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Using compassion to tackle Imposter Syndrome

As a clinical psychologist with a passion for Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), I’ve spent the last two years working closely with Hilary McLellan, an organisational behaviourist and executive coach, to combine our professional knowledge and experience in a rather unique way. We have united our know-how and learnings to develop ‘compassion focused coaching’ for the corporate and executive coaching world. One way in which our compassion focused coaching is proving particularly useful is to help business leaders suffering from 'Imposter Syndrome'.


Self-criticism and feelings of self-doubt can be incredibly common in high achievers and perfectionists, with the term ‘imposter syndrome’ now frequently used to describe the way people underestimate their abilities and attribute any success to factors other than their personal skills and talent. High achievers are often prepared to invest time in trying to understand why they feel this way but while they usually intellectually ‘get’ the reasoning they find it impossible to find a motivation and method to make the challenging step to change habits, mindsets and these self-limiting beliefs. Put it simply, they know what they should do but struggle to implement the behavioural changes needed to improve their lives, both at work and at home. Focussing on compassion can help build up an alternative to this self-critic. With commitment and practice, business leaders can train their minds to be more effective and resilient. They can learn to re-centre their purpose to being ‘helpful not harmful’ via a motivation of compassion. Let’s take a look at how.

Compassionate model

Pioneered by Professor Paul Gilbert, compassion defined in the CFT model is a sensitivity to the suffering (problems/pain) in the self and others with a commitment to try and alleviate and prevent it. According to Gilbert, there are three types of emotion regulation systems – the Threat System, the Drive System and the Soothing System. With self-criticism – and imposter syndrome - these three systems are out of balance, with the threat and drive dominating. A critical inner voice might be trying to motivate you but, in reality, it can create feelings of tension and anxiety (threat). The self-critic shows up within our own mind and tells us we're not good enough, that we’re inferior or we don’t deserve to be here. If we take a step back, we can realise that within our mind there is the part of us that is being critical, and there is a part that is receiving that criticism. It is this criticised part that can feel downtrodden, small, subordinate and ultimately like an imposter.

An inner compassionate coach, as opposed to an inner critic, operates in a different motivational system, and will not trigger threat but help you face it. It will understand both the critic and the criticised parts of you and help you face challenges with wisdom, strength and courage. Like a good teacher, it will focus on your strengths, build your confidence and help you stretch into your full potential. With CFT we help people become mind aware and start to make choices that are helpful, rather than being swept along with old habits of thinking and behaving. Creating a greater sense of safeness within our own minds, through developing our compassionate self, means we show up with more emotional intelligence in our external world. This supports the three flows of compassion (from self to others, self to self, and others to self) which makes this model very beneficial in creating change at a cultural as well as personal level.

Next steps

At Indigo, we offer a free consultation to help business leaders understand compassion focused coaching and tease out any resistance, blocks or fears they may have to it. Together, we explore and develop a new way to coach inside their own mind so that they can move forwards in a way that is helpful for everyone.

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