In my coaching practice, one of the most common “root causes” of stress that I come across, is the so-called Imposter Syndrome – also known as The Imposter Phenomenon.
Helping you to uncover the real root cause of your stress is one of the ways in which coaching helps you better manage and reduce your stress (or to improve or change anything else for that matter).
And this is important, because when you tackle the root cause of an issue, you stand a chance of finding and developing solutions that actually get to the heart of the matter, rather than simply putting sticking-plasters in place over the symptoms (which tend to help for a while, but never stick well and don’t actually make the problem go away).
You may have heard of Imposter Syndrome, and been wondering whether it applies to you. Or you may be looking for reasons why you feel so stressed and anxious about your performance at work when, on the face of it, you appear to have nothing to worry about. Or perhaps you are looking for ways to let go of the Imposter Syndrome that is causing you stress or getting in the way of enjoying your work.
In all these cases, this blog is for you.
First, let’s start with what Imposter Syndrome is not. It’s not an alternative, more professional-sounding way of saying self-doubt. We all suffer from self-doubt sometimes. It’s a normal part of going about our everyday work and life.
That’s not to belittle the impact that doubting ourselves can have on our ability to get things done, try new things or be brave enough to “feel the fear and do it anyway”, by the way. But the Imposter Syndrome goes some way beyond the self-doubt we may feel about being able to do a particular thing or try something difficult.
Imposter Syndrome is characterised by an inability to internalise your success. It is the sense that you don’t deserve the success you have achieved, and/or that you are not as successful as others think you are – despite demonstrable evidence that you are competent and have achieved that success.
And the overwhelming feeling that someone with Imposter Syndrome has, is feeling like a fraud. Believing that someone will surely soon find out that you aren’t what people think you are.
The Imposter Syndrome was first described in 1978 by researchers Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes at Georgia State University. Their view at that time was that it was mostly experienced by professional women – particularly those for whom success had come quickly, or had high achieving parents, or were first-generation professionals, or members of minority groups or students.
Since then, research has shown that around 7 in 10 people experience Imposter Syndrome at some time or another, and that it is equally common in men and women.
Famously, Neil Armstrong was known to have the Imposter Syndrome, having been recorded as saying at an event:
Addtionally, my experience in coaching clients (and, in fact, my own experience with Imposter Syndrome) is that the Imposter Syndrome often seems to co-exist with a drive to Be Perfect.
While having some advantages in terms of setting yourself stretching goals, pushing yourself to achieve lots and setting yourself high standards, giving yourself every chance of being successful, being a perfectionist has its own challenges in relation to stress: overwork, being fearful of making mistakes and tending to judge yourself based on your perception of others’ views of you, rather than on reality. And many of these challenges are right in line with those experienced by those with Imposter Syndrome.
In my experience (personal and professional), Imposter Syndrome can come and go for periods of time, and it can be experienced at different degrees of severity.
Some people feel like an imposter only relatively fleetingly or occasionally. Imagine that moment before you go and stand on a stage to present something to a group of people and, as the nerves mount, you suddenly think “why on earth would they want to listen to me talk about this – what do I know, really?”.
For others it is something that accompanies a particular situation. Perhaps starting a new job, walking into the room and discovering you’re a lot younger or a lot more female than everyone else there, and having a sense that you don’t belong and can’t possibly be qualified to do this new role, that there must have been some kind of mistake.
And for yet other people, the feeling of being an imposter can be all-encompassing, very debilitating, and affect the way they feel about themselves and their ability over a very long period of time.
The more severe it feels, the bigger its impact is likely to be on how you go about things and, or course, on the stress you experience as a result.
If you’re in the grip of Imposter Syndrome, the kinds of things you’re likely to recognise in yourself are:
- A belief that all the success you have apparently had, has come by chance, by luck, simply by being in the right place at the right time, or as a result of things that others have done.
- Feeling that anyone could have achieved what you have in your job, because your job’s so easy anyone can do it. And anyway, if you can do it anyone can, it can’t be that hard.
- Dismissing your own strengths or talents as being “something everyone can do” – they are unremarkable.
- Considering that others have an over-inflated opinion of you and what you’re capable of
- Feeling a lack of confidence in yourself
- Being regularly on edge, as you are never comfortable that you are doing well enough, and are in constant fear that your position is in danger
- Being really afraid of being found out, and of the consequences of being found out (chief among them may be losing your job, as it’s discovered you are a fraud and not really able and competent to do what’s being asked of you)
There are a number of reasons why stress and burnout are regularly experienced by people with Imposter Syndrome.
