Do you ever get an overwhelming feeling that you don't deserve your success and a fear that one day you’ll be found out to be a fraud? An estimated 70% of people experience these ‘imposter’ feelings at some point in their life, although they might not know it or have the language to describe it.
In this post, I explore signs of imposter syndrome and some strategies for overcoming it so that you can start to fulfil your true potential.
I was recently involved in some group coaching work with a couple of fairly newly established coaches and despite already working with some clients, receiving positive feedback from coaching sessions and having a potential pipeline of prospective clients, there was a lot of self-doubt present, coupled with an overbearing fear of failure. Observing these behaviours, my logical thoughts were that the coachees were experiencing the discomfort of being outside of their comfort zone and that it’s normal to feel unsure when you are doing something new.
I’ve also worked with quite a lot of successful professional women over the years during my HR career who battle with imposter syndrome and self-limiting beliefs, particularly as they progress into more senior roles and work with challenging peers and stakeholders. I've seen how much it's holding them back and the frustration and lack of career satisfaction this has caused. These are all examples of highly successful and competent professionals.
My Own Experience
When I reflect back on my career, I recognise times when I have felt the creep and paralysis of self-doubt and the gnawing fear of being found out. Typically, this was around times of promotion – taking on greater responsibility and working with more senior stakeholders – and when setting up my own business. My aforementioned logic abandoned me during these times, and in my earlier years, I didn’t really understand why I was feeling that way or what to do about it. I remember spending the initial 6 months of a promotion to Director living in constant fear of failing and being perceived as not knowing what I was doing. It had such a powerful control over me. I enlisted a coach and was relieved to learn that this was a common phenomenon. It gave me a starting point for developing appropriate strategies.
Having spent a lot of time working through my own challenges and coming out the other side, with the odd lapse from time to time, I'm particularly interested in this area when it comes to my Coaching practice as I personally know how constrictive it can be - the negative self-talk, avoidance of or limited risk taking, procrastination, perfectionism, to name but a few. It's taken a lot of soul searching and at times, holding the mirror up to myself, but it's all been worth the uncomfortableness. Being coached has helped me to become comfortable with being uncomfortable, to tune into my mind, body and emotions to understand what is going on so that I can free myself to develop clear actions that take me forward.
So, What is Imposter Syndrome?
The term “imposter syndrome” was coined by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R.Clance and Suzanne A. Imes who refer to it as:
”high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Despite external evidence of their competence, [they] are convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.”
Imposter syndrome symptoms are a constant fear of exposure, isolation and rejection. It can create feelings of self-doubt such as self-sabotage and fear of failure or success, often kicking in at moments of success. High achievers have a tendency to focus on what they haven't accomplished as opposed to what they have. Imposter syndrome can become a self-fulfilling pattern of thought and difficult to break the cycle.
Common Signs of Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome is something that you develop over a long period of time which can be triggered unexpectedly. The likelihood is that you are carrying something from your past with you into the present day. Some common signs are:
Self-doubt: whilst it is fairly normal to have passing moments of self-doubt when mastering something new or challenging, a constant lack of confidence can be a sign of imposter syndrome. For example, telling yourself ‘I don’t deserve this’, ‘I’m not good enough.’
Fear of Judgement & Discovery: having a persistent fear of being judged or not being able to accept that you are good enough. and over-compensating to prove otherwise. You may be experiencing a constant fear of being outed as incompetent or a fraud.
Self-sabotage: when you do something that gets in the way of your intent, or of your bigger dreams and goals. It may be under the guise of self-preservation - safeguarding and defending yourself. This can be so subtle and easy to miss, e.g., over-planning, searching for inspiration, lack of commitment or consistency.
Perfectionism: feelings of never being satisfied with your achievements and setting unreasonably high goals for yourself, coupled with negative feelings when you don’t achieve them.
Downplaying Your Achievements: negative self-talk kicks in, you downplay your achievements and elevate others instead, refusing to own your success. You may be holding yourself back from achieving your career goals.
People Pleasing: looking for external validation and acceptance through charm or acquiescence but despite successful acceptance from people, you still experience negative feelings as you don’t believe that they really accept you for who you are behind the charm.
