The Imposter Syndrome

I have been asked on several occasions if it would be possible to run a webinar on how to handle impostor syndrome. This has been on the back burner until recently, when it was brought to the forefront of my mind by two resources that both confirm that this is a real and growing issue. So instead of the webinar I decided to try and summarise some of the key points that were raised in these two sessions,  in the hope that we can better understand what is meant by impostor syndrome – in terms of how we deal with it ourselves but also how we work with clients who might also be struggling with self-belief – that persistent voice that says, “One day, someone will find out I’ve been faking it!”

So what is impostor syndrome?

Firstly, we need to differentiate between a real impostor many of whom do exist in today’s often confusing marketplace. This person pretends to claim to have specific abilities, despite not having the background or experience. 

Many of us have impostor feelings, which on occasion, make us feel that we are somehow fraudulent -despite the evidence that we are not. These feelings usually pass and don’t have a large impact on our lives.

Impostor syndrome however is when someone feels like an impostor most of the time and ignores hard cold facts.  These feelings can be powerful and if not debilitating and it will certainly affect what they think feel and do. We will often self-sabotage in an attempt to confirm our sense of inadequacy.  This gives us an alibi but does little to help us succeed or reach our potential.

But first, rest assured that if you relate to any of the latter two conditions you are not alone. Some of the most successful people report feeling like frauds or impostors despite the evidence of their talent and ability.

What is it?

Imposter syndrome has the following characteristics:

  • A lack of internalising success and achievements 
  • Discounting success 
  • Guilt, fear about success 
  • Perfectionism
  • Undervaluing ourselves
  • 70% of people experience it at some point and it is more prevalent in women (particularly executives).
Where does it come from?

There are many reasons why impostor syndrome exist.  Some factors include:

  • The roles we had in childhood – were we seen as the intelligent one? The hard working one? The survivor? Family dynamics often contribute.
  • Significant people in the early years can also contribute to our expectations, our beliefs and our self image. By learning what is valued and gets approval or disapproval, impostor feelings and/or syndrome frequently come from our early life experiences
How can we overcome it?
  1. Test the evidence
    People with impostor feelings use tricks to deny dismiss and discount the evidence that they are worthy talented or have deserved their position
  2. Look for the triggers
    Cognitive behavioural coaching can be used by identifying the automatic negative thoughts, testing their reality and looking for the evidence to determine if they are real. We then replace these negative thoughts with more accurate thoughts. e.g.   Negative thought –  “I won’t be able to meet their expectations which means they’ll find out I don’t know very much.”
    More accurate thought –  “I’ve done well in the past. I know I’ll be able to do most of the job and I have been told that I do this well.”   
  3. Remember feelings are not facts.
    To help deal with these feelings realise that impostor feelings are normal
  4. Set realistic standards and also prepare for mistakes
  5. Get external evidence and write down the facts

  6. Keep a record of your achievements
Working with clients who have Imposter Syndrome

As always, empathy is our best friend when helping others overcome challenges. By admitting that we have experienced impostor feelings ourselves, we will give reassurance to others to find out that they’re not alone.

  1. Do not make blanket comments such as “you’re fine; you’re great” but instead point to specific evidence which impostors usually try to ignore.
  2. Help your client view a mistake as an opportunity to learn and as a normal part of the cycle of growth.
  3. Know that periods of change will often create feelings of this kind. Help your client by focusing on facts and clarifying expectations.
  4. Finally, support a growth mindset – the belief that we can learn and improve with practise –  instead of a fixed mindset which will result in a fear of mistakes and increase imposter feelings.

If you are a new or even experienced coach, cultivating this growth mindset is our best weapon to overcome the sense that we are not good enough.  In our work, we bring support to others at whatever stage we are at and all of us can always get better!