I’m out of my depth”

“I’m such a fraud”

“I’m going to get found out”

“I don’t deserve to be here”

“I’ve just been lucky”

Sound familiar?

If it does, then you may be experiencing what is known as Imposter Syndrome.

People with imposter syndrome believe they do not have the ability or intelligence to succeed in their roles, despite evidence to the contrary. They may consider themselves to be a fraud i.e. they think they’re in a role which they’re not qualified for or which is beyond their capabilities. They might be concerned that they’re constantly under scrutiny and are at risk of their “fraud” being revealed. They may also think that their position has only been achieved through good fortune and that there are others who are far more deserving.

“The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler”

Albert Einstein

Those negative thoughts are often accompanied by two things: first, damaging internal emotional reactions (typically stress, guilt and/or anxiety) and, secondly, unhelpful external behaviours. Those behaviours can take a variety of forms but can include:

  • Working ever harder:  people with the syndrome may work increasingly hard or set ever more difficult challenges for themselves. They seek validation and approval for the work they’re doing in order to try and demonstrate to themselves and others that they are capable of fulfilling their role. However, any failure to achieve those exacting goals leads to a reinforcement of their underlying self-doubt.
  • Perfectionism: other sufferers may feel they are never satisfied with the quality of their work or that of others and may go to excessive lengths to get things right and avoid any mistakes. Again, when the inevitable failure occurs this reinforces their thinking that they’re incapable.

“I am not a writer.  I’ve been fooling myself and other people”

John Steinbeck

So what can I do about it?

The good news? You’re not alone! Some studies indicate that as many as 70% of us experience imposter syndrome at some point in our professional lives. More importantly, you can help yourself overcome that imposter experience by following the steps set out below. This process is based fundamentally on the cognitive behavioural coaching model which I spoke about in a previous blog article here.

Step 1: Recognise and accept the negative thinking

In order to tackle the negative thinking associated with imposter syndrome we need to recognise and accept it when it occurs. When you experience those tell-tale signs of anxiety or stress, try and take a moment to note your thinking – what is going through your head at that point in time? Don’t try and analyse those thoughts at this stage: simply recognise that they’re occurring and accept them as part of the way your sub-conscious operates. 

Step 2: Record that negative thinking

Writing down both your thoughts and associated emotional reactions can be enormously powerful – the simple act of writing something down can be cathartic, reduces the immediate emotional impact and gives you something concrete to revisit later. Sometimes called “journaling”, this record doesn’t need to be an academic discourse or lengthy piece of navel gazing: just some honest notes on your emotional reaction and the underlying thinking eg: “When my boss asked me for an update today on the progress of my project, I immediately felt anxious. I’m worried that he thinks that I’m completely out of my depth

Likewise, record any behaviours that may have flowed from those thoughts and reactions eg: “I spent the weekend preparing a detailed report summarising the project for him to review on Monday so he knows that I’m on top of this

Step 3: Record your successes

Imposter syndrome is irrational in that your negative thoughts and self-doubts are rarely likely to be supported by objective evidence. So, in the same way as you record your feelings of self-doubt, take some time to note down your successes, for example:

  • feedback from your peers
  • input from your manager – both informal and in appraisals
  • comments from your clients/customers
  • projects you have successfully delivered
  • promotions you have received and the reasons for them
  • professional qualifications

Now is not the time to hide your light under a bushel! Be honest and proud of your successes no matter how small.

Step 4: Rationalise the negative thinking

This is where you have the opportunity to break the negative thinking cycle. When you next experience feelings of self-doubt or anxiety take a moment to engage the rational part of your brain: use those past successes that you recorded under Step 3 to demonstrate to yourself that your current worries are irrational eg “My boss knows I’m capable of delivering this project: that’s why he gave it to in the first place. Plus, he’s often said he’s pleased with progress and I’ve received great feedback from others”

“I’m not a classic impostor-syndrome person because I have that initial insecurity but I’m capable of stepping outside of it and proving to myself it’s wrong”

US Supreme Court Justice Sonja Sotomayor

You may find it difficult at first to apply that rational thought when you’re caught up in the moment – the anxiety may take hold. In which case, look back later when you have time. As you practise the process, your sub-conscious will start to do the work for you and apply the objective rational analysis.

Coaching can be an extremely effective way of coming to grips with Imposter Syndrome and developing strategies to deal with it. If you would like to discuss, then please get in touch.