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Feeling like a fraud? Imposter Syndrome needs compassion

Updated: Mar 4, 2022

I have the privilege of coaching some extraordinarily successful professional men and women. Without exception they have a background that I personally didn’t experience from primary school upwards.

These clients regularly share a long history of achieving top grades in exams, professional qualifications, successful applications for jobs and promotions, are high wage earners and recipients of high praise in any 360-degree feedback.

From my perspective they were the A gamers. They’d got it all!

However, more and more I have found there to be a deeply vulnerable and anxious underbelly to this life of achievement. Often a sense of feeling unfulfillment and/or purpose and sometimes combined with feelings of doubt.

Recently, a client who had just been promoted (again) said to me: “I have a strong feeling that I’m just waiting to be found out to be a ‘fraud’.”

And she’s not alone.

Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome is the belief that our success in life isn't deserved or has been achieved through oversight or a stroke of luck, rather than as a result of our own efforts or skills.

When suffering from the syndrome we tend to think of ourselves as a fraud and fear that at any moment, everyone else will realise our incompetence or inferiority too.

The phrase was first coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes to describe strong feelings of intellectual and professional phoniness in high-achieving individuals.

According to Clance and Imes, imposters entertain these thoughts and feelings despite evidence that suggests both outstanding academic and/or professional accomplishments.

People experiencing Imposter Syndrome may also deal with self-doubt, disappointment in their performance and fear of failure.

There are a few traits that seem highly associated with Imposter Syndrome: success, outward confidence, and high expectations of themselves. Inside, negative self-talk results in these same people struggling to relate to other people's actions, words, and body language that leave them feeling self-doubt, disappointment in their performance and fear of failure.

An estimated 70 per cent of people experience these impostor feelings at some point in their lives, according to a 1984 study by Margaret Gibbs and colleagues. While around 25 to 30 per cent of high achievers may also suffer from the syndrome.

Over time, a fear of being exposed as an imposter can unfortunately create social or generalised anxiety disorder.

Tips for tackling Imposter Syndrome

For generations, humans have seen the adoption of ‘self-criticism’ as a useful tool that - although it makes us feel uncomfortable - is vital in order to avoid failing in the worst way we fear.

At some level, without developing other more positive techniques and mindsets, this may indeed provide functional benefits but fundamentally the development of our human mind will be more fulfilling and resilient if our behaviour is driven by more compassionate and courageous mantras.

Indeed, a recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology also found that students with high rates of imposter syndrome had equally low rates of self-compassion. Vice versa, students with high levels of self-compassion had lower incidences of imposter syndrome. The study concluded that developing self-compassion is a useful and effective tool in building resilience to feeling like an imposter.

There is a better way than just cowtowing to our self-critic and turning up the volume when we our imposter says: “Do better Loser!”

Indigo’s purpose in all the work we do with individuals and teams is based upon building and maintaining the self-awareness and behaviours that can and do create positive and optimum personal performance (job satisfaction, energy and motivation) from the hours we spend at work.

Together with Dr Ashleigh McLellan, we are bringing together their expertise in Emotional Intelligence and Compassion Focused Therapy.

Following a successful presentation at the 27th EMCC Global Coaching, Mentoring, and Supervision Conference in May 2021, we are extending this to our clients directly in 1:1 coaching and also in the form of a course in September. Watch this space for more details.

In the meantime:

  • It is important to accept that you don’t have to know everything - being OK with not knowing everything and looking to others with knowledge allows us to be creative and open to change.

  • Avoid comparisons to others – “Comparison is the thief of joy” President Theodore Roosevelt

  • Acknowledge your achievements and successes

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