and when I was finally comfortable with the title, I booked a plane ticket to visit my family in Connecticut and decided to use “Dr.” as part of my reservation. I was finally getting proud of having my degree and remembered a professor once telling us that he used his title a lot when making dinner reservations to try and get better tables. So I thought I’d try out his approach. I was on a five hour flight from Arizona, and about an hour into the flight, a flight attendant approached where I was sitting in the back of coach. “Are you Dr. Buckley?”, she asked me. I responded yes and she asked if I would follow her to first-class. I followed her, thinking I was being moved up and happy I used my title on the reservation. When we got to first class, she explained there was a gentleman experiencing chest pain and wanted to know if there was anything I could do to help. I stared at her in shock, and stammered out that I wasn’t that kind of doctor but maybe if he was having a panic attack I could help. She gave me a slightly disdainful look and sent me back to coach. While I still chuckle about that incident, it did teach me to clearly understand the power of initials and only use them when appropriate and within my specific skill set. I think that’s why I’m particularly sensitive about the training and education of professionals.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

As I alluded to with the last question, my perspective is that the power of titles is something to respect. It took me a while to realize that not all people who call themselves “coaches” have training or education to support the work they do. I’ve always believed that if I was going to do something that impacts people, I wanted to have the knowledge and skills to give them the best experience, and best results. I spent years learning about the brain/behavior connection, as well as cognitive behavioral strategies to help people with cognitive and emotional blocks. During my graduate work, I also had hundreds of supervision hours as I applied my learning with patients and clients. When I decided to integrate coaching into my work, I didn’t want to assume I knew everything about coaching based upon my clinical psychology work. So, I went for further training through a program accredited by the International Coaching Federation. For me, having both a PhD in clinical psychology and certification as a professional coach allows me to have the training, education and experience to be an effective coach. And it’s amazing how often I hear the opposite perspective from people who call themselves coaches. Just recently, I was at a social event, and overheard a conversation between a business owner I truly respect who is transitioning into the field of coaching and a young woman who describes herself as a “self-love coach”. The younger woman was trying to convince the business owner that she didn’t need to get certified as a coach, that the certification doesn’t mean anything. The business owner, who is also a certified yoga instructor, gently disagreed and later said to me, “I wouldn’t hire a person to teach yoga who wasn’t certified because you can really hurt someone if you don’t know what you’re doing. I see it the same with coaching and I’m not willing to risk doing more damage to a client by not getting trained.” This perspective, as shared by the business woman, and my additional doctoral education, is what makes my coaching practice different.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My husband, but to be more specific, my best friend. Tom and I met in our graduate program and were friends for 20 years before getting married. He was always one of my “go to” people. I could call him, wherever I was in the country or in my life, and he would talk me off my proverbial ledge. I think I did the same for him but he was always my rock. Because of the friendship we established before being married, he knew all the ins and outs of me and, as cliché as it sounds, he often knows me better than I know myself…or at least before I’ve figured it out. But he gives me space to figure it out, often asking the questions or pointing out the evidence to help me get to my solutions. And that is the mantra he goes by that I’ve adopted — there is always a solution. Regardless of what life throws at us as a couple or each of us individually, we find a way to get over or around it. While I appreciate his love, it is his respect that I cherish. In moments when I might doubt myself, it is the knowledge that he absolutely believes I can accomplish what is in front of me that motivates me to get past the self-doubt and back to a place of confidence.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the experience of Impostor Syndrome. How would you define Impostor Syndrome? What do people with Imposter Syndrome feel?

