By Telana Simpson
Have you encountered the Fraud Police?
I have. It was many years ago, but thankfully I’ve managed to develop a thinking style and mindset that helps keep them away.
I first heard the term ‘Fraud Police’ from the singer and performer Amanda Palmer, in her wonderful book “The Art of Asking”. She was in South Africa as part of her book tour, and I had queued to get tickets to her spontaneous concert on the Friday, and then met her at her book signing the next day.
She’s one of the most interesting people I have had the good fortune of meeting. She explains the concept of Fraud Police like this:
“I’ve had a problem feeling real all my life.
I didn’t know until recently how absolutely universal that feeling is. For a long time, I thought I was alone. Psychologists have a term for it: imposter syndrome. But before I knew that phrase existed, I coined my own: The Fraud Police.
The Fraud Police are the imaginary, terrifying force of “real” grown-ups who you believe—at some subconscious level—are going to come knocking on your door in the middle of the night, saying:
We’ve been watching you, and we have evidence that you have NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING. You stand accused of the crime of completely winging it, you are guilty of making shit up as you go along, you do not actually deserve your job, we are taking everything away and we are TELLING EVERYBODY.”
– Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking, pg. 42
This experience of feeling like a fake is now known as imposter phenomenon (rather than imposter syndrome), because it is not an actual disorder, but rather a collection of thought patterns and reactions to particular events that have certain results.
It is a psychological pattern that we run, where we doubt our abilities and discount our achievements, chalking them down to being lucky (rather than to our skill or knowledge). We then live with this bottled up fear of being exposed for not knowing enough and not being deserving.
No matter the positive feedback from others, or the success we achieve, we remain convinced that we are deceiving others, and thus feel like an imposter.
Consequences of Imposter Thinking
The effects of this thinking style are that we tend to hold ourselves back and limit the opportunities we take. This is because any little chance of failing would be a huge catastrophe, as it would expose us to others. We tremendously fear this exposure to others and their (presumed) associated judgement.
If we do, however, take on a task, often because we are forced to as part of our job, another effect is triggered in us, which is we either over-prepare or we procrastinate.
When we over-prepare and work crazy hours, doing way more than is necessary for a good enough result, we feel some sense of accomplishment and relief in finishing the task. Yet we discount any positive feedback we get and attribute the success to the hard work, and not our own ability or skill.
If we procrastinate, the deadline is what pushes us to frantically finish the task at the last minute, and any success is then attributed just to luck.
This continual lack of attributing success to personal ability and the discounting of external feedback or praise, only further reinforces the less useful thinking patterns and increases our self-doubt and anxiety about being caught out. These fraudulent feelings then intensify with each further success, and we can feel stuck in what is known as the imposter cycle.
How do you know you experience imposterism?
The above description might immediately ring true for us. To help identify if we have aspects of this phenomenon in our thinking style, here is a list of some of the signs that might indicate we are experiencing the imposter phenomenon:
- Being plagued with self-doubt and feeling undeserving.
- Experiencing a low self-esteem.
- Lacking self-confidence.
- Discounting our achievements and an inability to accept praise or compliments from others, and rather crediting any accomplishment to pure luck.
- Self-sabotage and holding ourselves back from advancing our position in life, e.g. not taking risks, avoiding that promotion, not stepping up to lead the exciting yet challenging project etc.
- Fear of what others think about us and how they might judge us negatively.
- Constantly feeling on the defensive, expecting criticism and avoiding any exposure to feedback for fear of being criticised.
- Procrastinating in making important decisions.
- Experiencing the fear of failure, and even the fear of success.
- Experiencing stress, anxiety and/or depression.
- Putting pressure on ourselves to be perfect, perform perfectly, reach perfection.
- Repetitive thoughts like “I am such a fake”, “I must not fail”, “It was just luck, not me”.
- Needing to prove ourselves, and be “the best”, and often comparing ourselves to others and thus feeling “less than”.
- Suffering from over-preparation or procrastination on important tasks
There are certain situations that seem to trigger this style of thinking more often, and they include when we are being asked to perform on some work task or in an academic environment.
Some people experience it more often socially, when interacting with people and feeling like they need to be worthy of the company, deserving of a friendship or that they are being compared to others. And in relationships, especially romantic ones, we can feel the pressure of a set of expectations that we need to live up to, but continually think we fail to do so, and fear being found out.
Authentic Living Instead
So if the Imposter Phenomenon is a collection of ways of thinking and feeling, that is triggered by certain experiences, then what is a more useful mindset to adopt when facing those situations?
