Replacing ‘imposter syndrome’ with compassion and courage

Do you doubt yourself, despite your achievements and the positive feedback you get? Do you ever worry about being 'found out' as a bit of a fraud as you take on new challenges in your business?

If so, you're getting first-hand experience of something you probably know as 'imposter syndrome'.

Kim Morgan, in 'The Coach's Casebook' describes the classic symptoms of imposter syndrome as:

  • Having an inability to internalise your accomplishments.
  • Feeling that other people have an overinflated view of you.
  • Attributing any success you have to luck or just being in the right place at the right time.
  • Being fearful of being 'found out'.
  • Feeling like a fraud.
  • Believing the very fact that you do this work means that it can't be that difficult. Your ability to do something negates the value of it.
  • Looking more at what you can't do, rather than valuing what you can do.

Sound familiar? If my conversations with coaching clients are anything to go by, then it probably does. These feelings of fear and self-doubt come up a lot in coaching.

Imposter syndrome is essentially a disconnect between our internal experience and a (more objective) external reality: the way we feel about ourselves in these moments does not fit with our real level of skill. It also tends to 'gloss over' our unique strengths, achievements and values.

We’ve developed some thought patterns, or internalised belief systems, that are skewing our perception of reality – and creating ongoing stress as a result. This is also known as a 'cognitive distortion', where we filter our experience through outdated belief systems, rather than seeing our current situation as it is.

Our brains are wired to filter things based on our past experiences, which is what helps us function efficiently. This is a survival mechanism to ensure we don’t have to process every single thing repeatedly, but it also means we tend to see things a certain way based on our prior experience (rather than a balanced picture of our current reality).

An inner critic initially forms as a survival mechanism – when we’re young we often blame ourselves for things just because we can’t take on the complexity of the situation we’re in (or because it would actually be more painful to blame our caregivers than to blame ourselves). Along with this, we internalise the ways we’ve heard others criticise us over the years, or even heard others criticise themselves.

So the thought patterns that make up ‘imposter syndrome’ are generally the result of years of patterning. This is why we can’t simply decide to replace those thought distortions with positive thoughts on command!

Equally, we can't make the feelings go away by just working harder and doing better. That's a common approach and – whilst it can keep us driven to achieve more – it doesn't actually help us feel deserving of our success. And what's the point of being successful if we’re too stuck in perfectionism to enjoy it?

The good news is, we can absolutely shift these thought patterns and beliefs over time – and it’s never too late. Hooray for neuroplasticity! We can change our inner dialogue over time, starting to see ourselves in a more positive – and accurate – light.

Here are some activities you can try to get the ball rolling:

  1. Use cognitive behavioural techniques to challenge your 'automatic thoughts', rather than fully believing them. Write down the thoughts you have when you're feeling like a fraud. Then question the thought:

Is it a fact or an opinion?

Is it objectively true?

What alternative interpretations could you make in this situation?

  1. If you get feedback from someone, you might tend to focus solely on the negative parts, or discount the positive. Take some time to deconstruct the feedback, and consider who it's coming from.

Do you trust them?

Are they likely to be honest with you?

To what extent do you need or want to take it on board?

  1. Find a different perspective when you're being hard on yourself:

How would you speak to a friend or colleague in this situation?

What do you think is happening internally for other people around you? What if they also feel uncertain or under-prepared?

Deliberately write down positive evidence to contradict your fears. This isn't about pretending to be positive all the time, just bringing in some balance (since we automatically tend to focus on the negatives in this situation!).

Your internal dialogue has a huge impact on your emotions and your confidence, so try to cut yourself some slack. The more you learn to neutrally observe that harsh inner voice, the more your self-compassion develops to balance it out.

As well as doing this internal work, it can be supportive to look at the bigger picture too. There’s a historical and cultural context to the idea of imposter syndrome that’s important to take into account.

Despite being a well-known phrase, 'imposter syndrome' is actually a bit of a misnomer. Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes first coined the term 'imposter phenomenon' in 1978 to describe a trend in women who – despite being high-achievers – continued to have negative beliefs about their capabilities.

Their research pointed not to a ‘syndrome’ that existed within an individual, but to a cultural phenomenon that happened in workplaces where women were marginalised. It suggested that – having had their authority and capability repeatedly challenged over time – women had internalised the criticism, and developed persistent self-doubt.

Whilst their work took place decades ago, it’s clearly still relevant for us to examine the ways that discrimination and marginalisation of any kind can be a root cause of a critical inner dialogue. Keeping this in mind can bring self-compassion and clarity, as well as encouraging decisive action on discrimination in our communities and workplaces.

A final thought whilst we’re exploring ways to bring compassion to these critical voices…

Anxiety, fears and uncertainty can sometimes just be a totally healthy reaction to taking on new challenges! It’s ok to feel like you haven’t got it all together and you don’t know what you’re doing – it’s not comfortable, but it’s part of the process.

Rather than feeling like there's something wrong with you because of your fears, use the techniques I’ve laid out here to keep moving forward in spite of them!

Considering working with me? Want to meet and see if it's a good fit?
We can have a 30-minute, no-pressure conversation to discuss your current situation and identify your next steps.