Imposter Syndrome is a belief system which manifests as feelings of inferiority regarding a role or inability to successfully accomplish tasks. People experiencing Imposter Syndrome may also deal with self-doubt, disappointment in their performance and fear of failure. People talk about Imposter Syndrome in terms of these feelings, but it is important to note that the feelings are created from thoughts. By acknowledging this fact, a person can learn how to manage the thoughts. This is done in three steps. First, a person can learn how to recognize “red flags” which indicate the presence of problematic thoughts. Examples of these red flags might include discounting praise over new titles or accomplishments, not wanting to discuss details related to accomplishments, avoiding adopting aspects of the new title as part of identity. Second, they can learn to identify the irrational thoughts which are the primary source of the Imposter Syndrome. For many people, they skip this step and instead focus on the feelings associated with the Imposter Syndrome, and feelings can’t be changed without knowing what the thoughts are that are creating them. Finally, by applying specific strategies to control the thoughts, individuals can learn to reduce and eventually eliminate Imposter Syndrome as part of their life.

What are the downsides of Impostor Syndrome? How can it limit people?

Imposter Syndrome can be debilitating in many ways. It can immobilize individuals by preventing them from taking risks or trying new things in order to avoid being “found out” as an imposter. People dealing with Imposter Syndrome tend to downplay their abilities, inaccurately assess skills to manage a task, and have unrealistic assessments of their competence. Individuals might also take on too much to overcompensate for their imposter syndrome which may, in turn, result in strengthening the Imposter Syndrome when they can’t meet the goals. At significant levels, Imposter Syndrome can result in self-sabotaging behaviors as a subconscious level. Consistently experiencing the fear of being exposed as an imposter can, over time, create social or generalized anxiety disorder.

How can the experience of Impostor Syndrome impact how one treats others?

For some, Imposter Syndrome can create issues with intimacy as the person doesn’t want to reveal his or her limitations and “defects”. They might distance themselves from friends, family or colleagues to protect what they see as their secret. In other instances, the opposite could be true. A person with Imposter Syndrome might cling to a select few people within their lives due to their fear of being found out and then abandoned or rejected by those in their life. Overall, the anxiety created by Imposter Syndrome disrupts the individual’s interaction with others as it disrupts overall functioning and creates dysfunctional changes in behaviors: sleeping, eating, stress management, libido.

We would love to hear your story about your experience with Impostor Syndrome. Would you be able to share that with us?

One of my clearest examples was right after I completed my doctoral degree. I had been in the program for six years of my life. During those years, there was intense academic work, long hours of internships, thousands of pages of reading and writing papers, tests, and never-ending high expectations. After four years of course work, I took an additional two years to complete my dissertation and go through an emotionally challenging dissertation defense. I remember walking out of my successful defense and, initially, feeling nothing. My best friend, my sister, and my boss who was also one my committee members were there, congratulating me. Family members met up with us to celebrate after the defense. I expected to wake up the next morning finally feeling relief and happiness and pride, but that didn’t happen. I flew home and I remember returning to my job on the following Monday, with my colleagues excitedly referring to me as “Dr. Buckley” and gifting me with a nameplate engraved with my new title. And I hated it. I wanted everyone to stop calling me “Doctor”. I repeatedly corrected them with “Robin, is fine”. I felt like a fraud. Even though I was back to work, doing exactly what I’d been doing for two years prior to my defense, I suddenly doubted my skills and abilities. Instead of making me more confident, having my title and people using it so publicly made me cringe. After six years of work, it didn’t feel like my own and part of that was because in my world, I knew so many people who had doctoral degrees. These had been some of my closest friends for six years. It was also my boss who had her doctorate. It just didn’t seem like a big deal since, in my brain, “everyone” had a PhD.

Did you ever shake the feeling off? If yes, what have you done to mitigate it or eliminate it?

I did. It took about 6 months, but some of the exposure of people routinely using my title helped acclimate me to the sound of it. Meeting new people who only knew me with my doctorate also helped. Both my boss and my best friend, who is now my husband, regularly reminded me of the small percentage of individuals who actually accomplish this level of education. I’d love to say that I’m completely over Imposter Syndrome when it comes to my degree, but every so often, it pokes its way into my thinking. In those times, I rely on the strategies that I teach others and apply them to myself. And sometimes I sit down over a glass of wine and talk it out a bit with my husband since he is one of the few people who can get away with telling me that I’m being illogical.

