What is impostor syndrome and can coaching help?

Impostor Syndrome

Do you suffer from impostor syndrome?

A number of clients that I work with say they feel like a fake, an impostor at work.  They dread the moment when they will be found out and everyone realises they shouldn’t be there.  These feelings, beliefs and behaviours have been identified as Impostor Syndrome or Impostor Phenomenon and awareness has grown substantially over recent years, with many more people identifying this as one of their challenges. 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 are there by chance.

People can only know what you tell them

Impostor syndrome can affect how others start seeing you. Often people who have impostor syndrome will be self depreciating or put themselves down to others – often because they’re making an excuse for why they’re there. We know that people happily believe what you tell them – after all, they often have nothing else to go by if they don’t know you. 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. You are sabotaging yourself by telling people you’re not sure about something (even when you are), not great, not the expert. Catch yourself and see if you can stop this.

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 accept and believe it.

You don’t accept positive feedback

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. If this is you, take a moment to ask yourself why someone else would give you this feedback if they don’t mean it.

“I was just lucky”

I so often hear entrepreneurs and people who clearly work hard and know what they’re talking about, say “I was lucky and got the funding” or “ there probably wasn’t really anyone else that tried for the job” or “I don’t really know much about this“.  This narrative serves to sabotage any success they achieve and makes everything so much harder. Whilst there may be an element of luck associated with many scenarios, success is generally as a result of hard work and talent.

Constantly questioning yourself and decisions

You may have many years of experience, be good at your job, but still question yourself and your decisions.  You might think others are always right or more experienced / knowledgeable (even when they’re not). You might believe you don’t really have a right to do what you do or share your opinions. Not only are you holding yourself back here but you’re also short-changing others by not sharing your thoughts and opinions which could really move things forward, inspire or change things for the better.

So what can be done to minimise imposter syndrome?

Here are a few tips that I have found help clients I have worked with as an Executive Coach. It is not always easy to rid yourself of Impostor Syndrome but with perseverance it can be done. You’ve probably had a long time to nurture this way of thinking and behaving, and as with any habit, it takes some work and determination to shift.

Share your thoughts

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! This might feel that you’re being vulnerable but it actually takes courage to do this, so see if you can persuade yourself of the benefits and how helpful this is to others too.

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.

Notice what you’re thinking

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.

My model, SNAC helps with this.

S – Stop: work on stopping and taking a moment when you’re feeling that your thoughts are unhelpful.

N – Notice – what are your thoughts saying? How are you feeling.  Take a moment to notice what’s going on.

A – Acknowledge – you are not allowed to criticise yourself or beat yourself up – just accept these are thoughts and examine with compassionate curiosity.  Think – how interesting it is that I think like this.

C – Change – ask yourself what might be a more useful thought or behaviour here. With frequent practice, you will start to change the unhelpful thoughts, one by one and develop more positive, accepting ones.

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

Work on your confidence

Imposter syndrome or phenomenon is often as a result of a lack of confidence.  You’re basically questioning your own ability and talent.  This article might help you start working on your confidence.

Does confident mean you’re arrogant?

Some clients, when we discuss the syndrome, say that they would prefer to feel fake or under confident 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 this internal narrative, that confident people are show offs, makes the day to day extremely stressful. And there’s a big difference between confident and arrogant. They are not the same. It’s worth exploring whether you’re avoiding being confident because you’re afraid of being thought of as arrogant.

Address the fear of making mistakes or perfectionism

If you are hard on yourself and expect nothing but perfect results (what are perfect results? That’s another subject of its own!), then you will never feel that you’re doing the right thing or that you’re the right person for the job.  Turn down that voice that expects everything to be perfect, no mistakes and start asking yourself “what’s the best I can do here?” and if there are mistakes, see them as an opportunity to learn and develop in a different direction.

Coaching can really help with imposter syndrome

Trying to work it out on your own isn’t easy and speaking to someone impartial and non judgmental can be useful, with someone to hold you accountable to making the changes necessary to overcome this behaviour and these thought patterns.

If you would like to discuss how coaching can help, send me an email and we’ll set up a call to discuss.