Strategies for Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome is a false belief system, a result of intense experiences and deep-rooted beliefs you have about yourself. Below are some strategies that can help you to break the cycle over time:
Acknowledge your feelings: learn to tune into your mind and body and recognise when you are feeling off. Sit with your feelings and try to understand why you are feeling the way you are feeling or why you are doing what you are doing. If you are experiencing incongruent feelings, there may be a discrepancy between your perceived and ideal yourself. Try grounding yourself by focusing on the present moment.
Challenge self-limiting beliefs: these are beliefs or decisions we have made about ourselves and/or our model of the world that limit the way we live. Ask yourself – what is the actual reality? What am I losing out on or not having as a result of this self-limiting belief? What could I do or have as a result of letting go of it? What would that feel like? take more risks. This seems counterintuitive, but by taking calculated risks and succeeding, you can build a case against your inner critic. Avoid being reckless, though, as this can be self-sabotaging. Start your day off with an intention and 3 positive affirmations – read your affirmations out loud each morning.
Stopping self-sabotage: be aware of your behaviour and think about the underlying emotion that comes before it. Practice self-awareness and mindfulness. Ask yourself daily what is going right or what is working. Try altering your perspective positively so that you can practice gratitude in your life. By practicing gratitude this will help you to increase your happiness and satisfaction, whilst limiting the amount of self-sabotaging behaviour you engage in.
Re-label or reframe what’s going on: e.g., if you are feeling scared, tell yourself you are excited. If you don’t feel you are good enough, tell yourself you accept yourself just as you are and that’s good enough. By making a shift in the nature of a problem or changing the structure or context of a statement to give it another meaning, this will free you up.
Change the negative self-talk: the more you increase your awareness of what’s going on, you can begin to make more choices about how you respond by recognising that it’s happening and changing negative self-talk to a more positive language. E.g., don’t let negative self-talk have lots of airtime, shut it down as soon as possible. Acknowledge the thought and then replace it with a more positive and helpful one. If I’m feeling out of my depth, I tell myself ‘I might not know how to do it, yet…I am learning and gaining experience, working towards being able to master it in due course.’ This helps me to take the pressure off myself. Distance yourself emotionally by thinking of yourself in the third person.
Talk to others: one thing I’ve learnt over time as I started to speak out more about my past experiences, is that it resonates with so many people. Some of those people have never talked about it before or not realised what it was they were experiencing. Recognise that there’s no shame in reaching out for help if you need it. Think about a trusted family member, friend or colleague you can talk to. There can be such comfort in sharing as it shows that you are not alone, and you can learn from others in terms of strategies they have successfully adopted.
Fake it ‘til you make it: going back to my previous example of my Director promotion, this is one of the strategies I applied (in addition to challenging my self-limiting beliefs and changing my negative self-talk). I observed role models, I read and researched, I asked for help from a couple of trusted peers, and I celebrated small successes. Over time I found my internal locus of control (see below) accepting that I deserved the promotion and had the ability to successfully perform in the role. Whenever you find yourself thinking about what you haven’t done well, refer back to those positive truths about who you are and the ways in which you add value to the world.
Carry out a personal SWOT analysis: Think of the positive qualities that best describe you as a person. Remind yourself of these traits you possess every day until they sink in. Write down the qualities that you like the most about yourself. Then write down the things that you value the most in your life. Consider volunteering to be a mentor for junior colleagues, this can be a great way to find your inner expert. When you teach other people the things that you know, it benefits them and helps you heal any fraudulent feelings that you may be feeling towards yourself.
Overcome your perfectionism: start by acknowledging it and trying to understand what it is feeding. Develop new, more healthy standards and identify the benefits for you of adjusting to your new standards. Set yourself small adjustment steps and be mindful of your self-talk as you work on transitioning.
Own your successes: having an internal locus of control means that you recognise that your success is as a result of the effort and hard work you have invested. Review the choices and decisions you made that have led (or will lead) to something good happening for you. This develops trust in yourself and believing that you are capable of success.
Ted Talk: How to speak up for yourself. Adam Galinsky
Ted Talk: What reality are you creating for yourself? Isaac Lidsky
Books – recommendations by Positive Psychology:
If anything here resonates with you and you would like to explore coaching or an NLP breakthrough day, please do get in touch for an informal no-obligation exploratory call - 07791 863092 / firstname.lastname@example.org