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Why do Women experience Imposter Syndrome differently to Men

Women appear to be, two to three times, more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in comparison with men. In her article “Sex and gender differences in post-traumatic stress disorder: an update” Miranda Olff suggests that both psychosocial and biological explanations (e.g. Oxytocin related) we need to take into account when dealing with trauma.

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What is important to remember is that behavioural problems result because negative experiences leave a traumatic imprint if they are not properley resolved. In her book Dr Valerie Young states that 70% of women will suffer at some point with Imposter Syndrome during their career and although, I would agree that a high percentage for many women this may be more a momentary mindset thing. However, Chronic Imposter Syndrome, which I experienced is very characteristic of someone that has unresolved childhood trauma. The imprint left here is a deep feeling that literally is stronger than the mind and it paralyses a person. So, typically women (and men) can’t understand why when they have tried everything they still cannot resolve the feeling.

I truly believe that having an understanding of what sits at the heart of chronic Imposter Syndrome, biology, removes the stigma of having the condition. As a integrated therapist, I certainly did a lot of mindset work, but I still had those feelings of dread that crippled me. It was only when I took actions to actively down-regulate my sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the system responsible for the fright, flight and freeze mechanism in my body and up-regulate my parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which specifically focuses on helping the body to rest, repair and reproduce, that things got better.

An Explanation: Polyvagal Theory and the Vagus Nerve

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Most of us have heard of the fright, flight and freeze states. Briefly, these are instinctive behaviours that all animals and humans experience. Most of the time they kick in to deal with the imminent danger and once the danger is gone the body self-regulates back to normal. In general, warm-blooded creatures will either flee or fight after the initial freeze. But there are certain animals that use the freeze to bring down their body temperature, and avoid being eaten by heat seeking predators or they play dead. In the latter, the predator sees the “dead” animal and leave it because eating rotting flesh isn’t good for them, so they leave the “dead animal” alone. 

Humans also have these instinctive survival strategies but we take it one step further; because have a thinking-reasoning brain we make meaning of the events. This gets compounded living in a social environment with rules, where we choose adaptive behaviours in line with those instincts. So if we are scared we might run away. The problem happens when we don’t do a course correct and update that part of us and over time and those adaptive behaviours then becomes our norm.

Stephen Porges noticed that the PNS which, governed by the Vagus nerve, wasn’t as straight forward as we all thought. It appeared that under certain conditions when the Vagus nerve was activated it was positively detrimental to our thriving. In his ‘Polyvagal Theory’ he suggests there are two evolutions of the Vagus nerve. The first evolution of the Vagus nerve is the freeze – pounce mechanism and here, the nerve pathways emanate from the reptilian or oldest part of the brain and that the area activates is pretty much everything below the diaphragm. If you are a Chakra person, you would know that this area includes the root, sacral and solar plexus. The second evolution later co-opted the Vagus Nerve and its activation encourages the individual towards engagement of self-soothing behaviours i.e. those associated with caring such as, so soft vocalisation, cuddling, kissing, licking, touching, just about anything that promotes contact and safety. These nerves emanate higher up in the brain and strongly influence the areas from the diaphragm upwards. Chakras associated with this are heart, throat, third eye and crown. I like to think of this as the Oxytocin stimulator.        

So why is this important:

First, we need to understand how the reptilian response of freeze – pounce would affect mammals (us). In this response the animal will either submerge below water or stay absolutely still to minimise blood flow and then it pounces. This is a very good strategy for these animals and they have adapted well for the intense drop in temperature. But mammals and humans don’t respond well to this shut-down response, especially when it happens long-term. The consequences can be devastating as persistent lack of oxygen and food doesn’t bode well for health!

Certainly, from my own experience having successfully treated many women with conditions such as infertility, post-partum depression, anxiety, stress and chronic illnesses; IBS, Fibromyalgia, ME, MS, etc. I believe that this shut-down mechanism is responsible and it is by actively targeting this that women heal.

Second, from the moment that our hormones kick in at the age of 8 weeks, our body and brain is adapting. Everything is priming for reproduction. Contrary to what people think different levels of testosterone and oestrogen do affect how our brain connects us up and this shows up in gender typical behaviours. We know that within 48 hours of birth a baby girl will favour looking at faces whereas boys will tend to focus on the shapes and moving objects. These results are validated by monkey studies which suggest that at least some gender typical behaviours are innate.

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Hormones also affect how we physical sensations. Here is an MRI scan of the limbic region in the brain. This area thought to be responsible for emotional salience responses. What we know is this area is dense in oestrogen receptors which then might predict that women will experience emotions differently from men. Additionally, gender studies have shown that women experience pain more intensely than men and moreover, that women demonstrate enhanced neuro-somatic-visceral connectivity when compared with men. Maybe the reason for this is that women bear children and need more sensory uptake in the abdominal regions to ensure the perpetuity of her offspring.

Given that the abdominal region is dominated by the freeze – pounce parasympathetic response and is also viscerally richly connected when triggered this is often the go to response for women. And, if the freeze state becomes chronic then adaptive behaviours such as “fog (confusion) or fawn (acquiescence)” become the norm. Thus, if those connections become hard-wired it becomes very difficult to change since the response now is very deep. It literally paralysing them. This, may explain why women become “rescuers or people pleasers” often appeasing rather than fighting their cause. Sadly, this has been seen as a weakness and I believe, it is one of the main reasons that women have been badly mistreated throughout our cultural evolution.

However, in business women have had to struggle to compete in a man’s world and have set high expectations on themselves to perform. Many of those women who suffer with chronic Imposter Syndrome have come from situations that did not promote healthy adaptive responses. Thus, when they find themselves in stress provoking circumstances the feeling is so compelling for them to “get out of danger” that they default into freeze and become “paralysed”. How this often shows up is in perfectionism, strong-woman syndrome, being the expert, etc. But because they know that they are not this these things, and recognise they have set themselves up for huge expectations, they often default to self-sabotage behavious such as procrastination and sophisticated hiding to keep themselves safe.

To be clear here, I am not saying that men don’t experience Imposter Syndrome or even have these paralysing effects. I am sure many do, but I think that the way women are organised biologically, predisposes them to this response that is compounded by cultural constraints. Also, my experience working with those men with similar chronic conditions mentioned earlier, I have found on deeper inspection they are highly sensitive empathic souls. Stress has a profound effect on hormones and can drop testosterone levels which can result gonadal imbalance in the body, making them more emotional. 

How to support someone with Imposter Syndrome and help them become free?

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  1. People are intelligent and they are looking for a plausible explanation for why they are not getting better. Giving them an understanding goes a long way to helping them let go of the stigma. Also to be able to forgive themselves for not perhaps living the life that would have liked to have lived.
  2. Be really empathetic, help them understand that they didn’t know about what was happening to them biologically, otherwise they would have chosen differently.
  3. Support them to finding a new story for themselves.
  4. Use energy techniques such as EFT, EMDR, NLP, VR, EAM, FSM, hypnosis, etc., that can rapidly be applied which can interrupt the pattern so they can relax and feel safe.
  5. Sometimes meditation is just “to still” an activity for them and they need to do other activities to shake off all the Adrenalin coursing around them. Give them conscious activities i.e. conscious running, sacred artwork
  6. Mostly they need to be monitored because this is a deep pattern and they need to be supported until they have established a long-standing pattern and strategies to be successful.

If you would like to find out more about how I work you can contact me at sherine@sherinelovegrove.com or click on the link for a chat

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