I f a stranger came up to you on the street and told you that you were stupid and would probably never succeed at anything in your life you would probably have no trouble telling them they were wrong. However, when you fail at something and start telling yourself you are useless, you believe it to be true.
In the workplace, the imposter syndrome is something that strikes many of us and one of the most common coaching issues that presents in my executive coaching practice. But what is it exactly and why is it showing up to work with us?
Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalise their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.
This phenomenon was first labeled back in 1978 in an academic study that was strictly centred on the women who were finally able to put a few cracks in the glass ceiling of male-dominated business leadership. Many of those female executives believed they were only promoted because either they were lucky or judged to be better than they were. The reality was, deep down, they believed they were frauds who would be exposed (Rose-Clance, P., & Imes, S. (1978) The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice Volume 15, #3, Fall)
So many that have been catapulted into high profile positions of power or fame often find themselves plagued by feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt just waiting for that tap on the shoulder and that person to say – Ok I have figured it out, you’re not worthy, move on!
I’ll never forget coaching the CEO of a notable technology organisation who told me that he couldn’t understand that someone as dumb as he could have fumbled his way into the top job. Yet here he was changing the very face of the industry as we know it and loved by his people.
The fact of the matter at the heart of the imposter syndrome lies the question of self-worth. I’ll often ask my executive coachees to describe to me what they are worth and why they believe they get to do the job they do, have the power and influence that they have. I get some interesting responses.
The way we use our internal dialogue will have an effect upon our confidence in the short term and our self-esteem in the long term.
At the heart of the matter, it is important to realise that your beliefs are just beliefs and not facts. If you can recognise your self-limiting beliefs and negative self-talk you can logically and rationally argue with them to change them. And that’s what I focus on in coaching clients shrouded by the imposter syndrome – to focus on their changing their own limiting internal dialogue and, to build their internal strength and self-worth.
Part of the basis for my approach to coaching around this issue came as much of my wisdom has, from the pearls thrown at me by my Greek grandmother Vassilia. Indeed, a big turning point for me in my own self-worth story happened during my teenage years. I was on my way to my Grandmother’s house to show her how I looked in my ball gown. I felt gorgeous. I had my hair done. My makeup looked fabulous and I was wearing a magnificent black and purple bespoke ball dress a local designer had made for me. On the way to her house I passed a homeless person sitting on top of someone’s fence making comments to people as they walked past. I tried to canter past but didn’t miss the barrage – here’s what he said to me snickering– “where do you think you’re going Missy. That dress is foul!”
I was shattered. As I ran to my grandmother’s front door, tears streaming down my face I decided that I would not go to the dance. My grandmother was shocked to see me standing at her door way with a wet face and make up running down my cheeks. I told her what happened and here’s what she said to me in a thick Greek accent:
“Darling why are you crying?. Who was this man who told you that you looked ugly?”.
I don’t know”, I replied, some guy”.
She looked at me with a stern but caring smile and said – “Some guy? So why darling would you listen to a man with dirty feet?”
The penny dropped.
We give so much power to the people and to life around us to dictate standards, how we should be, could be, would be. That simple comment from a man with dirty feet had melted me into a puddle of insecurity. But it wouldn’t have taken hold if I hadn’t already believed it to be true!
Psychologically speaking, when adversity occurs, our belief about it, which comes from our explanatory style, has consequences. The lens that we choose to view it from makes all the difference in determining whether it will be either a positive or a negative experience.
For example, if your friend doesn’t return a phone call and you think that its because he is a bad friend or doesn’t like you anymore you will likely stew on it and feel bad all day. However, if you think your friend hasn’t called you back because she is really busy at the moment, you will move on with your day feeling fine.
When we have negative beliefs and they cause negative consequences, it serves to engage in what I call disputation. The outcome of successful disputation will be feeling energised to keep trying or go about your day with an optimistic attitude and a kick in your step. It prevents you becoming the victim, or someone that something has happened to and rather puts you in the driving seat of your experience – you choose your own attitude.
Here are some disputation techniques I typically take my coaching clients through to chase away those negative thoughts and build a more optimistic and buoyant attitude to life challenges and those experiences that can test our self-worth:
1. Look at the Evidence: Ask yourself is there any evidence showing your belief to be true. Is there any evidence showing it to be untrue. For example, before deciding that you are stupid after receiving a bad test mark, think about other times you may have done well in intellectual pursuits.
2. Alternatives: Most events have many contributing factors or causes. Pessimists tend to latch onto the most permanent, pervasive and personal one. Looking for other possible alternatives may change your thought patterns. For example, after receiving the bad test mark- a pessimist may believe that it is because they are stupid at everything, while alternatives such as the test was very difficult, or not in their best subject area are equally plausible.
3. Implications: Sometimes, things do go wrong through our own fault or failings. In such times it is important to note the implications of these failings. For example, doing badly in one test is unlikely to have drastic negative effects. In times when you cannot find appropriate evidence or alternatives to dispute your negative beliefs, take some time and distance to realistically evaluate the implications of the belief.
4. Usefulness: Lastly, we should recognise when we are holding disruptive beliefs that are simply useless. At certain times, it may not be useful to dwell on beliefs. For example, someone defusing a bomb may hold the belief that it may go off and they will be killed. However, stewing on such a belief will not help them to do their job properly. Instead they must get on with the job. Beliefs that are not useful should be dismissed as just that. While not refuted, we can redirect our thoughts in a more positive channel.
Finally, recognising the power of an altered perspective makes a huge difference to our self-beliefs that can limit our potential. Why give everyone else the benefit of the doubt ( they’re right and you’re wrong) instead of placing full trust in yourself. Don’t be afraid to step into your own power.
I love this quote by Marianne Williamson which sums it up so beautifully: