What advisors can learn from Joe Flacco, Pt. 2: The origins of the impostor fear

By Dr. Jack Singer

Psychologically Speaking, with Dr. Jack Singer, LLC

In my opening article, I talked about how Joe Flacco avoided the temptation to feel like an impostor in the 2013 Super Bowl. Despite few pundits giving the Ravens a chance in the game and most of the attention focusing on the 49ers and their rookie quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, Joe Flacco overcame any concerns that he did not belong on that stage. Any possibility of feeling like an impostor disappeared when he scored his first touchdown against the 49ers.

As you recall, impostor fear occurs when self-doubt creeps into one’s psyche and rapidly undermines self-confidence. As an example, I worked with an NFL quarterback who complained that he deserved to start and was frustrated with his back-up role. When he was suddenly thrust into the starter's role during a game because of an injury to the starting quarterback, he panicked and began to worry about embarrassing himself, his family and his team. Here was a man whose goal was to be a starting quarterback in the NFL, but he had never dealt with the fact that underneath the façade of confidence was a frightened athlete, worried about whether he really had what it took to start in the NFL. This man felt like an impostor — he looked great in practice, was in great physical condition, and looked sharp in his uniform, but he felt as if he couldn’t back up his bravado and then fell apart when given the opportunity.

Impostor fear and the financial advisor

I worked with a financial advisor who was a very successful business major in college and who came into an interview with a brokerage firm with superb confidence. He had no problem getting hired. His confidence continued to grow as he glided through the training program. In simulated training situations, he seemed confident and ready to go. But when his manager ultimately tasked him to make cold calls to attract new clients, he took every hang-up and “no thank you” as a personal rejection. He lost his confidence and it wasn’t long before he was suffering from what is known as “telephobia,” or severe sales call reluctance (a subject I will address in a future article), which is part of the impostor fear.

This, of course, ate away at his confidence until he came to fear calling even his current clients, worried that he wouldn't be able to address their questions and concerns about the market and the products he had recommended. He began to question whether this was a career path in which he could thrive.
Certainly, Joe Flacco, like most premier NFL quarterbacks, must have gone through the same doubts during or after games in which his performance suffered. But, how did he stay optimistic, ward off the fear of failing, and push through mental obstacles to ultimately win the Super Bowl?

The origins of impostor fear

Like professional football players, most professional financial advisors maintain an external persona of confidence. But if advisors are honest with themselves, insecurities such as concern about contact with aggressive clients during market collapses, or fearing that they will look weak if they can’t think quickly on their feet when challenged by their clients linger beneath the surface. Such doubts raise their anxiety level when they come to the office, especially on days the market is tanking.

The impostor fear is based on false beliefs — in this case, the belief that you are really not as competent as you appear. Like most fears, impostor fear is learned. We are not genetically predisposed to such a fear, and any fear that is learned can be un-learned.

The best way to begin to eradicate fear is by understanding the distorted thinking that causes it in the first place. Most fears are unwarranted and irrational, but the emotions surrounding them are certainly powerful. The late Zig Ziglar, world renowned motivational speaker, captured the essence of this when he defined F.E.A.R. as “False Evidence Appearing Real.” You see, we all have experienced the distortion of events and situations that take place in our lives. It’s that distortion that causes our emotions, not the events themselves. The distortion comes from our perceptions of the events, and those perceptions are based on the self-talk habits that we have developed over the years.

So, the key to all of our emotions is our inner dialogue about events that take place in our lives each day. And the key to mastering your emotions and overcoming fear is having insight into your inner dialogue patterns and how to modify them. In fact, teaching clients to understand their self-talk habits and how to modify them is the essence of the most powerful form of psychotherapy in use today — cognitive/behavioral therapy.

As an example, let’s say that one morning, your assistant calls you to inform you that one of your clients left a very angry message and he wants you to call him as soon as you arrive at the office. This event does not cause your resultant emotions. What does cause your emotion is the internal message you give to yourself about the situation. You might say something like this to yourself: “Oh no, he’s going to complain about that new equity I purchased for him last week because it has lost a good portion of its value with the way the market has tanked in the last few days. I don’t want to feel like a teenager being chastised by his father. How can I avoid this call?”
If you fill your head with such negative, fear-producing self-talk, your anxiety level will elevate dramatically. And a normal response to such anxiety is avoidance — avoidance of the event that you anticipate will cause more anxiety. So, you avoid the call or pass it on to someone else, if possible. Due to this episode, you feel very vulnerable, and from there, it’s easy to develop the infamous impostor fear. You beat yourself up with more self-talk about how you’re probably not cut out for this line of work. It’s much too stressful and you lose your confidence and look for an escape.

But you have choices in terms of your self-talk and resultant beliefs about any situation. Here is an alternative set of thoughts for the scenario above: "This client has an irrational expectation that every product or equity he purchases must continuously increase in value. I have explained to him the risk/benefit ratio many times, and he went into this purchase with his eyes open. I will use my active listening skills (another subject I will address in a future article) to settle him down, like I have done many times before. I feel wonderful about the care I take managing my clients’ wealth and this client’s irrationality is not a reflection on me, my skills, or my expertise.”

Ultimately, it’s not economic or stock market fluctuations that determine how confident or insecure you feel in your profession. It’s not disgruntled clients that determine how anxious you feel. Regardless of the situation, it’s always your self talk about these issues that determines whether you will thrive or struggle during difficult times. That little voice in your head is what I call your internal critic, and that critic is filled with negative, pessimistic, self-defeating and distorted thoughts.

Stay tuned for part three, where I will address the issue of how to take charge of your internal critic. I’ll also teach you a powerful mental toughness game plan to eradicate your imposter fear.