Are You Stuck On The Praise-Criticism Rollercoaster? [Episode 045]

Are you stuck on the praise-criticism rollercoaster? And what role might Imposter Syndrome be playing for you in feedback?

This episode is for you if whenever somebody praises you, you're silently thinking of the 'but' (and perhaps even saying it out loud)...

... or if you're a line manager, HR professional, coach, or someone else who needs to give people feedback, and you want to know how to make it Imposter-Syndrome safe, so it actually gets through their self-judgement filters, and can help to improve their performance, rather than trashing their confidence.

What You'll Discover Today About The Praise-Criticism Rollercoaster 

  • The surprising results from our research study into the link between Imposter Syndrome and feedback - even if it's praise
  • 3 things I want every line manager to stop doing immediately, to stop feedback from triggering Imposter Syndrome
  • The little-known role of our brain's neurology in the praise-criticism rollercoaster
  • The unconscious body addiction for those experiencing Imposter Syndrome that drives judgemental self-talk
  • How to get off the praise-criticism rollercoaster, without pretending or becoming arrogant.
  • Top tips for line managers and anyone else who needs to give feedback, so that the feedback actually improves performance, instead of accidentally trashing confidence

Listen Here Now:

Resources From Today's Episode: 

  • Here's the latest research study white paper
  • Book recommendation: Words That Change Minds by Shelle Rose Charvet
  • What's your feedback mastery score? Free research-backed quiz plus personalised action plan
  • Find out more about the Natural Resilience Method®

Here's Where We're Talking About This

Join in the discussion on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Prefer To Read?

Click here to read the transcript

Note: this is an AI-generated transcript, so please forgive typos.

Speaker 1 (00:00)
Hello, and welcome to Episode 45 of The Ditching Imposter Syndrome Podcast. Today, we are talking about the role of imposter syndrome in feedback and getting off the praise criticism roller coaster. This is for you if, whenever somebody praises you, you're silently inside thinking of the but, or if you're a line manager, HR professional, personal development expert, and you regularly have to give people feedback and you want to know how to make it imposter syndrome-proof, so it actually gets through somebody's self-judgment filters and can help to improve their performance, their confidence, and their wellbeing. This was a great question I was asked recently, and if you want to ask me a question for me to potentially answer on a future episode of The Ditching Imposter Syndrome Podcast, you can do that by doing my imposter syndrome scorecard. You can find that at, answer 20 quiz-style research and science-backed questions, and it gives you your imposter syndrome risk score and lets you know which of the three hidden drivers is the most important for you and you get a personalised action plan. And as part of that quiz, there's an open text question where you can send me a question, and that is exactly what today's questioner did.

Speaker 1 (01:15)
She said, I'm not very good at taking praise. Is this connected to imposter syndrome? And my immediate response is it absolutely can be. Okay, so one of the things that happens with imposter syndrome, and I've been researching this and you're going to find it in our research study that's coming out again soon, we're updating it. Check out the show notes for the research study link so you can get your own copy of the white paper. So as part of that, we've been looking into the role of imposter syndrome in feedback, performance reviews, personal development, team development, and also running workshops for organisations on how to improve their performance and appraisal process so it doesn't accidentally create trauma and actually works for the shocking 62% of employees are experiencing imposter syndrome daily or regularly at the moment. Now, what we found in this research study is that if you praise a member of your team, okay, so praise, this is positive. Only 29% feel okay with that. 71% of respondents struggle with praise. So what's going on for that 71%? Well, they're all mentally rehearsing a but. They've been trained, their brain's been trained, their body's been trained, their emotions have been trained that when they're praised, it's going to be the feedback sandwich and it's going to have a but in the middle.

Speaker 1 (02:42)
Now, I don't call it the feedback sandwich when I'm not being polite on a podcast. And it is the one thing we need to ditch immediately if we want to improve feedback and performance is get rid of the feedback sandwich. That's something I talk about much more in my workshops on this. So that's what they're waiting for. They've been conditioned, like Pablo's dogs, they've been conditioned to expect a but after something positive. Now, for 42% of respondents, because of the way their internal dialogue is working and the impact imposter syndrome has on them, they will actually volunteer a but. So 42%, yeah? Two in five, when you praise them, will respond by actually criticising themselves. Now, here's one of the real reasons why imposter syndrome really causes a problem in the gender pay gap, is that women are much more likely to do this out loud than men. The male respondents are much more likely to say that but in their heads. The women are likely to actually verbalise it. And then what the person that was praising them remembers is actually the negative bit. And because that will be a pattern interrupt for them, because what they're expecting is, Oh, thank you for the praise.

