7 steps to overcoming Imposter Syndrome
Recently, a number of clients have admitted to feeling imposters in their role. These have included men and women, all who were at the top of their field, including partners of law firms, a group finance director and even directors of private companies with a multi-million turnover.
Impostor syndrome—refers to an internal experience of belief – that you’re not as competent as others around you and you’ve only succeeded due to luck, and not because of your genuine talent, skill or qualifications. Such feelings of fraud are extremely common. It is often accompanied with feelings that our ideas and skills aren’t worthy of others’ attention, ensuring that we don’t speak up, put ourselves forward or share ideas.
A case in point is when I worked with the Head of Compliance of a multinational firm. When I began a coaching programme with her, with the avowed objective of raising her presence in the workplace, what we discovered was a deep-seated imposter syndrome. As a high achiever, she had all the trademarks of the syndrome – hard worker, dedicated, loyal, willing to go above and beyond to help others, whilst inside fearing that she was not good enough to do what she did. Anxious that any time she would be found out and fired.
What I did to help her eradicate these debilitating inner anxieties, was have her undertake three personal assessments – Talent Dynamics, Strengthsfinder and CAPS (Communication Assessment for Preferred Style) which all focus on unearthing her innate talents, strengths and mindsets. We looked at how these were expressed in her work, in her leadership and management style, what difference they made to her team and to her internal clients (and even to her family).
I asked her to reflect on the results she achieved week by week and together we discussed what these showed and demonstrated. Then we examined the thoughts and feelings directly, of anxiety, fears, when they appeared, what they were, and how they made her feel. I challenged her to identify whether those thoughts were rational, sensible or true? She was able to see, recognise and acknowledge that such thoughts were in fact, irrational, nonsensical and totally untrue.
By doing that consciously and with me who never judged her, always supported her to see the truth without fear, (knowing that there was nothing to fear), she was able to go through the process, and then clearly hear her own historical ‘script’ of thoughts when they arose, and to quickly and effectively, dismiss them. Any subsequent attempts by imposter thoughts to affect her were denied and quickly dismissed.
The coaching process took 6 months and 8 sessions, but after a lifetime of struggle with the imposter syndrome she has been completely free of it. Her feedback was “You’ve blown me away, quite literally and metaphorically, and completely changed how I see myself and my interaction with others. I am thankful everyday for the way you’ve changed my thinking. Your sessions are life changing. Thank you!”
When I first researched the subject, it surprised me to find that Albert Einstein and Maya Angelou were two highly accomplished people that also experienced such internal beliefs. The topic was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes and originally they theorized that women were uniquely affected by impostor syndrome. However, subsequent research confirmed that it is an experience shared by men.
I believe that this feeling has been exacerbated by last year’s Covid lockdown – as people have not had the private meetings and chats that enabled people to feel the empathy of others and to experience themselves as accomplished in the eyes of others. There are manifold values to the inter-personal experience which we have missed, and this is an important one.
In experiencing it myself previously and in helping my clients address it in their own lives and work, these are some of the ways that I advise you can overcome imposter syndrome; and enable yourself to do what you wish to do, with the minimum amount of interference.
- Realise that just because you think something doesn’t make it true. The brain and mind have the most incredible nonsense passing through it a lot of the time, and your best primary response is to separate yourself from what it is saying, observe it and ask the question – ‘Is it true?’ You after all, are NOT your mind – you are the Consciousness/Awareness/Observer that observes the mind think and can assess the thoughts it thinks.
- A lot of the time, what it says is not true, it’s a criticism or judgement that we’re making on very little information, to the detriment of ourselves. Often our mind and brains have been badly trained (in psychological terms) by the Ego to assess, judge and criticise everyone and everything else. And often it is this mechanism applied to ourselves that cause these thoughts and feelings of being an Imposter.
- Speak out your feelings/thoughts. Letting others know is a sure-fire way to combat imposter syndrome and admitting to feelings of shame about the specifics of what you’re experiencing, allows others the opportunity to empathise and lets you know you are not alone. Coming out of your mind and feelings into dialogue with others can be tremendously freeing, either by minimising the strength of what you’re thinking or by allowing you to feel that you’re not so different to others.
- Admit the truth if what you are thinking is true. This requires you to examine your thoughts and identify that your feelings of insecurity are based on the fact that you actually don’t have the skills or knowledge required to do something. I remember feelings of inadequacy when in meetings with people who created swaps in investment banking – then I knew I was totally out of my depth. But recognising it was true, enabled me to steer clear of offering opinions, or bluffing and I never purported to be ‘in with that crowd’. A sense of belonging fosters confidence, whilst being with people you are not in affinity with, fosters insecurity.
- Recognise when your feelings are normal. If you’re the only or one of a few people in a meeting, classroom, field, or workplace who look or sound like you, or are much older or younger, then it’s only natural you’d sometimes feel like you don’t totally fit in. Plus, if you’re the first woman, person of colour, or person with a disability to achieve something in your world, e.g. first director, astronaut, judge, supervisor, TED speaker, etc. there’s that added pressure to represent your entire group. Instead of seeing your self-doubt as a sign of imposter syndrome, recognize that it might be a normal response to being on the receiving end of social stereotypes about competence and intelligence.
- Choose and create a new script. Going back to Item 1 – by consciously being aware of the conversation going on in your head when you’re in a situation that triggers your Impostor feelings, you can decide differently. If your internal script is something like “Everyone will find out I have no idea what I’m doing,” tell yourself “Everyone who starts something new doesn’t know everything they need, I may not know all the answers but I’m smart enough to find them out.” Instead of looking around the room and thinking, “Oh my God everyone here is brilliant…. and I’m not” choose “Everyone here is brilliant – I’m really going to learn a lot!”
- Project and visualize your success. Whenever and wherever you are going into a challenging scenario or meeting, spend time beforehand picturing yourself doing the thing that you fear; making a successful presentation or calmly posing your questions or speaking out to contribute to a discussion. You may need to over-write any previous picturing of impending disaster but ensure that you go into a light meditative state to do such projections and they will aid you tremendously. All professional athletes do this, as well as a huge number of high performers. Visualise it, project it and then follow up with actions. Take risks and act courageously to reinforce your projection and over a short period of time, you will undoubtedly experience success.
How about you? Do you experience imposter thoughts and experience anxious feelings that you are not able to get a grip on them to stop? If you try to do the above but feel you need the help of an expert coach to help you address them quickly, effectively and forever, feel free to contact me.
Article: Penny Sophocleous, Corporate Alchemy
7 April 2021