Over the last two decades I’ve been researching, learning, and growing myself in this area, and helping my clients, and I have come to know that authentic living is a far more useful strategy.
These are the seven key aspects of this more useful mindset to start developing:
- Normalise it
- Move from Other Esteem to True Self Esteem
- Move from Perfectionism to Optimising
- Develop a Growth Mindset, specifically the ‘not comparing yourself to others’ aspect
- Turn the Spotlight Effect off
- Grow your Authenticity
- Build Confidence by taking Action
1. Normalise it
Realise that it is very common for you and your peers to experience these types of imposter feelings. The International Journal of Behavioural Science published an article in 2011 that estimated that 70% of people will at some point in their lives experience this phenomenon. That’s seven out of every ten people!
It is so common that it has been given many names, including Palmer’s “Fraud Police”.
Instead of making it wrong, it is more useful to realise that it happens and that you can experience something else if you choose to change your thinking and your focus (as you’ll see below). It just starts with acknowledging the imposter thoughts, and then putting them into perspective by firstly normalising them.
Valerie Young is an author and expert on the topic of Imposter Syndrome, and she says it is not about never expecting to have moments of doubt and feeling like an imposter. She also says that there are ways and tools to change this experience. She explains it as you “can still have an imposter moment, but not an imposter life.”
So don’t over identify with a fleeting imposter moment.
When the fraudulent feelings come up for you, name them. “Oh, it’s just that imposter stuff again” and then you will gain more power over it, realising that it is just an experience from a certain strategy you (mostly unconsciously) have slipped into.
What can help with this step is to verbalise your feelings and related thoughts, either with a trusted friend, mentor, coach or therapist, or to write them in a journal, so that you can hear or see the patterns and give them a name.
Becoming conscious of this unconscious structure to your experience, opens your choices of your next steps.
2. Move from Other Esteem to True Self Esteem
I believe that the foundational idea to overcoming the Imposter Phenomenon is related to the way we construct our sense of self-esteem. Self-esteem is not a thing that you need to remember to pack into your bag everyday and take to work. It is the process and the understanding of how you construct your sense of worth as a person.
In psychology there is a theory called Self Determination theory (by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan) where they researched the basis for True Self Esteem. They explain the difference between Contingent Self Esteem, which is where our feelings about ourselves are dependent on some external standard or achievement, and True Self Esteem, which is securely based on a solid sense of self, on being who we are and believing that our self-worth is a given. This integrated aspect of our self is then reflected in our way of being proactive and in having a sense of agency (or control over our life).
In the field of Neuro-Semantics, this True Self Esteem is made distinct from Self Confidence, by pointing out that our esteem is about our being-ness, and our confidence is related to our doing-ness. Self Esteem and Self Confidence are not the same things. And I cannot emphasis enough how important and useful this distinction is in life.
We are human beings, who have worth and value due to this being-ness, and we are here to experience life and add our value to the world. We do not need to do things, in order to become human beings. We are beings, here to do things.
Thus if we construct our sense of worth as being unconditional, we then see every opportunity to take action as a learning opportunity. When we make mistakes we are also less likely to take the failure personally (as in ‘I am a failure’), because we keep our sense of self distinct from our doing (as in ‘I just failed at that task/action’).
However, when we use external success (or failures) as signs of our personal value, (rather than expressions or mis-expressions of it), we have conditions to our self-esteem. Our sense of worth is thus conditional. Therefore, we experience low self-esteem when we fail, and high self-esteem when we succeed.
Also, if we make the condition of our worth what others think of us, then we will have high self-esteem when others like us, and low self-esteem when they don’t like us or judge us negatively. This is what I call Other Esteem, as we ourselves don’t get to decide – others do.
Now how does this relate to shifting out of the Imposter Phenomenon? Well, if you have conditional/contingent self-esteem, or other esteem, then you are more likely to feel the pressure of having to continually prove your worth by succeeding or meeting (or even exceeding) others expectations of you.
Thus you would fear being a fraud, as your worth is based on others or on success, and is not intrinsic. When your worth is only based on unstable external criteria that you have little control over, even if you work really hard, then you are more likely to never feel you have done enough, or can be enough, to be ok. Hence any success is more often attributed to luck, than to innate skills or knowledge.
When, though, you come from an understanding and adoption of True Self-Esteem, which is unconditional, then you can own and internalise your successes. You come from the place of being open to learning, knowing that the only way to grow and develop is to do things to the best of your ability and make mistakes, as that is the very nature of learning.