Speaker 1 (03:56)
That's lovely. And what they get is, Yeah, but did you see how I messed this up? That actually means that sticks in their brain. There's something that happens in our neurology when there's a pattern interrupt, something that surprises us or a strong emotion that goes with it, that means it gets through our filters and it sticks. I'm not going to go into the neuroscience. That's enough for now. So that 42 % of respondents volunteering a but, criticising themselves, means that it actually impacts their reputation, and they're less likely to be top of mind for golden opportunities and promotions. So this is what happens when you praise someone. These were stats for saying something positive and encouraging. One of the other things that happens with praise is things like employee recognition programmes. So if you praise somebody publicly, then if they're part of the 71% that struggles with that, they could actually feel really bad. We found in our research study that a huge number of people—and I'm not going to get into the stats now because I want you to sign up for the white paper, I'll tell you how to in a minute—a huge number of people will actively avoid being in the spotlight because they don't want that feedback.

Speaker 1 (05:04)
They don't want that credit. They're scared that if the spotlight shines on them, they'll be seen to have made a mistake or found out it's not good enough or somehow a fraud or faking it. Again, I'm not saying don't do these programmes, but we have to do them in a way that doesn't cause microtraumas for those on the receiving end. So if you want the full research study, by the way, and the white paper is yours as my gift, and you can find it at soul, presentativeleadership. Com/research. I'll put a link to that in the show notes. This is what happens when we praise people. What happens with constructive criticism? Firstly, step one, we're ditching the feedback sandwich. Step two, let's ditch the words constructive criticism. They do not belong in the same sentence and they have no place in a modern, psychologically safe workplace. Criticism hurts. It takes an incredibly strong, resilient, confident person to take criticism without feeling a little bit of an ouch. And in worst case, it can really puncture somebody's balloon. Here's what happens with constructive criticism, and I will explain shortly what you can do instead. It doesn't mean we have to polyana and pretend that everything's fine.

Speaker 1 (06:21)
When on the receiving end of that constructive criticism, 81 % of respondents in our research study said they really wobble. Eighty-one %. Eight out of 10. If you look around yourself at work, on the train, wherever it is you are right now, eight out of 10 people you're looking at will really struggle when they're given, I'm airquoting this, constructive criticism. And 51 % of people say they spend a lot of time worrying about that feedback, playing it over in their minds. It impacts their sleep, their anxiety, their emotional wellbeing, their mental health, and their performance at work. So why is this? Part of it is the conditioning for things like the feedback sandwich, but part of it is also what imposter syndrome does to your brain, your neurology, and to your body. Now, Tromsky's work on motivational traits talks about how we know whether we've done a good job. That's one of the aspects that's considered in that work. Actually, if you want a really, really accessible way of learning that, then I recommend you check out the amazing book by Shirley Rose Charvay called Words That Change Minds. She has a brilliant, practical take on the way she teaches the meta programme as these motivational traits that's really useful for you, particularly, for example, you're a line manager, HR professional, coach, therapist, business owner.

Speaker 1 (07:49)
I'll put a link to that in the show notes, words that change minds. And part of this work talks about how we know whether we've done a good job. It talks about the internal referencing system and external referencing system. So the internal referencing system, and this is a sliding scale rather than a black and white thing. If you're running internal referencing preference and it's context-dependent, you know from inside that you've done a good job. You decide if you've done a good job, you evaluate your performance, and you make that decision. If you're externally referenced, then you need input from outside to know that you've done a good job. And you will really struggle if you don't get that feedback and that positive reinforcement and encouragement. As I said, it's a sliding scale. Some people are a bit of both, and it is context-dependent. What we found in our research studies is the stronger imposter syndrome is for somebody, the more likely they are to be at the far end of the externally referenced preference, meaning they really need feedback. I was working with a senior executive coaching client last year on my stepping up to lead programme, and she had just been promoted into the C-suite a year before.

Speaker 1 (09:02)
She was really, really struggling. She said to me, It is a year since I've had feedback. I had my performance review. I've been lying awake every single night, assuming I'm messing up and they're about to find me out and they're about to fire me. I have my performance review and it's outstanding. I had absolutely no idea I was doing a good job. I have tortured myself for a year and it is the first time the CEO gave me any feedback whatsoever. I encouraged her to have a conversation with the CEO about this, and he was completely shocked because he was running a very strong internally reference system, which is often the case with CEOs because there's nobody to give you feedback, really, or at least not that you might want to listen to. He had no idea that she needed feedback, and he'd actually seen that as a sign of weakness, which is really shocking. They had to rewrite the rules of their conversation. Once she'd done the work with me to clear out the hidden drivers of imposter syndrome, actually, she set herself free from that praised criticism roller coaster. But for her, the absence of feedback was a problem because it only left her with the self-critical feedback that she was running inside.