First, there’s the impact that your thoughts have on you physiologically, through the stress response.
Our stress response is activated and occurs when we feel in danger. If we feel unsafe – which people struggling with Imposter Syndrome often do, having the sense that they are about to be caught-out – then we feel we are in danger. And if the thing that you think is going to happen when you’re caught out is that you’ll be discredited, or worse lose your job, then the feeling of danger is magnified, because the impact of that could be losing your income and your ability to pay your mortgage and keep a roof over your head.
And that would cause a stress-response in virtually everyone.
Other stress-response-inducing thought patterns also often live alongside the one about being found out too. Chief among theses is a fear of failure, but also, ironically, a fear of success – because achieving success will really set off your belief that you’re an imposter who doesn’t actually deserve the plaudits you’re receiving.
Beyond the fact that this feeling of being unsafe and in danger activates your stress response, the Imposter Syndrome also often leads to you behaving in ways that cause you additional pressure, anxiety and stress, and can lead to burnout.
You may well find yourself overworking– doing everything yourself in an attempt to prove to yourself that you are personally good enough or because you are afraid to delegate things to someone else in case they are not done well enough and you are then exposed.
Or working long hours, taking longer over doing everything to make sure nobody can find fault, and in the process uncover your utter incompetence.
You could well find yourself procrastinating over important tasks, subconsciously avoiding the moment where you have to confront whether or not you are capable of doing them and not wanting anyone to find out that actually, you can’t do what they’ve assumed you can. Instead, you prefer the get-out that you simply ran out of time.
Or you may choose to “downshift” your goals, choosing to do easier things, or even a simpler job with less responsibility, to increase your chances of being able to do it. And in the process, never truly realising your potential, and likely not feeling fulfilled or happy with your lot, which can leave you feeling depressed and anxious.
There’s a number of things you can do to tackle the feelings of Imposter Syndrome.
Your aim is to be able to truly internalise and accept your successes, so there is no longer anything to be “found out” or feel like a fraud over.
Here’s four simple things you can do yourself:
Recognising this as “a thing” can really help it become less terrible. And more normal. Say it out loud when you are feeling it: “This is just that Imposter Syndrome.”
Gather together evidence of your successes in one place, and then practice remembering these successes by looking through them regularly. Include things from other people like notes of thanks or recognition, awards you’ve won, certificates of qualifications, copies of your annual appraisals, for example. And also make your own notes about how you feel and what you’ve achieved when you have a success, and include those too.
Spend some time thinking about the things you are good at, how you use them and when they are valuable. If you’re not sure where to start with this, I recommend using the online tools at either www.strengthsprofile.com or www.atmybest.com to help you start uncovering your strengths.
You’ll probably get great feedback…and then instantly reject it. But you may also find that sharing how you feel helps you realise that you haven’t suddenly been uncovered and found out, and that someone else knowing about this is OK. You may even find the person you’re talking to is feeling the same (with 70% of us feeling like this, you’ve got a pretty high chance!), and there’s nearly always strength in numbers.
If your Imposter Syndrome feels like it’s been rooted for some time, you may appreciate a little more help to overcome it. Working with a coach, like me, to overcome your Imposter Syndrome, we’ll also help you do things like:
This can take some time and exploring, and is not always the first place to start. However, in my experience many people can eventually pinpoint something or some time that triggered their feeling of being an imposter. Being helped to look at this through a new lens, find new perspectives on it and exploring the validity of how you feel now based on that event can be a really useful way to let go of the Imposter within you.
This helps you develop more helpful and truthful beliefs about the things that are causing your Imposter Syndrome, allowing you to see yourself and your abilities in a different light. And, ultimately, allow you to accept your successes as belonging to you and being deserved by you.
Develop strategies that help you feel OK with being “good enough” rather than “perfect” and enable you to feel more comfortable with making mistakes, more resilient to things going wrong, and able to spend less time perfecting everything you do.
I’m Jo Lee, the No Stress Success Coach. I help ambitious people achieve the successful, enjoyable work life they want, without the stress, self-doubt and exhaustion they don’t. I help you make changes that mean you control your work rather than it controlling you, so you’re able to switch off, worry less, sleep better, work less and live more.. So you feel balanced, not burned out.
I offer face to face stress management coaching, work life balance coaching and career success coaching in Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire and Birmingham and online coaching across the UK. If anything in this blog post resonates with you, and you’d like to find out more about how coaching works to help you manage stress or overcome Imposter Syndrome or what coaching with me might be like, please get in touch for an informal chat or to arrange a free initial consultation.