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Categories: Career, Coaching, Leadership

Do You Suffer from Imposter Syndrome?

Doubts – we all have them.  It is almost impossible to imagine work without questioning yourself from time-to-time, isn’t it?  For most of us a recurring sense of self-doubt is simply part of the job, but how do we know if we are dealing with a normal volume of critical inner thoughts versus wrestling with full-blown imposter syndrome?

I recently delivered a keynote address to a global organization on this topic since it is something I run across frequently in my executive coaching work. Often my clients will express concern that they might be suffering from imposter syndrome.  These clients – male and female – are seasoned lawyers and corporate leaders with lots of experience under their belts.

Let’s take Joan for example.  Joan is an experienced leader in a healthcare organization and relatively recently moved into an even more senior role.  She now attends executive leadership team meetings, is responsible for more than a handful of direct reports and has a large team of people who roll up underneath her leadership.  When we last met, she asked me for coaching around her doubts and said she had been thinking she was suffering from imposter syndrome.  She expressed concern about her ability to execute in her new role and was wondering if it was “normal” to have doubts in a position like hers.  Most importantly, she wanted to know how to move past her nagging doubts and concerns.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

To answer Joan’s questions, along with those of my other clients, I have done a lot of research on the subject. There is a lot of literature including the 1985 book called The Imposter Phenomenon by Dr. Pauline Rose Clance, the psychologist who originated this concept.

One of the most helpful things I have found is definition of imposter syndrome from The American Psychological Association. It defines imposter syndrome as…

A psychological term referring to a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.

When I read this definition, the lawyer in me goes into action parsing through the words in an effort to truly understand whether my clients’ doubts are typical expressions of the innate inner critical voice we all have or were something more sinister.  The first thing that I notice is that imposter syndrome requires a “pattern of behavior.”  Doubting yourself when you first take on a new role and are perhaps overwhelmed with everything there is to learn does not constitute a pattern of behavior.

The other thing that jumps out at me is the word “persistent.”  Joan has doubts, but like many of us, her doubts are episodic rather than persistent.  In other words, something triggers a doubt and then we work though it or resolve it.  The doubt does not persist.

The definition also refers to doubting your accomplishments.  While my clients say they wonder if they are up to the task in a new leadership role, they do not typically doubt the accomplishments they have made in their other roles to date.

Finally, the definition points to an “internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.”  While my clients typically will say they fear failure or not doing a good enough job in their roles, they do not generally fear being exposed as a fraud.  In other words, they recognize that there are reasons they are in their current roles and while those roles may feel daunting, they do not feel like they are wholly undeserving of being there.

How do I get past the doubts and fears?

Even after parsing through the definition, it is clear to me that whether someone has doubts or is suffering from a full-blown case of imposter syndrome, the next question is always, “What do I do about this?”  “How do I get past the doubts and fears?”

There are several things you can do if you find yourself in the land of self-doubt.  First, remember what you’ve accomplished to date and acknowledge yourself fully for those achievements.  Remind yourself of the path that has led you to the role you are in now.  This is not a fluke; rather it is the next stop on the path you have been walking for quite some time.

Also remember that no one (not even your predecessor) executes perfectly in a leadership role.  Perfectionism can give rise to some very heavy self-doubt and can seriously undermine your ability to succeed.  Remember that excellence is a worthy goal but perfection is an unattainable objective that will derail you.

You may also find it helpful to talk with someone about your doubts.  Whether you turn to a coach, a mentor, a therapist or a trusted colleague, discussing your doubts can diminish their power over you.  It is amazing how simply saying something out loud can make it seem less significant than it was when it was inside your head!

A person without doubts is likely a person who doesn’t know what they don’t know.  Having doubts is part of the process, but you do not have to let those doubts derail the great things you can accomplish in your role.

What are some of your tried and true strategies for keeping your doubts from overtaking you? Share your thoughts and questions with me.

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