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Case study: stress and impostor syndrome

Coaching a director exhausted by stress and anxiety

A high achieving director in a global business, Thomas had reached director level quickly and at a  young age. Often given additional responsibilities, sometimes transferred from other directors who weren’t coping well. He gave the impression that he was in control, able to take whatever was thrown at him and being up for a challenge. Speaking to others in the business, he was liked and seen as a bit of a ‘golden boy’. As part of a senior level coaching and training programme, Thomas was to take part in 6 coaching sessions.

To begin with, he was a little perplexed at the idea of coaching. “I don’t really need it”, he said. Thomas was interested in the concept, and so took part with enthusiasm. He immediately identified the fact that he was attempting to take on tasks that his teams and senior colleagues couldn’t or didn’t want to do, simply because he could, and that he often felt he would do it better. Soon he realised a need to spend more time on strategic planning for the longer term instead of short term reactive activities. He admitted to working 5 or 6 days a week until 10pm.

Impostor Syndrome

Thomas soon became aware of the fact that he was taking on far too many tasks for the fear of being thought of as ‘not coping’ or not being ‘up’ to his role.  He felt ashamed of not having formal high-level qualifications and thought that by behaving in this way, no-one would question his ability. The impact was increasing stress levels and anxiety.

I constantly feel that I will be ‘found out’ or thought to be a fraud. They might think I’m not capable or up to the job.

Although evidence suggested otherwise, Thomas felt he had to over deliver to win approval. I asked him if he had heard of Impostor Syndrome.  I briefly gave him some background. He was so relieved to hear that others suffered from similar feelings of being an ‘impostor’ and needing to overcompensate. He realised that he was not alone in feeling and behaving like this and was able quickly to convince himself that these thoughts were not useful to him or his employer. He felt more confident in his abilities and took on board strategies for changing his thought patterns so that he could carry out his job without the previous levels of anxiety. He delegated more (something which was welcomed by his team) and gave himself permission to be himself at senior meetings, speaking more freely now that the fear of being found out had largely disappeared. He focused more on strategic planning and found his region was able to reach more ambitious targets as a result. He was able to give himself a break and found he didn’t actually need to be working such long hours.

Conclusion of the coaching programme

This is clearly a very brief description of what was covered with Thomas to give you an idea of how debilitating our thought patterns can be.  I work with so many people who identify with Impostor Syndrome and once they learn about it, they feel they can notice and challenge these unhelpful thoughts. It is hugely liberating and whilst not always easy to rid oneself of self criticism entirely, just by beginning to notice the pattern, we can start to think more constructively and clearly.

Names and certain details are changed to respect anonymity.

To read more about Impostor Syndrome, please click here.

Thomas is not the client’s real name.

To discuss a coaching programme, please email me.

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