Speaker 1 (10:11)
So if you've got somebody with a strong internal reference, or system in a particular context, one of the challenges with them is they tend to dismiss external feedback as being for information only and they know better. Somebody with a strong external referencing system in a particular context, you can give them all the praise in the world, but then they only feel good until the next bit of feedback and they constantly live in fear. There's also a bit of the brain called the reticular activating system. Part of its role is to filter sensory information from the outside world. We programme those filters subconsciously. Somebody running a strong dose of imposter syndrome is going to find it really hard to actually process positive feedback because it contradicts their internal dialogue that they've probably rehearsed for years, if not a good few decades. Very few line managers actually get training in how to give feedback, let alone how to give it for imposter syndrome. That's one of the things that we actually offer to organisations. The other problem is a lot of line managers are unaware this is running below the surface for their teammates. If they're running imposter syndrome themselves, it makes it even worse because they project their own inner fears into the feedback process.

Speaker 1 (11:32)
I've also been researching what happens with line managers when they're giving feedback. I wonder if you'd like to know a quick couple of quick stats on that. I'm aware you might be surprised by these. Most of us think that line managers are absolutely fine when they're giving feedback. In the research we've done over the last two years, what we've actually found is that 96% of line managers tend to worry about how the other person will take it before they give feedback. 96% worry about giving feedback. There's a stat then that actually shocked me a bit, which is 75% believe that constructive criticism is an essential part of a line manager's role. This is despite the same group of managers that we were researching, so this is a couple of thousand managers now, who hated receiving feedback themselves. Yet, negative feedback makes me crumple like wet tissue paper. 55 % of these line managers who felt that feedback and constructive criticism was an essential part of performance, 55 % of them actually crumple like tissue paper if they're constructively criticised. There's another thing that's running, though, when imposter syndrome is at play in all of this.

Speaker 1 (12:46)
One of the ways I define imposter syndrome is the secret fear of others judging us the way we're judging ourselves. That's the secret fear of others judging us the way we're judging ourselves. We have a very, very well-honed internal dialogue when we're running imposter syndrome, beating ourselves up. This makes us actually more sensitive to feedback. One of the differences between self-doubt and imposter syndrome is from the research, you probably heard me talk many times before that self-doubt is about what we can and can't do, our skills, our capabilities, and it's connected to our confidence. Whereas imposter syndrome is down there at the identity level about who we think we are. What if they realise I am a fraud? What if they find out they made a mistake hiring me? So what happens when we're evaluating our performance, and that's actually what feedback needs to be for, is evaluating skills, capabilities, and actions, not being about who we are. When we evaluate our performance, we don't need to take it personally. You either can or can't do something. And if you can't, you get mentoring, or you research it on the internet, or you ask for some training, or some skills, or you practise.

Speaker 1 (13:59)
It's about the knowledge we have. It's about our expertise and experience. This evaluation is completely normal and healthy, and this is actually what feedback should be focusing on. However, what happens with imposter syndrome is we take that behaviour-level feedback and we drag it down to be about who we are. We go from evaluating to judging ourselves, full of shame. We might get feedback on our presentation skills, but then we take that as a side about who we are. I am a rubbish presenter. I am no good at that. We make it about who we are as a person. And often, too often, feedback is actually given about our identity rather than our skills and our behaviours. So this impacts our sense of self. It mirrors the internal judging dialogue that we're already running. The critical feedback gets straight through the filters in the brain, because that's what we're used to doing, is spotting examples of us being rubbish and not doing well. And it can very quickly lead to anxiety, performance issues, wellbeing, emotional, mental health issues. And as a line manager, there are three things I want you to ditch as a result of today's episode.

Speaker 1 (15:12)
We've already talked about the feedback sandwich. We've talked about the phrase constructive criticism. There's one more phrase I would love you to delete from your vocabulary if you have a role where you're responsible for giving feedback to others or for helping them to improve their performance. Now, try this on for size. How many times have you said this or heard this in the last couple of years? Have you got a minute? Sounds really simple and innocent. Have you got a minute? Here's what that does to somebody who's running imposter syndrome is, Oh, my goodness, they're about to fire me. They probably don't say goodness, okay? They found me out. This is the moment. My luck's run out. Icarus. Yeah, my wings, the wax has melted. I'm about to descend into the sea. It fills them with fear and dread. What can you instead? Just, well, if you have to say, Have you got a minute?, tell them why. Don't leave them worrying because their internal dialogue, that mind-story drama will make up a terrifying reason why you want to talk to them. The impact of all of this is self-sabotage, holding back, making imposter syndrome worse.