To develop the mindset that allows you to avoid the Fraud Police, you need to start by understanding the concept of True Self Esteem. Follow this understanding by deciding to no longer make your sense of worth and value conditional on what you do or what others think of you.
This step starts with the cognitive understanding, and then the decision to construct your sense of esteem your self (hence self esteem) and to see other’s opinions and the results of your actions as only feedback, as information on how to improve your doing (not as failure).
(Explore my online course to develop True Self Esteem here for further understanding of this concept).
3. Move from Perfectionism to Optimising
Part of what drives feeling like we are a fraud, is having a need to meet the unachievable standard of perfection. If only we can achieve perfection, or be perfect, then we will be enough. But – and for the perfectionists out there this might sting – we absolutely cannot achieve perfection, and so are more likely to feel like a fake, like an imposter, pretending to be OK and perfect, but knowing we fall far short of perfection.
Perfectionism is a thinking preference and is one of the least useful ones. (It can also feed into other esteem and conditional self esteem, described above.)
Not only is “perfect” unattainable, it is unrealistic and puts pressure on us that doesn’t help us at all. When we aim for perfect as our ultimate goal, we can never reach it, as there will always be another level to attain to try to qualify for perfection. There is no end point, and thus we never know when to stop. We don’t know when it’s enough if we are driven by perfectionism.
It also drives our fear of failure, and feeds our procrastination. We avoid working on something because we know we can’t achieve perfection. If we try we would be setting ourselves up for failure, so instead we put off the task as much as possible.
A far more useful thinking strategy is to have the preference for optimising. When we are optimising, we still have standards: we are aiming for Excellence. And excellence is achievable.
Optimising also requires that we break the task into smaller steps and stages, and that we bring the context into account. This gives us a better sense of what is good enough for this moment, this task or project, with these limited resources and time frames.
We then optimise our time and effort to get an excellent result appropriate for the task at hand. This approach frees us up to enjoy the process of working, rather than only focusing on the final product or the end result.
Perfectionism leads us to discount the joys and challenges of getting to our goal, as the only criteria that counts is the final perfection. And because we can’t reach that perfection, we judge ourselves, discount our skills, and attribute any success to luck rather than admit that we were not perfect, (especially if we are operating from conditional or other esteem).
Ditch the perfectionism and being focused on doing something right, how the final product appears, or if others think it is acceptable.
Rather pick up the habit of optimising for excellence, by doing the right things and focusing on the journey and reason for the task. Develop a realistic set of criteria for a successful result, taking into consideration the context, time frame and available resources. And then do your best within those boundaries, limits or criteria!
4. Develop a Growth Mindset, specifically the ‘not comparing yourself to others’ aspect
Carol Dweck explains that there are two types of mindsets in her book “Mindset. The New Psychology of Success”. The Fixed Mindset as she calls it, is where we believe our talent or intelligence and other basic qualities are fixed and inherent. We either have them, or we don’t.
With this mindset we feel the pressure to continually prove that we are talented, by demonstrating that talent. And if it takes effort to demonstrate it, or we fail at showing that we are good at something, then we obviously don’t have talent and so must avoid the task.
The Growth Mindset is the more useful one, where we believe that we can develop our abilities through learning, dedication, and hard work. Talent may be a starting point, but developing and improving is the goal, and this approach gives us the resilience to achieve excellence and apply optimising thinking.
A key aspect of Dweck’s mindsets that is related to the Imposter Phenomenon, is the fact that in the Fixed Mindset we tend to compare ourselves to others and to their level of talent and success. And if they achieve, it just shows us up as not having that ability.
Whereas in the Growth Mindset where we are focused on learning and developing, we tend to compare our current level of achievement with our past selves, our past results, asking ourselves: “Did I do better than last time?”
When we look sideways at others, we see them as role models, who can show us possible ways to achieve something. We can then learn from their strategies and feel inspired by their success, rather than jealous or diminished.
When we exercise the Fixed Mindset and feel compared to others and thus judged (by ourselves or other people), we are more likely to feel like an imposter. It is far harder to accept a compliment about our abilities, if we compared ourselves to someone else who is perceived as doing better than us at the task. We can then believe that this shows that we didn’t do well. This comparison to others just feeds our imposter feelings.
Focus on comparing your current level of achievement with only your past levels. It’s an unfair comparison to compare yourself to others, as you will never have the same set of circumstances, mix of skills and experience, genetics, resources, knowledge etc. as them. Likewise, they don’t have the same as you.
If you need a role model to see an example of how to do something, then look to others, but otherwise focus only on comparing your performance with your own previous performance.
