Many of my coaching clients want to talk about their confidence to carry out their role. They use phrases such as “I’m a fraud”, “I’m going to be found out” – which tells me that they are troubled by “imposter syndrome” as well as possibly a lack of confidence.
Imposter syndrome is something I know only too well, being a sufferer myself. Certain situations trigger the “soon someone will find out I don’t know what I am doing” thoughts which can rapidly turn into a spiral into the darkest regions of my brain. In general, these feelings are totally unfounded in reality. For me, the trigger was around my capability as an academic researcher – despite dozens of publications in learned journals, winning millions of pounds of funding, and attracting PhD students and researchers to work in my team. All the evidence is there to suggest I am not (or at least was not – given my change in career) an imposter. But there is nothing rational about imposter syndrome – even those at the top of their field, like Katerina Johnson Thompson – world beating heptathlon are vulnerable. Maya Angelou and Albert Einstein also made reference to feeling like they were “going to be found out” or were ” a swindler”.
In fact, imposter syndrome affects people of all ages, all backgrounds, all roles and professions. If you have the courage to talk about it, you will probably find that firstly, people will be amazed that you, yes you, have those thoughts, and secondly that many people you know will also be sufferers. This can in itself be reassuring, but may not be enough to stop the imposter voice preventing you from applying for that promotion, taking that opportunity or having the confidence to do your role your way.
The good news is that whilst imposter syndrome may never go away entirely, it is possible to quieten it down – with practice. A client recently sent me a list of 10 imposter syndrome statements that were playing on a repeat loop. In our session, she picked the one that was the loudest at the time “I’m not the sort of person people want to collaborate with”, and then we spent 30 mins looking at half a sentence. First she identified the trigger situations for the voice to become amplified. Then she came up with the counter-evidence to her unhelpful thoughts – in this case a long list of people – 2 sides of A4 – who did already work with her or who wanted to work with her, and counter-examples of how those people had come to work with her. Actually writing it down is key here – we needed to get the evidence out in the daylight where the “imposter” voice couldn’t ignore it’s presence. She then came up with a more helpful phrase “There are many people nationally and internationally, at all career stages, who I already work with and who want to continue working with me”.
This type of coaching, replacing an unhelpful belief with a more helpful one, is based in Cognitive Behavioral Coaching. It is perfectly possible to coach yourself in this way once you know the technique, but many people, myself included, find that it is easier to quieten that voice and find the evidence with the support of a coach.
If you’d like to learn more about imposter sydrome, there are some excellent Ted Talks by Elizabeth Cox and Valerie Young.
And if you’d like to work with me to learn how to manage your imposter syndrome – get in touch!