Speaker 1 (16:22)
The solution is getting off the praise-criticism roller coaster because it really does feel like that. You're only as good as your last bit of feedback if you're externally referenced and if you're running a strong, internal, self-judgment dialogue, then even a bit of praise might only last a few minutes in boosting your inner self-talk. There are a number of things that I teach for this. The ditching imposter syndrome book is brilliant if learning from books and doing the exercise is that way is what works for you. In my natural resilience method, and I will put a link to that in the show notes, in the natural resilience method, this is steps one, two, and three. Step one is pressing pause because you can't change your life when you're super stressed. Step two is about rewiring your brain, changing your neurology so that you don't need to beat yourself up anymore. You clear those old thought habits. Then step three is often the missing link on change work is you rewire the body to release the body's unconscious addiction to adrenaline. And the chronic stress that happens when you're running imposter syndrome means most people experiencing it are running on adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormones the whole time.

Speaker 1 (17:32)
I probably ought to do an episode on that, actually, because it has some really horrible health impact and it leads to burnout, and that's part of the link between imposter syndrome and burnout from our research studies. But what it means is we actually have a body addiction to adrenaline that means it will actually trigger self-beating-up thoughts and worry thoughts and mind-story-trauma thoughts and catastrophizing and what-if-ing, if it feels it's cortisol and adrenaline levels are getting too low. The key with the work I do is actually to do that deeper work. When you've got all these sticking plasters and band-aids and coping strategies running at the surface level on the symptoms of imposter syndrome, it's exhausting to constantly be playing catch-up, and it really does mean you are at the whim of the next bit of feedback you get. Here's the crazy thing is it might not even be verbal feedback. It could be the movement of an eyebrow, a tone of voice, a facial expression, which somebody running imposter syndrome will then interpret as criticism when it might just be somebody's resting face. You need to get to the root causes to clear out the triggers.

Speaker 1 (18:40)
Then part of the work we do next is helping people to rebuild their internal referencing system so that they can tell for themselves when they've done a good job. It means you're no longer totally reliant on external feedback. Having that great balance of, I know I did a good job, but okay, I'm going to listen to what you're saying. I will have evaluate it based on my skills and my behaviours and my competence and my performance, and I will not take it personally because I no longer need to do that. When we're giving the feedback, we need to keep it about the observed behaviour and make sure we're not making it about the person. No identity-level words, no you are. It's about you do. You need to be saying things like, When you did such and such, I noticed that you did this. To make it even better, how about I invite you to consider doing that instead? Or talking about doing. This is something I cover in much more detail in the masterclasses I run for line managers and HR professionals in this. I also have a scorecard you might love to do. If you want to test your feedback mastery skills and also get a free place on the waiting list for the next time I run a public access workshop on giving feedback, I'll be doing one of those very soon as we hit performance appraisal season.

Speaker 1 (19:59)
You can go to the link in the show notes and you can actually take a quiz style research back scorecard to get your scorecard, your score for your feedback mastery, and also a personalised action plan to tide you over while you wait for the next public access round of that course. If you're listening to this and you work in an organisation and you've got some budget responsibility, please message me. Okay, get in touch. We'll talk about how I could help by actually running some training on this and potentially even looking at the cultural and environmental factors in your organisation to help improve performance and to make feedback and annual review processes, imposter syndrome safe. To answer that question for our fabulous questioner today, yes, struggling with taking praise is very connected to imposter syndrome. The brilliant thing is when you do that deeper dive work, not just at the surface level coping strategies and handling imposter syndrome, when you allow yourself to clear it out and be fully free from it, which is so much easier than most people think and only takes a few weeks with the right strategies and techniques, then you'll find that it's so much easier to take praise.

Speaker 1 (21:09)
It's so much easier to give praise, and you set yourself free from the praise, criticism roleer, roller coaster forever. Because this is such an important topic, next week I'm going to be back with another episode where I'm going to dedicate the whole episode to my favourite ever technique to help you rewire your neural pathways to start turning your inner critic into a genuine cheerleader, getting off the praise criticism roller coaster, and you can practice it in just 60 seconds a day. Clients and students, and my imposter syndrome master coach, students, and grads tell me this changes their life forever in under a week. So come back next week and make sure you catch Episode 46, where we're going to dive in even more deeply on this topic.

Loved This? Want More?

About the author

Clare Josa

Clare is considered a global authority in the fields of Imposter Syndrome, burnout and toxic resilience, and has been an international keynote speaker for over 20 years.

The author of 8 books, a reformed engineer and the former Head of Market Research for one of the world's most disruptive brands, she blends research-backed practical inspiration with demystified ancient wisdom, to help you create breakthroughs in ways that are fast, fun and forever.

Want to find out your Imposter Syndrome Score? Take Clare's free research-backed, quiz-style assessment and get your score plus a personalised action plan in the next 3 minutes.

Want to stay in the loop with the latest news and events? Get Clare's free occasional What's On newsletter:

What Do You Want To Do Next?