Joanne*, a newly appointed territory manager in a multinational company, made a vulnerable revelation at our first coaching session: ‘I feel like there is a little insecure girl who sits inside me and rules my thinking… trying to convince me that I am not as good as my colleagues think I am, and that I am soon going to be found out…’
In my coaching practice I often come across the phenomenon of ‘…intense thoughts of intellectual and/or professional fraudulence despite verifiable achievements’.1 It is a common pattern I observe among high-achieving professional individuals, both men and women.
The term ‘imposter phenomenon’ (IP) has become widely popularised, even if often under the more colloquial banner of a syndrome; many clients I work with are familiar with this professional jargon and readily volunteer that they have it. Clients frequently describe ‘overcoming the imposter syndrome’ as one of their main coaching objectives.
The notion of ‘overcoming a syndrome’, however, immediately creates a sense of pressure to take action and fight the ‘culprit’. In my view, this can often deepen the client’s sense of being somehow inadequate, and create a false sense of the possibility of closing the door on something that has been developing as a part of their ‘life script’,2 often for decades.
In recently published quantitative research, organisational psychologists Zanchetta et al suggest that the main objective of coaching interventions aimed at reducing the consequences of IP should be to focus on facilitating a shift from an ‘entity’ to a ‘growth’ mindset.3
This conclusion resonates with my experience of working with the imposter phenomenon in coaching, and that is why I invite you, as coaches, to help our clients develop a healthy relationship with their imposter so it serves as a platform for growth, rather than struggling with making the phenomenon disappear.
I will share some of my thoughts on the subject of developing a healthy relationship with the imposter and will use some of my work with Joanne to share some of the strategies and interventions that have served her well in our coaching relationship. This sharing is based on the direct feedback from Joanne, who generously agreed to share her observations a couple of months after our coaching assignment was completed.
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Although I have chosen a specific case study of a female leader with which to illustrate this article, I have written this for anyone who is familiar with the intense ruminations and associated imposter feelings, experiences which often get in the way of enjoying professional success and maximising performance.
Normalising the experience
Joanne shared that our initial exploration of her feelings and behaviours helped her realise that, despite having received a promotion to the role of a territory manager, she was acting as someone who was still seeking approval. She was afraid of being exposed as less competent and as lacking the necessary knowledge to perform the role.
In their book, How Women Rise, leadership experts Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith observe that women’s habit of undermining their own authority by minimising themselves often reduces their chances of having the desired influence.4
Joanne was relieved to learn that many other high-achieving individuals share similar experiences. Many such experiences are largely unconscious – something that coaching can help to uncover as well as facilitatating the development of coping strategies. Joanne also told me that she had not previously heard of the imposter phenomenon, and she felt reassured and even liberated to discover that there was a name for what she was experiencing.
One question I often ask my coaching clients is: ‘If you knew that more than half of the people who you work with have similar insecurity, how would it change your perspective?’
Imposter phenomenon, like any other type of self-doubt, is a protection mechanism. That is why it is important that as coaches we invite the client to honour the protective side of it and treat it with kindness and appreciation.
Feeling self-doubt occasionally is part of being human. It is deeply connected with our desire to belong and be accepted – one of the most basic human emotional needs. It’s hardly surprising that this need can sometimes force us into ‘playing small’ in order to please or avoid potential criticism. Although cultural and generational differences might apply, girls in particular are often encouraged to care more about being liked and happy, rather than being successful. Women are taught to please, but it’s harming their careers.4
Self-doubt is also an element of creative reflection – considering options, scanning and exploring possibilities are all part of that process. However, if self-doubt becomes repetitive and circular, it loses its creative potential and contributes to growing anxiety and depression. That is why developing a healthy relationship with IP as a form of self-doubt and learning how to move on are important for proper functioning.
Staying with the experience, rather than looking for quick fixes
In my coaching practice, I often invite my clients to explore where their imposter feeling originated. Psychiatrist Eric Berne famously coined the term ‘life script’, defined as ‘an unconcious life plan’ that is formed in childhood, reinforced by parents, and justified by subsequent events, culminating in a ‘chosen alternative’.2 Our script and associated behaviours have often taken many years to develop and, although this may sound counterintuitive, there are frequently some positive aspects in how that script has been serving us.
Joanne, for example, revealed that demonstrating signs of insecurity had often won her praise at school, as well as reassurance from her more senior colleagues later in life. She said that she was also perceived as an excellent team player as her colleagues rarely encountered her competitive side, something her insecurities masked.
When I invited Joanne to reflect on the qualities that made her the best candidate for the new role, she concluded that being perceived as an excellent team player, keen to support others rather than out to beat them, was important. In combination with her strategic mindset, her excellent team management, integrity, work ethic and commitment made her an ideal candidate when the time had come to appoint a new territory manager.
‘What might be the potential downsides if you were to behave in a more self-assured manner?’, I asked her.
At the end of our session, Joanne shared that it was useful and important to talk about and acknowledge what she might lose if she were to change her behaviour. She came to the conclusion that she was not quite prepared to ‘navigate the sea’ reassurance free and that receiving occasional reassurance still remained important to her. She also appreciated our discussion of how that need could be met, without jeopardising her image as the ‘woman in charge’.
Exploring specific situations and making broader conclusions about those that trigger the imposter
I invited Joanne to explore a specific situation where her imposter feelings were triggered.
