If you google ‘imposter syndrome’ you will find thousands of articles, research studies and YouTube videos. Imposter syndrome has long been a catchcry of women, but as an executive coach my experience suggests that many people – men and women, younger and older, people of a wide range of backgrounds and experiences – feel like imposters at different times in their lives.
Feeling a lack of confidence, that you still have much to learn or that you are out of your comfort zone is not always a bad thing. In fact, these feelings of incompetence can be the inspiration and motivation for us to push ourselves to learn and develop.
However, consistent and deep feelings of not being good enough can be debilitating and can impact all parts of a person’s life. This is what is often referred to as imposter syndrome. It has been defined as the ‘experience of feeling incompetent and of having deceived others about one’s abilities’ (Langford and Clance, 1993).
Acknowledging imposter syndrome is the first step towards overcoming it. It’s important to recognise the impact this type of thinking has on us and to make deliberate and consistent efforts to mitigate it. Do not allow imposter syndrome to become your excuse for self-destructing or not reaching your full potential.
I recently read the book The Big Leap: Conquer your hidden fear and take life to the next level by Gay Hendricks, in which she proposes four key reasons that imposter syndrome exists.
- Lack of belief in self. This involves the kind of self-talk in which we say, ‘There is fundamentally something wrong with me’ or ‘I don’t deserve success’. This often leads to self-destructive behaviour, either consciously or unconsciously.
- Fear of being a traitor to our roots and values. This is the belief that by doing what you are doing, by being who you are, you are you are letting someone else down – for example, your parents, your partner, your children. You fear being disloyal to your roots, for example, as the ‘poor’ kid who makes it big but feels guilty because their upbringing taught them that only greedy people are rich.
- Feeling that success is a burden. With success often comes the obligation to continue to succeed or to support others. If you’re troubled by this feeling, you may present yourself as a martyr or victim.
Tall poppy syndrome. This involves feeling that we must ‘dim the lights’ of our future so that we don’t outshine others – such as our partner, parents, siblings or friends – and make them feel bad. Many amazing and talented people have made their talented spouses or partners feel this way, including Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein and F Scott Fitzgerald, whose respective partners Dora Maar, Mileva Marić-Einstein and Zelda Fitzgerald often felt relegated to the shadows. To avoid our own partners feeling this way, we might be tempted to diminish our potential.
When coaching individuals and leaders some of the questions we ask to challenge their thinking and minimise the negative impact of imposter syndrome include the following.
- Do you relate to any of the descriptions above?
- What assumptions are you making when you say/think/feel this?
- What evidence do you have to support this thought/assumption?
- What evidence do you have to the contrary?
- What is it costing you to continue thinking this way?
- What is the worst that is going to happen if you do fail?
If you are unsure if you are an imposter, try taking this free Imposter Syndrome Test.
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