My coaching client, B, is looking at the floor. He is six months into a promotion, struggling to grip the astonishing slipperiness of the new skills the job needs.
‘I suppose’, he says slowly, ‘I’m a bit of a fraud. I think I must suffer from Impostor Syndrome’.
Ah, Impostor Syndrome, an increasingly familiar presence in my coaching room. A few years ago, I asked the audience at a conference to raise their hands if they had ever experienced it. Most people’s hands went up.
Does it matter?
Probably yes, it does matter. The feeling that you are a fraud can seep into everything. It may make you more hesitant to speak up at meetings because if you are an impostor, who would take you seriously? It may particularly afflict you at even more public occasions, such as those where you give a presentation. All those eyes on you! What if they see through you? You overwork, you avoid occasions where someone might offer you feedback.
What if it’s true?
A lot of advice about Impostor Syndrome talks soothingly about accepting that it’s not true. But what if it is? I think here of my time as a novice TV producer. It was taken for granted in this role that you first had to put in a decent amount of slog as a studio director. I felt my lack of credible directing experience acutely. As my first few months went on, it became harder and harder to admit to technical ignorance.
The fact is that I really was an impostor. Despite the BBC’s four weeks of rigorous training, I was temperamentally ill suited to the studio director role, had vast gaps in my knowledge and no idea if repeated exposure would get me to the point where I could say, ‘Coming to Camera 3’ without wondering who was talking. (Reader, I did learn how to do it, but it was agony.)
The celebrity world is full of people who fall into this category: actors who can’t act, singers who can’t sing, writers who can’t write, politicians with no ability to govern. Their small talent has been puffed up by agents, managers and branding specialists, all paid to preserve the illusion, but the celeb themselves knows the reality. No wonder they dose themselves with drugs, alcohol and unwise relationships.
So if it could be true, the question is, how could you get help, including training, coaching and mentoring?
Understanding what a real impostor is
With clients like B, I ask them what they believe the word impostor means. I have very occasionally met the real thing – an actual impostor. This is someone who has created a bogus identity replete with phony qualifications and forged references. They seem to have decided that it is too difficult to acquire genuine qualifications so they will claim some fake ones. This is how an extremely small number of people has managed to secure jobs as doctors, teachers, accountants and so on despite never having completed the courses which would allow them to claim professional validation.
This is not what coaching clients mean when they talk about being an impostor. An impostor sets out boldly to deceive. If you feel like an impostor does this describe you? Probably the answer is no.
Impostor Syndrome does not happen out of the blue. Childhood lays the foundations. The most common story that I hear is of a childhood where you were over-praised by well meaning parents as ‘clever’. This may have been combined with little physical affection, rigid rules about discipline and harsh criticism on the few occasions where you did a little less well than expected. You excel at school at first. Then you meet other clever people. When you go to university you meet even cleverer people and realise that maybe you are not so special after all. By that stage the pressure to be clever has become overwhelming – you don’t want to disappoint parents who seem to have so much investment in your cleverness. It becomes difficult to confess to doubts or to ask for help because after all, if you really were clever, you would have no need of it.
How organizations contribute
There are some professions, and the organizations set up to sell their services, where the culture encourages Impostor Syndrome. Here I include the Law, sales, consulting of all sorts, architecture, media. Highly qualified people are recruited for their ability to take measured risks, for their extensive technical know-how and for their ability to generate repeat business. Competitiveness between staff is subtly or overtly encouraged: I remember one consultancy which was nakedly proud of its wall chart recording how much income individuals were generating. Actual differences in ability are typically minuscule, but such differences as there are can be exaggerated. I have worked with many clients who struggle with impostor feelings inside this kind of culture, working unnecessarily long hours to boost their results or hoping to impress seniors with their dedication.
You feel that your success is down to luck. You must have been awarded a job or your excellent exam results by mistake. You think other people are more gifted and that exposure of your weaknesses is just around the corner. You live with constant anxiety that your inadequacies will be punished. Fear of failure means that you may drop out of training programmes, avoid applying for promotion and stay far too long in a job you have come to dislike. You set yourself exacting standards but feel they are unachievable so you work even harder and for longer hours. If you manage others, you may apply these same unrealisable criteria to them, getting a reputation for being negative and picky. If you are a working parent you want to be outstanding in all the many roles you juggle. Worst of all you come to believe that your actual success is the product of this fear-based over-working. No wonder it’s so tiring.
Self compassion underpins every solution to Impostor Syndrome. No one is good at everything. This means accepting your humanity and the inevitability of making mistakes. It means kindness towards yourself – and others. It means giving up the myth of self-reliance and learning to ask for help because owning up makes you stronger not weaker.
People who overwork can’t prioritise: they believe everything should have the same importance. I ask my coaching clients where they truly add value – where is it is genuinely the case that only they can do something? This usually turns out to have a much sharper focus than the lengthy to-do list that has been taking up so much of their time. Setting tighter boundaries is enormously helpful, along with learning how to delegate.
The hard work of overcoming Impostor Syndrome is in replacing old beliefs with new ones. Where is the actual evidence that you are an impostor, for instance that it was all down to ‘luck’ or that you are an exceptionally good ‘actor’, that others have low standards or that you ‘interview well’ or that you are ‘charming’? How likely is it that others are being ‘polite’ to refrain from criticising you? It may be true that it helps to know the right people or to be in the right place at the right time, but how likely is it that this entirely explains your success? If you have yet to be ‘found out’ then perhaps that’s because there is nothing to find out.
For clients who still need convincing, I encourage them to do some DIY feedback by interviewing at least eight colleagues. ‘Treat yourself as a product and do some market research!’ I train them in how to ask just four questions:
‘In general what’s it like working with me?’
‘What would you say my biggest strengths are?’
‘Where would you say I am less strong?
‘If you had to give me one piece of advice about how to improve, what would it be?’
In asking these questions I encourage clients to avoid demurring, denying or arguing. I suggest instead that they ask the feedback-giver for specific examples of the behaviour, followed by summarising – and just saying, ‘thank you’.
I encouraged my client, B, to do this. Biting his lip, he reluctantly agreed. Next time we looked at the results.
‘I’m stunned,’ he said. ‘They do rate me and some of this is in things I take for granted. And you know what, they do see my weaknesses, but they don’t seem to care that much about them.’
B sat well back in his chair. The next phase of our coaching could begin.
My book Are You Listening? (Penguin Random House) has a chapter on Impostor Syndrome and how one particular client overcame it.