Do you ever get the feeling that you're going to be found out? I talk to life coach Jessica Wall about Imposter Syndrome.
Do you ever feel that you’re pretending to be confident and look as if you’re in control when really you’re feeling very unsure of yourself? Perhaps you’re giving a presentation as the so-called ‘expert’, while a small voice inside is mocking you, asking you who on earth you think you are? Imposter Syndrome is very common, and it can affect up to 70% of successful people at some point in their lives. I try to make sense of it by seeking help from Jessica Wall, a Herts-based cognitive behavioural life coach.
Jessica, what is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is a concept used to describe people who do not recognise their achievements and live with the belief: ‘One day they’ll find out that I’m not really a good teacher/lawyer/doctor/mother.’ It is not necessarily an intense fear, and in fact it has been found to be felt by most people at some time. It is not restricted to any one field and, although more prevalent in women, is found in men too. Many of my clients come to coaching with this underlying thought that they’re not really good enough. People have the feeling that they are not living up to their new roles, their new jobs, positions, and are over-stating themselves on their CVs or personal statements. Together, we look at the evidence of what they have achieved thus far; the feedback they have received and the results they have seen.
How do the symptoms manifest themselves?
It could be a reticence to be ambitious or apply for promotion; perfectionism, spending longer than necessary on tasks, avoiding challenging tasks, self-deprecation or discounting praise. It’s also to do with how people talk about themselves and their achievements: ‘I just got lucky’; ‘I’m not really that good’; ‘Anyone could do this’; ‘That’s nothing’ are commonly heard.
Who coined the phrase?
Is it something only experienced by high achievers?
No, it affects all sorts of people in a variety of areas: parents, students, volunteers. It may come to us when we transition into a new role, start our own business, go to a new school or university.
Does it affect everyone? Men, women, teenagers?
Yes, although it tends to be more prevalent amongst women.
Is there anything positive we can draw from it?
There’s always a positive. People who experience imposter syndrome are not generally arrogant about their abilities and may progress quietly. However, once it is worked on, we can balance the books by emphasising the ways in which we are not an imposter, but are in fact being our authentic selves. In this way, we don’t have the subsequent problem of false modesty. What we are aiming for is to sit comfortably in our own shoes and roles, with acknowledgement of what is true and of what is a work in progress, but certainly not ‘fake’.
How can we challenge the negative or fearful thoughts to make good use of them?
In coaching, we examine the reality of these beliefs, looking at the evidence behind the thoughts and, if necessary, when, where, and from whom they began.
Being able to challenge the assumptions made by my clients and use my cognitive behavioural background to examine thought processes, my clients generally shift their own thinking and can most often recognise which beliefs are helpful or not for them.
It’s a question of asking someone to look into the mirror and, instead of asking themselves who this reflection is, helping them to see how to embody and authentically be that reflection:themselves.
Are there any simple tips?
You are in control of the way you perceive things. Look at the evidence and then focus on your accomplishments. Confidence is just a thought: we can have it if we choose it but cannot rely on ‘faking it until we make it’. In order to challenge this long-term, we need to modify our default thinking. This has been built up over years and it is amazing that we are often blind to our own unhelpful patterns. However, the default can be broken down surprisingly quickly with the right help.