Feel a bit of a fake?

Leadership Coaching

Impostor Syndrome – do you suffer from it?

A number of clients that I work with say they feel like a fake.  They dread the moment when they will be found out, and someone will ask them to leave.  When questioned further, they know there is little foundation or logic behind these feelings, but it can be deep rooted and take some work to shift.  These feelings, beliefs and behaviours have been identified as Impostor Syndrome. The term was first used in an article written by clinical psychologists, Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in 1978.  It is present in many leaders and senior executives who have achieved a great deal and are respected by their peers – no matter how successful they are, or how many times they’ve been promoted, they still feel deep down they shouldn’t really be there.

Offering them more training doesn’t necessarily work.  They often love learning, but find it also serves to point out how much they don’t know.

Some clients, when we discuss the syndrome, say that they would prefer to feel fake rather than be an ”arrogant know-all”. Does the Impostor Syndrome bring a touch of humanity, the self depreciation that we Brits love so much.  We can be a little apologetic, a little stuttering and endear ourselves to all.  But does that really help them?

We know that people happily believe what you tell them. So if you say “I’m not very good at this, to tell the truth” or “I’m not an expert in this”, that is what they will believe. They have no reason to do otherwise.  They don’t know you’re being modest.  Your family / boyfriend / mother / cat might say “ah, no you’re just being modest and we think you’re brilliant” but that doesn’t help an awful lot with credibility in the outside world or work place.

When asked how they got to their position, many respond “It’s all been a bit of a fluke!”

The feelings of being fake don’t just come when you’re finding a job or task challenging and you’re feeling out of your depth. It’s just as likely to happen when all is going well and you’re getting good results.  You start doubting yourself and thinking ”this is too easy – there must be more to this”.  You set your expectations even higher and make yourself work longer hours and achieve even more to ensure that you’re not missing anything out.  Whilst this is going to ensure you do the job to the utmost of your ability, you will also find yourself burning out pretty quickly and perhaps focusing on detail to the cost of the bigger, more strategic picture.  There has to be a balance – yes, it’s important to keep challenging yourself to keep standards high, and your interest keen, but you also need to take time to tell yourself you’re doing a great job and not only listen to the positive feedback, but believe it.

Those with Impostor Syndrome find positive feedback serves as a tool to encourage further doubt.  Thoughts go from “either they are feeling sorry for me and feel they need “to boost my confidence” or “they are just nice people who say that same thing to everyone”. Denying or not truly taking in positive feedback is a classic symptom of Impostor Syndrome.

So what can be done to minimise the effects of these feelings?

Here are a few tips that I have found help clients I have worked with as an Executive Coach. It is not easy to rid yourself of Impostor Syndrome but with perseverance it can be done. Remember these are just tips to point you in the right direction.

  1. Share your thoughts with someone else.  It really works.  One very talented Director I work with took the plunge and told his MD – only to find that his MD admitted to suffering from it also. Now they can talk openly about it, which means that they question these previously secret thoughts and often have a good laugh about it!
  2. If you can’t bring yourself to share with colleagues, share with friends. If that sounds impossible, work with a coach who will listen and not judge.
  3. In order to change behaviour, it’s crucial to first notice that you’re doing it. So be aware of when the negative thoughts and doubts creep in.  Notice them, acknowledge them and move on.
  4. After a while of noticing, you may find that the feelings have reduced.  The next step is to find a positive picture that you can substitute for the negative one. Think of a time when you felt confident – everything was going well and you received praise / positive feedback.  How did that feel? When the negative thoughts creep in, practise focusing on the positive snapshot.
  5. When you notice the thoughts, question them.  Recognise the internal saboteur and ask “really?” This often quickly diffuses the negative feelings.

With many clients, I find that as soon as they begin to notice their thoughts, they can do something about them.  Articulating these thoughts in conversation highlight them further. Then things begin to shift for the better.

You might like to read this article on Impostor Syndrome.

07785 996917  info@catrinmacdonnell.co.uk