Impostor syndrome – what it is and how to deal with it

By Marie Ferris, Thrive Coaching & Development


What is impostor syndrome?
Impostor syndrome is the feeling of being a fraud, of doubting your abilities, or thinking that you don’t deserve the success you have earned. It manifests itself in thoughts and feeling like these:
‘I don’t deserve to be here’
‘I’m a fraud and going to get caught out’
‘I’m not good enough for…’
‘What am I doing here, I don’t belong’
Impostor syndrome is a psychological pattern in which people are unable to internalise their successes, attributing them instead to luck, timing or other external factors.  Other people can see their competence and successes, but they can’t. The term was first coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. Their initial research  identified this as a psychological syndrome that uniquely affected women, but further research has shown that it impacts both men and women and that up to 82% of people  may feel like this at some stage.
So, if you have found yourself having thoughts and feelings like this, it’s good to know that you are not alone. I have definitely experienced it.  The first time I facilitated a senior leadership team event; stepping on stage when I won an award for coaching training programmes; being asked to deliver a coaching masterclass for my peers; and even more recently, when I was asked by Women in Business to act as a role model mentor in a programme for women starting their own business. 
The situations I just described when I felt this way where when I was doing something new, stretching myself a little, or getting used to being acknowledged and seen in a way by other people when I hadn’t quite internalised that yet myself.  That’s really common, to feel that way when maybe you have taken on a new role, moved fields, stepped up a level.  And I was able to recognise what was happening and help myself to move past it.
But what if you feel it all the time?  Or so often, that it is getting in the way – impacting on your job, your career, your resilience and health, and even your happiness?  Sometimes, when we feel those impostor thoughts, we can get into a vicious cycle of working harder and harder, holding ourselves to impossibly high standards that we will never reach, comparing ourselves unfavourably to others, and writing off everything we achieve as just being in the right place at the right time, or a fluke of good luck.  Our self-esteem suffers, we focus on every minor mistake, we don’t think we are good enough, we question our every move, and we hold ourselves back.
The good news though is that there are ways of dealing with impostor syndrome.  Steps that you can take to help yourself, whether it is something that happens to you now and again, or even if it is a bit of a pattern of thinking that you have got caught up in.
How to deal with impostor syndrome
1. Acknowledge what is happening and how you are feeling
It sounds too simple, I know, for you to think that it will actually make a real difference, but it’s amazing the power of awareness - just acknowledging what is happening, surfacing how you are feeling and being able to give it a label. 
So, next time, when you start to feel yourself questioning your abilities, waiting to get found out, or writing off your achievements, recognise what is happening and identify it as impostor syndrome.   This is your starting point and just by doing this, it will help you to distance yourself from what is happening, before you get hooked in, and your thoughts and emotions get the chance to spiral and perhaps become invasive or overwhelming. 
Impostor feelings can be pervasive and creep up on you, so if it is something that happens to you on a regular basis, you might want to consider opening up to your colleagues and peers about how you are feeling, or chat it through with a trusted mentor or coach.  I guarantee that you will get the support of knowing that others feel the same and it’s just not you.  You’ll also likely get some great feedback about all your strengths, skill and achievements, and why you are definitely not an impostor. 
2. Celebrate your experience, strengths and achievements
Most of us aren’t good at this.  It’s why so many of us find job interviews difficult.  Ask us about our faults, our weakness and what didn’t go so well, and we are all over it.  Ask us about what we have achieved, and how our skills, strengths and experience has helped that to happen, and for most of us, we find it really difficult to articulate and own.
I see this time and time again when coaching women leaders.  Part of my role as a coach is helping them to see what they have actually achieved and to own how they have contributed to this, before they move on to the next goal, challenge or difficulty. Try this simple exercise that I ask many of my clients to complete - each week write a list of what you have achieved and accomplished that week, what has gone well, what you have moved forward, what challenges you have sorted out, what you have learned. Once you get into the swing of it, it doesn’t have to take too long.  A cup of coffee and 20 minutes and you’re done. 
