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Confronting the Imposter: Recognizing Imposter Syndrome in Your Life

October 28, 2021 by Amanda Reill

"No matter what we've done, there comes a point where you think, 'How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?'”

- Tom Hanks

"No matter what we've done, there comes a point where you think, 'How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?'”
- Tom Hanks

Every now and then, we all accomplish something great and wonder if it was an accident. You surprise yourself by nailing an interview, or by some stroke of genius, you come up with a clever solution to a problem no one thought of before. You’re showered with praise, but you downplay your effort and attribute it to dumb luck. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But what if the success keeps coming? Do you still discount yourself and your abilities? Or do you accept that you’re deserving? 

Enter: imposter syndrome. 

Imposter syndrome, a pattern of behavior psychologists identified in the 1970s, can make us feel less confident in our ability to perform tasks or do jobs we’re actually perfectly capable of doing.

Where did the idea of imposter syndrome come from?

The discovery of this phenomenon can be ascribed to 2 brilliant researchers: Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes. In 1978, they interviewed a number of highly successful women who attributed their success to either luck or an overestimation of their intelligence. From this, they described the syndrome as “self-perceived intellectual phoniness.”

As the definition implies, the individual is the only one to perceive themselves this way, and are unable to internalize their success despite external validation. So, while the rest of the world may see them as the genius they are, a root of self-doubt, insecurities, or other enemies of self-confidence prevent them from accepting that truth.

Individuals dealing with imposter syndrome are prime candidates for life coaching, because they often feel a sense of dissonance between where they’re “at” and where they’d like to be. As a life coach, your job is to help them identify the greatness within and realize what they are truly capable of accomplishing.

What are the markers?

Imposter syndrome shows up in many forms. Your client might present with a fear of failure or, conversely, they may present with a fear of success. As a coach, it’s your responsibility to help them tease apart the aspects of imposter syndrome that are making it difficult for them to feel successful. A few other markers to look out for include: 

  • Denial of competence 
  • Discounting praise
  • Negative thinking, self-doubt, and self-sabotage
  • High sensitivity to constructive criticism
  • External attribution of success
  • Agonizing over small mistakes and flaws
  • Overachieving
  • Over-preparation. This also sometimes presents as initial procrastination followed by frenzied preparation. 
  • Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when they fall short

Knowing what to look for, and how to coach them to see their true potential, is where the value in coaching lives.  

How Do You Get Rid of Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is one of those realities that you may never completely kick. The trick is not to let it overcome you. Public figures like Tom Hanks, Serena Williams, Natalie Portman, Michelle Obama, Howard Schultz, Maya Angelou, and many others would say they regularly struggle with it. But that hasn’t stopped them from being great.

Identifying that it’s an issue is the first step. The next is to discover its root cause, the same way you have to dig up a weed. Although imposter syndrome is common to about 70% of the population, its source is unique to the individual. It requires that person to ask themselves profound questions about their personal perceptions, and why they believe in a lesser version of themselves as their true identity.

If you can identify the root of that unhealthy mental programming, the next thing to do is reframe your thoughts. Encourage your client to take out that poorly lit negative image off their mental display panel and replace it with a brighter, more authentic version. Help them recognize that if others have been able to paint a wonderful picture of them in their minds, so can they. 

Lastly, acknowledge their success and help them accept it as their own. Whenever these thoughts of self-doubt start to come up, encourage the client to make a list of the things they have demonstrated and accomplished that show they are qualified for the task at hand.

Rein it in

Much like any other internal characteristic, imposter syndrome’s strength lies in how much emphasis you place on it. Your client has the power to decide whether to limit its effect on them to a brief moment or allow it to be a prominent mindset. Remind your client not to fear their greatness, and to step with confidence into the world-changing mindset they deserve.

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