In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone who is experiencing Impostor Syndrome can take to move forward despite feeling like an “Impostor”? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. The first step is to provide your brain with facts to replace the illogical thoughts creating the Imposter Syndrome. Without alternatives, your brain will continue to spin on the thoughts of not being worthy, skilled, or “good enough” for the situation. By providing concrete data, your brain has other logical thoughts to rely on. You can find this data in different places: your resume, recommendation letters, work evaluations. These are the hard facts about who you are, what you can do and what training or education you have which has supported you thus far in your life. I did some coaching work with a young actress who was in line for her biggest role thus far in her career. She had heard about some of the other, better known, candidates up for the same role and it had unnerved her. She kept spinning on the idea that she “didn’t have enough experience”, “needed more training”, “wasn’t as good as they are”. I asked her to write out all the acting jobs she had done. She came up with eight. Then I asked her to pull up her resume. When she counted all her work, the list was over 35 roles, some small, some bigger, starting when she was nine years old and spanning twenty years. The work included commercials, TV, theater and film. We then moved on to talk about her training. She had gone to a performing arts high school and during the summers, worked with acting coaches. She continued her education at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts. I had my client do some research on where some of the other candidates for the role went to school. A couple had similar backgrounds, but the rest did not. By this point, she was starting to shake off the imposter feelings, but I pushed her a bit farther, asking her to visit with her grandmother who I knew kept a scrapbook of every media story about my client. My client read through the news stories and reviews of her work. When I asked her if she saw a pattern in the feedback, she realized that with every role, the reviews got more and more favorable. When I asked her what she thought that meant, my client responded, “Seems like I’m on a pretty good trajectory because I keep getting better with every role.” Now her brain had data to challenge any illogical thoughts and replace those detrimental thoughts. A close colleague of mine, Dr. Tom Grebouski, says that true imposters never deal with Imposter Syndrome so when you’re experiencing these feelings, it’s a clear sign that you aren’t.
  2. The second step is actually related to the first step. For many people experiencing Imposter Syndrome, they believe that they have to develop new skills or approaches in order to be successful in the situation they are in. My question to them is “Why?” Why reinvent the wheel? If what you did worked in the past, do it again! I have clients identify successful situations from their pasts and analyze the skills, behaviors or personal attributes which made the situation successful. We look for commonalities among the situations to determine what were the variables repeatedly used among those experiences. If the same variables come up throughout various success stories, then logic would say those are variables that are habitual, effective strategies in the person’s life Therefore, that person can rely on them again because they already know what to do. No new learning is necessary to be successful because they’ve already been successful doing what they know and who they are. In the example given previously, my client did this regarding her past acting roles. She analyzed the reviews in her grandmother’s scrapbook, considered what feedback she had received from directors and coaches, and created a “greatest hits” list of her best acting skills. This list reminded her of what she already knew in regard to doing great work and what to tap into again in the upcoming auditions. I’ve seen a lot of advice about Imposter Syndrome which talks about acknowledging your feelings with a trusted friend, boss or colleague. This is not sound advice. These people won’t necessarily help alleviate the feeling of Imposter Syndrome beyond nice platitudes nor can they necessarily provide strategies to eliminate Imposter Syndrome. Most importantly, these people don’t hold to confidentiality and if there is a lingering concern about that, how can someone be completely honest about the feelings and thoughts related to Imposter Syndrome?
  3. If a person wants to acknowledge the feelings, and identify ways to manage these feelings, the third step is to work with a certified coach. This professional adheres to ethical standards of confidentiality so you know that what you share in your work with the coach stays between the two of you AND doesn’t impact your professional role. Within that safe space, a coach can help break down cognitive blocks in a way that friends can’t and you know that the information you discover or learn in the sessions is objective and without an agenda.