And develop your Growth Mindset to look for ways to improve and develop your skill, reminding yourself that we can all learn and grow if we put in the effort and improve our learning ability.
5. Turn the Spotlight Effect off
When we feel that we are being noticed, even watched, more than we actually are, we are experiencing the phenomenon called the Spotlight Effect. The researchers Thomas Gilovich and Kenneth Savitsky noticed this effect in their studies in 2000, and coined the term.
This phenomenon is a result of a collection of cognitive biases that we develop. The main bias is the one where we are so close to our own experience that we perceive that everyone else must know what we are experiencing and can see our shortcomings and struggles, because we know them all too well. It’s as if we think there is this big spotlight in the sky that is always on us.
Yet this is not the case. Others are mostly busy focusing on their own issues, and how they are experiencing the moment, as they have their own spotlight on them (based on their own collection of cognitive biases).
When the imposter phenomenon is in full swing, we are usually focused on what we feel we are lacking, on the gap in our achievement levels, and on the fear of being found out by others to not be good enough. The spotlight is on us! And we believe that it is only a matter of time before others see the (spot)light and call us out.
To help move out of both of these phenomena, a strategy is to turn the spotlight off! Or at least just move it off of ourselves, and put it rather on the task or topic at hand.
When we focus on the reason behind what we need to do, and on our strategy of how to achieve that intention to a good enough, excellent standard, then the spotlight is not on us and our performance, but rather on the task at hand. When we take the pressure off of ourselves to perform to prove that we are not an imposter, we have our energy freed up to apply to the actual situation. We will find that we do far better and actually enjoy the process.
Also, speaking to others about how we are feeling and asking for help to keep us focused on the reason and task, helps to realise that others are not shining a spotlight on us as specifically as we think. This puts things into perspective, and again, helps us to grow and develop.
NOTE: for an in depth explanation of the Spotlight Effect and it’s cognitive biases, and more tips on how to overcome it, see my ebook called Consciously Shine.
6. Grow your authenticity
If we are too focused on what others think of us, and too fearful of making a mistake as it would mean being found out to be a fraud, then we might try protecting ourselves and be something else to please another. Thus we find ourselves being inauthentic.
Any form of pretending is accompanied by feelings of self-consciousness, as we are being deceitful, fraudulent, and having to keep up with the lies and appearances. This in turn just adds to our fear of being found out, because if we are inauthentic in the moment, then we are an imposter in a way.
Flipped around, how can we possibly be an imposter if we are being authentic in the moment? It is ok to not know everything, and to ask questions, and to keep on learning.
Being authentic has become a cliché that gets thrown around nowadays without much thought into its meaning or practice. Yet it is a style of engaging with the world that is a life-enhancing strategy, and one that has many benefits.
For one, being inauthentic – wearing social masks and pretending in order to please others – takes a lot of energy, way more than just being ourselves. If all our personal power is going into hiding a certain part of ourselves; or to developing a fake version because we are afraid of being judged and not accepted by others so we be who we think they want us to be; then we have less capacity available for the actual task at hand. It is a lot easier to just be ourselves.
When there is a degree of realness in a moment in our life, we notice. Those moments stick out as most meaningful and memorable to us. There is a quiet strength in those times of vulnerability, and when we meet true authenticity in ourselves, and in others, we feel good. We find it to be attractive and encouraging, and even inspiring as it is so rare nowadays.
Dr Brené Brown, a research professor who for the last two decades has focused on the areas of shame, vulnerability and courage, says:
“To be authentic, we must cultivate the courage to be imperfect — and vulnerable. We have to believe that we are fundamentally worthy of love and acceptance, just as we are. I’ve learned that there is no better way to invite more grace, gratitude and joy into our lives than by mindfully practicing authenticity.”
She is referring to accepting that we are fallible. If we embrace our imperfection and develop True Self Esteem, we realise that we can allow ourselves to be where we are in our journey, still with the aim to be better.
We learn more about our authentic selves when we own our strengths and our weaknesses. Thus we are able to show up more and be more real. We don’t define ourselves by our skills or results, and so can admit when we have a gap and need help to develop more, or where we’ve got this, and can add our value to the moment.
This part of the mindset related to overcoming the Imposter Phenomenon is about being authentic, and not contributing to feeling fake by being fake. When we are truthfully embracing our strengths and our areas to still develop, as well as our fallibility and imperfection, we can remove the inauthentic parts of ourselves, and show up – being real and true to ourselves. Then we will have the energy and be more ready to contribute and feel far less like an imposter.
