What just happened?

In the first blog in this series on Imposter Syndrome, a fictional story was told about a person who felt like an imposter in their workplace. In this second blog we will look in more detail at Imposter Syndrome and what it can look like in reality.

So, what exactly is Imposter Syndrome?

Psychologists describe Imposter Syndrome as an individual doubting their own skills, talents and accomplishments despite evidence to the contrary. There is also likely to be an internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud.

This fear is rooted within the person thinking negatively about their situation. For example, the person believes they are not skilled enough at their job, not good-looking enough to be with their partner, not qualified enough to work on their team, not devout enough to be accepted in their community. There really are thousands of different negative beliefs a person could have.

Alongside these beliefs it is likely that the person will associate certain feelings and emotions with the situation. Fear is often accompanied by anxiety which if left untreated can be followed by depression.

It’s important to point out that although Imposter Syndrome is not a mental disorder of the type that needs a psychiatrist, if left alone to do its worst it may need support from a GP or a counsellor. A life-coach can also help with resetting patterns of thinking.

If you think you have Imposter Syndrome our strong recommendation would be to talk to someone – a friend or colleague perhaps who will listen to you and give you space to express how you feel.

You can find reputable counsellors and life coaches online and there is some information later in the blog on how you might go about choosing one.

What should I look out for?

Imposter Syndrome is commonly triggered by a new situation such as changing jobs, returning to work after a period of absence, starting at university, setting off on a new relationship. The common thread here being that something triggers those thoughts of doubt.

That trigger might be one that is quickly overcome like thinking you don’t belong at a social gathering where you don’t know anyone, or it might be a trigger that comes up a lot like every time you walk into a classroom or office of people who you don’t feel on a par with. Sometimes the trigger for a belief can be more subtle and difficult to identify, or it may be that there are several beliefs at play which are hard to tell apart because all you can feel is the fear.

If this is you, talking about it can really help. Do remember that while you are likely to feel overwhelmed and scared, Imposter Syndrome can be managed and can be overcome once you understand what lies beneath.

Sometimes Imposter Syndrome can creep into your life and those feelings of fear and self-doubt become normalised and so they might be less obvious to you. Look out for things like being preoccupied with things you did or said, over-preparing when you are nervous to the point where there are no scenarios you’ve not covered, or repeating patterns of anxiety around certain situations. You might feel underlying guilt, regret or sadness too. In some cases it might be a feeling you’ve carried around with you all your life, like believing you just don’t have what it takes.

Having said that, there are lots of situations where you might feel a very natural level of anxiety or nerves around something and it isn’t Imposter Syndrome at all. A common one is public speaking or presenting to a crowd. In this case it may be something you don’t do a lot of, or it’s a one off, or it may genuinely be something that you just aren’t very good at. The key to identifying this as

Imposter Syndrome would be if it’s a repeating pattern of fear and there is evidence to say you are actually brilliant at public speaking and will be appearing on TedX next week.

What should I do?

As with most issues of this kind Imposter Syndrome exists on a range from mild thoughts and feelings right through to a crippling anxiety where the person believes they are useless in all situations.

In simple cases, you could ask yourself if there is any rational evidence that your fears might be unfounded, or you could ask someone you trust to help you work it out. Think about what you’ve achieved or excel at, when has someone else come to you for assistance or mentoring, have you taken on board any compliments you’ve received recently. Any of these pieces of evidence may be enough to help you rationalise how you feel.

Could you learn to anticipate any feelings of fear and act to head them off before they become disruptive? Can you rationalise an error in judgement as a one off and forgive yourself for how you feel about it? Can you lean into what you see as your positive traits in place of focussing on the negative?

In more complex cases the underlying cause can be buried quite deeply below the experience that triggers it and this is where the talents of a life-coach or counsellor can be useful.

Mostly a counsellor or life-coach will use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) tools to structure a conversation around Imposter Syndrome because its basis is in what we think about our situation rather than the emotions we feel as a consequence of our thoughts. That’s not to say your emotions are not worth spending time on, rather they will be evidence of what happens when you think in a particular way but it’s the thoughts that need to be addressed in order to overcome them.

CBT is based on the principle that our behaviour is a result of how we respond to our environment, and the theory is clear that we aren’t always consciously aware of these behaviours and so CBT tools are used to investigate our thoughts, emotions, physical reactions and our environment as parts of a whole.

When choosing a life coach or counsellor, make sure you pick one who is accredited to one of the governing bodies for their profession like the British Psychological Society or the International Coaching Federation. This will ensure they have an understanding of the ethics and practices of their profession and will perform to a certain standard.

Equally important is finding someone who you feel a strong rapport with. You should never feel obliged to stick with someone who you don’t feel you can be 100% open and trusting with, otherwise you won’t get the best out of your time with them. If the therapy gets a bit challenging, and goes to into territories that make you feel uncomfortable, this will be a lot easier with someone you feel connected to.

In the third blog of this series there will be a worked example of a CBT tool and how it can be used to understand Imposter Syndrome. This could be used as a self-help tool in cases where the symptoms are mild.

Clara Anderson
Technology Delivery Lead and Coach clara@futureyoucoaching.co.uk

This is the second in a series of blog posts about Imposter Syndrome. In the next blog Clara will work through the Imposter Syndrome example written in the first blog, providing guidance on what a person can do to support themselves and others who find themselves in this situation.

If you resonate strongly with this post we highly recommend you talk with someone. This could be anyone you feel would be a good listener – your sister, a friend or colleague.

If you prefer to talk to someone who you don’t know, in confidence, please email clara@futureyoucoaching.co.uk Clara is offering a free 40 minute session to anyone who is a friend of HoC. She can also refer you on to another coach if, for example, you prefer a male coach.

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Clara Anderson
Clara Anderson

Clara is a values-led coach working with women who are stuck in life or work to honour their goals and values so they can flourish in life and Digital Delivery Lead at Hymans Robertson

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