She began: ‘I will need to present the company’s vision to hundreds of our business partners and customers in two weeks’ time. A tall, blonde woman in my mid 40s, a new territory manager, speaking in front of a seasoned sophisticated audience, many of them outstanding speakers… I feel really uncomfortable about appearing in the spotlight. I just don’t feel like I am at the same level…’
I then invited Joanne to examine her assumptions about the status and power of her audience. Status and power are subjective attributes. As sociologists Berger and Luckmann state, what is ‘real’ to a Tibetan monk may not be ‘real’ to an American businessman.5 Consequently, someone with a high status in the eyes of a Western businessman may be perceived as commonplace by a Tibetan monk. We often tend to construct those who are older or who we perceive as more experienced, more connected or better educated, as being of higher status than ourselves. Such assumptions inevitably feed the imposter feelings.
Moreover, such constructions inhibit our confidence and spontaneity, often getting in the way of our being fully present in a dialogue.
Joanne and I explored the assumptions that she was making about her status differential with the people she was going to present to. What, perhaps, could be a more liberating alternative to her limiting assumptions?
‘What if, instead of being critically assessed and looked down at by them, as you expect, you are actually a source of inspiration?’ I suggested.
Fear of rejection triggers bodily responses associated with experiencing shame. Shame, like trauma, puts the body in a freeze state and lowers the ability to think and act clearly.6
‘But what if, instead of imagining the words and faces of the people who might criticise or be envious, you visualise and focus your attention on those who will be inspired?’
My intervention immediately encouraged Joanne to come up with a list of people who would be in the audience for her presentation, and who had always looked up to her.
‘I still feel like I have to do so much homework before I can present credibly. I just do not feel like I have the in-depth knowledge of the subject that I am supposed to talk about. So much reading and research still to be done’, Joanne sighed.
Helgesen and Goldsmith observe that a woman’s habit of developing excessive expertise and the fact that society promotes a habit of perfectionism in women often hinder their chances of thriving in the workplace.4
Joanne told me that these were indeed traits she could recognise in herself, and admitted that, on reflection, there was less preparation work that she actually needed to do than she initially imagined.
She also shared that my invitation to explore what inspired her about making a speech to her audience and what it was she really wanted them to learn from her presentation, were particularly helpful. ‘I never have problems talking about things that I love to a big audience’, she concluded with a smile.
Exploring the practical steps and coping mechanisms that can be used when the imposter feelings get triggered
Two months after our coaching assignment was completed, Joanne told me that when the imposter feelings occur, she uses the following routines that help her to manage her feelings and move on:
- ‘If you knew that more than half of the people who you work with have similar insecurity, how would it change your perspective?’
This question has helped Joanne to remind herself that her feelings are normal and are indeed shared by many. She explains: ‘There is a lot to be said for liking your own imposter. Stress, tiredness, pressure, fear and external aggression almost immediately trigger my imposter, which I have now learned to manage, but in moments of calmness, friendliness and success, I realise that my little imposter helps me and makes me who I am.’
- ‘What if, instead of imagining the words and faces of the people who might criticise or be envious, you focus your attention on and visualise those who will be inspired?’
When rumination becomes repetitive, Joanne now finds it easier to recognise and remind herself that the role and the title have already been awarded to her. Therefore, her efforts need to be focused on doing her best for her team, those who look to her for inspiration, and the organisation as a whole, rather than ruminating, doubting and trying to prove herself.
- ‘Is what that little girl is trying to tell me really true?’
When the ‘little insecure girl’ inside her throws her into an unproductive bout of self-doubt, Joanne now coaches herself by asking this question. She adds: ‘What could be a more liberating alternative to the assumption than that the little girl invites me to make here?’
Concluding this article on a more light-hearted note, I offer readers a reminder of the point I made in opening it about the subliminal pressure inherent in the phrase ‘overcoming the imposter syndrome’. I encourage my clients to think of a healthy relationship with the so-called ‘imposter phenomenon’ by inviting them to strike an optimum balance between the two polarities of being overly modest and overly pompous.
The first pole is brilliantly expressed by Marianne Williamson: ‘There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do... And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.’7
These words serve as a useful reminder that we can find ourselves downplaying our capabilities and need some encouragement to let our true superhero self shine through; false modesty can inadvertently impair the ability of others to raise their game and be at their best.
The second pole is captured nicely in the observation of Mark Twain: ‘All the great men are dead, and I’m not feeling too well myself’.8
This amusing paraphrase of a quote from Mark Twain’s Speeches is a great encouragement for retaining a sense of perspective. Leadership undoubtedly requires us to step into our power, but self-humility and vulnerability in our leaders can help others to engage and empathise with them, facilitating a more productive and mutually rewarding relationship.
*name and any distinguishing features have been disguised
1 Clance PR, Imes S. The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 1978; 15: 241–247.
2 Berne E. What do you say after you say hello. New York: Grove Press; 1972.
3 Zanchetta M, Junker S, Wolf AM, Traut-Mattausch E. Overcoming the fear that haunts your success – the effectiveness of interventions for reducing the impostor phenomenon. Frontiers in Psychology 2020: 11: 405.
4 Helgesen S, Goldsmith M. How women rise: break the 12 habits holding you back. London: Random House Business; 2018.
5 Berger PL, Luckman T. The social construction of reality. London: Penguin; 1991.
6 Center for Healing Shame. Shame, resourcing, and optimal distance. [Online.] https://healingshame.com/articles/2017/8/21/shame-and-trauma (accessed 10 April 2022).
7 Williamson M. A return to love: reflections on the principles of ‘a course in miracles’. London: HarperCollins; 1992.
8 Twain M. Mark Twain’s speeches. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 2012