Does this scenario sound familiar? Your client has the qualifications for a particular job, but they feel they can’t apply for it because they know others who are more qualified. Or they say that they need to get further certification because they don’t know “quite enough.” Or your client is already working a job but feels very insecure in their position because they feel they got there through a lucky break. It is likely that what your client is experiencing is Imposter Syndrome.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that your qualifications are not fully earned, that you got help on the way, or got lucky—even though your objective qualifications and training are strong and sufficient. Many very accomplished folks, particularly women and people of color, suffer from this. Belonging to a social group whose members’ accomplishments are routinely minimized by society is a definite risk factor.
For someone with Imposter Syndrome, it can be terrifying to apply for the job they want or a promotion because they feel that when they do, someone will finally see through their disguise and recognize them for the fraud they believe they are. Work can be very stressful for them since every day may bring the unmasking they fear.
Many of my coaching clients are highly intelligent and accomplished women who still suffer from Imposter Syndrome. My best students (I am also a mathematics professor) frequently suffer from Imposter Syndrome as well. I did, and occasionally still do. Yet, many people have never heard about it. In this article, we’ll discuss how to recognize Imposter Syndrome when you next come across it and how to combat it.
How Can You Recognize Imposter Syndrome?
Recognizing Imposter Syndrome in oneself is half the battle. Once someone with Imposter Syndrome knows (and believes) that they have it, they can recognize their feelings as just that—feelings, not facts, not an indication that they shouldn’t apply for that promotion. They can make the rational choice to apply despite the anxiety the thought provokes.
Naturally, this is not easy. Going against one’s feelings is terrifying. The client may not be able to tell whether their insecurity is an actual lack of qualifications or Imposter Syndrome. This is where you, the coach, come in. You can give a more impartial view of what the client has achieved and help them recognize that if they saw their accomplishments on another person’s resume, they would likely be impressed by that person.
Your client may assume that their discomfort is a sign they are doing something wrong. You can remind them that discomfort is the price of growth, and that learning to live with it is a great achievement. Imposter Syndrome is not something that gets “healed.” The feelings may diminish over time, but they can flare up at any moment. The goal is not to get rid of the feelings, but to learn to live with them and to recognize them when they come.
Valuing Your Achievements
Why do some people give more credence to others’ achievements than to their own? It depends on the standards they are using. We all tend to assume that others use the same standards as ourselves, but there is no reason why that should be true.
For example, imagine someone told you that they “did awesome on that project.” What do you hear? Do you assume that they simply fulfilled all the requirements, or that they went above and beyond the requirements? I suspect folks with Imposter Syndrome assume that you wouldn’t call a project “awesome” unless it truly superseded what was asked. To others, awesome is whatever checks all the boxes. So if two colleagues did a similar job on their projects, and one says it was “just fine” (i.e. fulfilled all the requirements) and the other says it was “awesome” (i.e. displayed extraordinary work), the former will assume that the latter did a far superior job.
In addition, most people I know who suffer from Imposter Syndrome tend to consider anything they have done themselves easy. They are more impressed by an achievement if they have never done something like it themselves. Why? Has it ever happened to you that you dreaded a task you had never done before, just to discover that it was quite easy?
If you are less confident about your abilities, you may routinely overestimate the difficulty level of tasks. Conversely, you may dismiss something you have done as trivial, even though other people are impressed by it. If you don’t have a high opinion of yourself, you may see the very fact that you were able to do something as a sign that anybody else could have done that, too.
For example, I used to dismiss any mathematical research I had done as very easy (even though it was published in decent journals). Only after several years, when I hadn’t been active in research for a while and had forgotten all the knowledge that led me to that research, was I able to see the research as potentially difficult—because I couldn’t have reproduced it anymore.
Combating Imposter Syndrome
One way to help a client overcome their Imposter Syndrome is to encourage them to continually do things that are just a bit beyond their comfort level. This helps them realize that many tasks are easier than they expected. It may take a while for this knowledge to percolate to the emotional level. On the way, the client will need to take on tasks that scare them while rationally knowing that the tasks will not be as hard as they think. As their coach, you can help them stay the course, see how much they have grown, and how well they are doing. You can show confidence in them when they can’t show it yet themselves.
Encourage your clients to talk to others with Imposter Syndrome. Hearing others talk about their feelings and recognizing the parallels to one’s own experience can be very healing. It also can convince folks that this syndrome is real and that their feelings of insecurity might not be grounded in fact. One of my more humorous moments of self-discovery came when I realized that I felt like I was faking my Imposter Syndrome in order to feel better about my mediocre achievements—I was suffering from Imposter Syndrome about my Imposter Syndrome!
My clients are often blown away when they realize their doubts and anxiety come from a known and reasonably common syndrome that affects even famous people they admire. This realization opens the door for them to reach for dreams they had given up as too ambitious. And isn’t that what coaching is all about?
One book I l recommend on Imposter Syndrome is Valerie Young’s The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.
Editor’s Note: If you’d like to know more about Janine and her coaching practice, check out our interview with her here.
Janine Wittwer, Ph.D, is a Life Coach (Inner Harmony Coaching) and Math Professor (Westminster College, UT.) She helps professional women overcome their self-doubts to define and pursue the career trajectory they want without sacrificing their work-life balance.