Practice counting your own successes to internalise them. You can do this by writing them down in a journal, discussing with an accountability partner, or just acknowledging to yourself that you shared a talent, skill, or attribute during the day. When we own what we do well, it’s easier to smile and say thank you to a compliment and celebrate with joy and fulfilment.
To develop your fallibility, remember that you are far more than just a skill or a result, and become more open to feedback. Look for good quality information that is behavioural and specific, that will help you develop at whatever you are working on. Whether you succeed or fail at something, that is just information that can help you grow. By taking any mistake as just a learning step, we open ourselves up to the distinctions we need to do better next time.
These aspects, internalising successes and being open to feedback to develop our weaknesses, will help cultivate self-acceptance and unfold our authentic self. In her book ‘Daring Greatly’, Dr. Brown says:
“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
Overcoming the imposter feelings is related to our sense of belonging. Dr. Brown further suggests developing the practice of growing your authenticity, by making conscious choices every day to show up and be real, to live according to your values, and let your true self be seen.
7. Build confidence by taking action
When we experience congruence between our values (what’s most important to us), our intentions, and our actions, authenticity follows. Taking well thought through and specific actions is how we express our reasons for doing something, and is how others see our true self.
It is also the only way to develop our confidence. Confidence remember is different to esteem, and it is confidence which is conditional on us taking action or not. We can only become confident in a skill if we practice that skill. We become confident in a subject matter only if we do the work of learning about that subject.
So we should expect to feel clumsy and not confident at something that we are doing for the first time. We have not had a chance to develop the muscle memory related to the expression, which only develops from trying and attempting that expression. Every time we do something, and then take feedback from that action to finetune it, we get better at it and more confident in it.
Once we have implemented and practice the above 6 aspects and have a stronger mindset to combat imposter thinking, we can enhance our new frames of mind by taking actions to develop confidence in the new thinking styles. We need to do, and not just think.
This will also improve our overall sense of self-confidence, which is our confidence in our ability to handle life in all its aspects. This self-confidence comes from engaging with life, and not shunning away from challenges or difficult situations. With a keen sense of what is realistic and safe for us, we can exercise our abilities and grow confidence in our capability to handle life, by handling life.
Instead of practicing imposter thinking, and then feeling the emotions related to that style of processing situations and inadvertently becoming confident in that approach, we can rather put the time and energy into practicing more useful thinking styles, and enjoy the positive feelings associated with them and rather develop that kind of self-confidence.
Develop a growth mindset about taking actions to overcome your imposter feelings, and then take some type of small step. Act.
Also apply optimising thinking, breaking things into smaller steps or stages, and do your best for the circumstances you are in, aiming for excellence.
Just by taking one small step, doing something towards growing, you will find you gain some momentum and confidence, and the next step will become clearer and more enticing.
If you are battling to overcome inertia or some kind of fear, try a brain trick coined the ‘5 Second Rule’ by Mel Robbins. Just count down from 5 to 1, and then act. Don’t overthink it, just start moving.
Robbins emphasises that confidence is a skill, “one that’s built through repeated acts of everyday courage.” She suggests asking yourself “How can you take courageous action–immediately, without hesitation, right now–to improve your life?” and then go 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and start.
Answer that everyday and act, and you will build your confidence skill.
In this moment, be present and stop focusing on feeling like an imposter. Start instead being authentic. To do so, be honest with yourself about how you are feeling, and don’t make that wrong.
Also, get to know yourself, your values and intentions, and own your strengths and weaknesses. Develop a Growth Mindset about improving on your weaker areas, with optimising your time and resources to aim for excellence, not perfection.
Keep taking small steps of courage, and develop your confidence, knowing that your being and esteem are intact and unconditional, and putting the spotlight on the topic or task at hand.
It’s totally normal to have wobbles, to question yourself and slip into other esteem, so don’t beat yourself up about these stumbles. Just get up, brush yourself off, and recentre your mindset on practicing authenticity in this moment, and taking another courageous small step forward.
Be brave, be real, be true. And be you.
About the Author: Telana Simpson
Telana is a Courage Coach and author, helping people to be brave and shine, and live a life they love. She coaches executives, individuals and entrepreneurs to have conversations that count by finding their authentic ways of communicating and expressing themselves and their inner potentials. She specialises in true self-esteem, controlling emotions, overcoming self-consciousness and the fear of failure, handling conflict, fear of confrontation and developing relationships. She is fascinated by consciousness evolution and goes on adventures to push her boundaries and preconceptions. She is also a possibility believer and is currently turning one matchstick into an office, to help start ups overcome the fear of failure.
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