In “What’s the Word On…”, a series about language, Paul Brollo shares his views on how words shape the way we perceive ourselves and affect our personal and professional development.
The words you use are important.
Words are powerful. They enable you to express what you mean in very precise ways. But they don’t only enable you to say what you want to say. They also define what you believe you can say. And if you don’t pay attention to how your words are defining your meaning, then you might not notice that those words are also defining what you can imagine.
You use nouns to identify objects and verbs to identify actions. Both these words involve a process of naming. You can become so preoccupied with accurately naming what you’re experiencing that you might not notice that you’re turning actions into concepts, and so objectifying your experiences.
Your words can limit how you think, and therefore, act.
Take the phrase “Imposter Syndrome”. These days we hear this phrase a lot. People seem quite satisfied with how that phrase expresses what they mean. They never seem to consider how that phrase might be defining how they think about themselves, and therefore, limiting what is possible in their self-perception.
Let’s look at the phrase itself. The word “syndrome” means “running together”, so a clinical syndrome is a group of symptoms which work together to reveal an underlying condition. And an “imposter” is a person pretending to be someone else, so “Imposter Syndrome” is a clinical condition where people believe they are frauds and so they live in fear of been exposed.
Diagnosing yourself can affect your decisions for the worse.
We’ve got into the habit of diagnosing ourselves. We say things like “I’m a little bit OCD” or “I’m just being narcissistic”. Being honest about our limitations is good but diagnosing ourselves with a condition is risky. We call this habit “pathologising” ourselves – in other words, making ourselves sick when we might not be. This habit is a very dangerous one which has become far too normal.
Pathologising yourself can lead you to believing that something’s wrong with you. It can lower your self-esteem, which in turn can lower your confidence, which in turn can affect your decision-making for the worse.
You should focus instead on expressing how you feel.
Follow this simple guideline: stop diagnosing yourself unless you are qualified to do so. And unless a medically-qualified professional has diagnosed you with a clinical condition, don’t refer to yourself as having one.
Choose your words more carefully when you’re trying to express what you think is happening inside of you. If you find yourself wanting to say that you have a condition, ask yourself: “How do I know? Those are four very simple – and very powerful – words: How do you know? If the answer is “I feel that way”, then choose those words instead.
Then ask yourself what you want to do about how you feel.
Next time a trainer asks you what you want from a course, say: “I feel like an imposter and I want to do something about that.” That trainer will ask you to tell him or her why, and you’ll say something like: “I don’t know how to do this job in the way I think my organisation expects.”
In a few short steps, you could realise that you don’t have a clinical condition. You have a gap in your professional skills-set and you’ve done the right thing to fill that gap. You’ve signed up for some learning and development.
Talking about your feelings could stop you from objectifying yourself.
Learning not to objectify or pathologise yourself could be good for your well-being. Learning how to talk about yourself only in terms of what you’re doing – including what you’re feeling – could revolutionise your life.
The values we aspire to are not objects out there in the world that we have to find. Justice, equality, fairness, forgiveness, love and peace are actions that we choose to take every single day of our lives. These values are things that we should do; not things that we have to find or create.
Caring about yourself is something you demonstrate every single day.
Stop pathologising yourself and start understanding that feeling out of your depth in a new role is normal. Start talking about yourself in terms of what you feel and notice how much more powerful you start to become.
Everyone has had to learn how to do what they can do. You shouldn’t expect your journey to be any different. Be kind to yourself while you’re learning to meet the new challenges in your life. It’s a small action you can take every day that could lead to bigger changes for you further down the line.
About the author – Paul Brollo is a Trainer, Facilitator and Coach and works with Centre 4 Learning. Paul specialises in Individual Differences at work.