Now imagine if you had done that for the whole of last year, and how you would feel seeing what you had accomplished.  And, believe me, I know that you will have accomplished a lot; it’s just that we forget what we achieved, we’ve been programmed to be modest and not boast, and human nature is usually to focus on the negative and all those things that we didn’t do, or achieve, or accomplish.
I do a similar exercise myself.  I’m almost 3 years into running my own business, which was such a big change for me, and has involved so many new things and so much learning.  Over those 3 years, it’s been too easy to get caught up in all the things I still need to do, what I haven’t done, what didn’t work, what I’m finding difficult, and to forget what I have actually achieved.  So, each Friday afternoon now, as well as planning my next week, I reflect on what I achieved that week.  It’s been a game changer for me, and I have seen it do the same for many of my clients.
There’s a great NLP concept ‘What you focus on, expands’ and I’m a big believer in that.  Choose to focus on what is working well, what you have achieved, your skills and strengths, and watch it, and your belief in yourself, expand and grow.
3. Challenge your thinking
We’ve recognised what’s happening when those impostor feelings start to pop up, we’ve maybe spoken to someone about it, and we’re learning to focus not only on what we still need to learn and do, but on our strengths, skills, experience and accomplishments as well.  Doing all of that will make a real difference to how often those impostor syndrome thoughts and feelings pop up and how much they impact on us.
Some of those impostor feelings though can run a little bit deeper, maybe hooking into our critical thinking patterns and limiting beliefs.  But actually, they are just thoughts.  And here’s the thing, because you think something, that doesn’t mean it is true or that you have to get sucked into it.  So, once you can recognise what is happening, the next thing is to learn to challenge those critical thinking patterns and limiting beliefs.  It’s a two-step process.  When those thoughts start to emerge, when maybe you don’t feel good enough, or capable, or you feel like a bit of a fraud, you are going to stop and ask yourself:
  1. What’s the facts and evidence to support this? 
  2. And, even more so, what’s the evidence and facts to counter this?
This takes a little bit of effort and practice.  Once we get into a pattern of thinking or beliefs, it can be hard to shift.  They are like magnets. They are always waiting to attract evidence which confirms them. The more evidence they collect, the stronger they get.  Over time the limiting beliefs and our critical thinking patterns are reinforced and become stronger and stronger – so strong that we start to think of it as reality. They repel anything which does not fit with the thinking or belief. This makes it hard to see or believe anything which would contradict or undermine them.  So, your job is to repeat this exercise each time you recognise the impostor feelings pop up, and look for the facts and evidence, until your new thinking becomes your reality.  If you want a little bit more support in doing this, I’ve written a blog on my website, How to manage your inner critic, that will give you some more tips and idea.
Just imagine what you could achieve if you really believed in yourself.
Give yourself permission to believe in yourself.  When those impostor thoughts or feelings start to emerge, work through the steps above:
  • Acknowledge what is happening and how you are feeling
  • Celebrate your experience, strengths and achievements
  • Challenge your thinking
Trust in yourself and know that you have got the skills, experience and capabilities to achieve whatever you set out to do. Put your hand up in that meeting. Apply for that promotion. Ask for the pay rise you deserve. Have confidence in yourself.
And remember that you are in good company.  I’ll finish with the words of Michele Obama, who has talked about her own experiences with impostor syndrome.
‘What’s helped me most is remembering that our worst critics are almost always ourselves. Women and girls are already up against so much: the fact is that you wouldn’t be in that room if you didn’t belong there. And while negative thoughts are bound to crop up as you take on new roles and challenges, you can acknowledge them without letting them stop you from occupying space and doing the work. That’s really the only way we grow — by moving beyond our fears and developing trust that our voices and ideas are valuable.’
Marie is an executive and leadership coach, facilitator, and trainer, and runs Thrive Coaching & Development, a Belfast based training and coaching consultancy.  As a coach, she specialises in working with leaders and managers in stressful and busy jobs, helping them to learn and develop new habits, so that they can thrive, professionally and personally.
Get in touch if you think she could help you, or find out more at
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