  4. Step four might be the hardest for individuals who deal with Imposter Syndrome — letting go of the identity of perfection. Perfectionism is the energy source for Imposter Syndrome. It creates the unrealistic standard to attain and then it becomes the critical voice for Imposter Syndrome. The worst part is that somehow in our society, “perfectionism” is often considered the ideal standard for high-achieving, successful individuals. It isn’t. Perfectionism actually hinders progress, limits creativity and problem solving, and ultimately, undermines goals. A female attorney hired me to do coaching because she had been turned down as partner for the third time. She was frustrated and angry and kept blaming it on the “boys’ club”, even though one of the recent promotions went to a female colleague who had been with the company less time than my client. As we progressed in her coaching work, her pattern of perfectionistic thinking became apparent. After each promotion was given to someone else, my client accelerated her behaviors towards perfection. “Obviously I’m not doing good enough work so I need to do more to make myself competitive for the next partnership.” When I asked her how she knew this, I remember she looked at me a bit derisively and said, “Well what the hell else could it be?” So I asked her to consider where she could get data to support this assumption. She grudgingly said that she could ask some of the people who made the decisions on promotions, something she had never done. On our next video call, my client had a different demeanor. Her usual frenetic energy was gone and she looked both exhausted and a bit in shock. When I asked about her sit-down with one of the established partners, she said that when she asked why she kept being overlooked, the response she got was that while her work was terrific, she seemed to be getting slower and slower in getting results accomplished and more recently, her attitude seemed to be one of desperation rather than confidence. “I’ve been working so hard get things done perfectly, to be who I thought they wanted, that I stopped enjoying my work and started doubting everything I did. And that’s exactly why they didn’t promote me.” Over the next year, she used coaching to reevaluate what she wanted in her career and how to pull back from the perfectionism that had been her motivator. When the next partnership came up five years later, she said I was one of the first people she texted with, “I got it!”
  5. The final step to managing the thoughts that create the feeling of Imposter Syndrome is to visualize your success and write it down. This is important for people who experience Imposter Syndrome, who often negate their successes. They find the small, negative aspects which might be present, and they fixate on those instead of the overarching success. My actress client did this when going through her grandmother’s scrapbook because while 90% of the reviews were terrific, there were some that weren’t. Those were the ones she ruminated over. The other thing that people with Imposter Syndrome do is to move their success bar. What I mean is that they’ll achieve the goal they were after and before they even celebrate their accomplishment, they’ve already moved on to the next goal, negating the positive work they achieved. To avoid this, I get clients to write down what successfully achieving their goal looks like using a SMART goal strategy. Their definition of a success is defined by the goal being specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. This then becomes the litmus test for whether a goal is a success. I ask clients whether what they achieved met the SMART definition they established when they started. If their answer is yes, there is less room for them to follow the “yes” up with a “but” or “almost”, or any other word which contributes to Imposter Syndrome.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I love this question and appreciate any time I get to talk about my thoughts on this. I actually attempted to start a movement called Kind Matters years ago. Even though my energies were redirected to other projects, the idea is still very important to me. Essentially, the premise of Kind Matters is that kindness can change the world, one small, kind act at a time. To be kind there doesn’t have to be a significant investment. You don’t have to love, like, understand or respect someone to just be kind to them. I’d want to incorporate a media station devoted to positive media, news stories of kind acts, movies and music of positivity, talk shows which discuss positive or kind ideas, similar to the “Some Good News” show John Krasinski did during the quarantine. This would help people prime their brains to see and do kind acts.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)

I’m going to cheat a bit and name two people but in terms of one couple and that would be Michelle and Barak Obama. I can’t imagine a better way to spend a meal than sitting with them and my husband, discussing ways to support the growth and empowerment of the younger generations in regard to national and global topics. I admire the former First Lady and President not only for their leadership, but the level of integrity and character they display as individuals, and the authenticity and dedication they display in regard to their relationship.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

https://www.instagram.com/drrobinbuckley/

https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-robin-buckley-8257277/

https://twitter.com/DrRobinInsights

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.

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