Debra Allcock Tyler: We have to stop pathologising normal negative emotions

Feelings of self-doubt, embarrassment or so-called 'imposter syndrome' can be incredibly good for you

If there is one phrase that makes me grind my teeth and want to stamp my feet in frustration it’s “imposter syndrome”.

I’d honestly like to find the person who first invented that ridiculous, self-indulgent claptrap and point them in the direction of people with genuine, crippling anxiety issues.  

Do I sound judgy and unsympathetic? Well, let me explain.

Every single human being on the planet (with the obvious exception of sociopaths and Donald Trump) lives every day with levels of self-doubt.

If you march into every meeting, social setting, or encounter with other humans convinced that you’re better, more competent or cleverer than everyone else – then you have a problem.  

If you, on the other hand, often feel out of your depth, not informed enough, not skilled enough, not popular enough, not erudite enough, not charismatic enough, then helloooo! – welcome to the world of the normal human being.   

We have to stop pathologising normal human negative emotions.

Feeling out of your depth is good for you. It drives positive behaviours such as working hard to make sure you are informed; practicing your presentations; preparing for your meetings; paying attention to how your communications are landing. 

I can’t help but wonder if this is part of the modern narrative that we must all feel happy, positive, fulfilled, energised, engaged – all the time.

But negative feelings can be so incredibly good for us. Of course, for some people they can overwhelm us and we need to get help or take medication (that includes me), but we need to separate genuine pathologies from normal human emotions that help us to survive and navigate life.

Guilt helps us to learn what behaviours we can live with and reminds us of who we want to be.

Shame helps us to not repeat poor behaviour. Embarrassment helps us to understand what is acceptable in society and how to get on with other human beings.

Nerves remind us to prepare. Fear reminds us to be alert. Anger drives us to action and resolution. Feeling dissatisfied or unfulfilled makes us examine our choices and consider our future. These are good things. 

I regularly feel completely outclassed by colleagues and peers. I feel sick with nerves every time I have to give a speech.

I really dread social gatherings because I think I come across as a know-it-all and unlikeable. I’m really good at nodding wisely when in reality I have absolutely no idea what folk are talking about. I’m terrified of being caught out. 

Recognise any of that? Most of you probably do.

I honestly think that half the time people end up castigating themselves for experiencing these feelings because the common narrative is that they are bad and should be suppressed.

Listen, if your feelings of self-doubt are ruining your life then of course you need to get proper help.  

But for the rest of us - we have enough stuff to deal with without turning normal, healthy, self-doubt into a bloody syndrome.

Celebrate those feelings - they will help you shine!

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change 

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