Imposter Syndrome What it is and What to Do About it

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Courtesy of GROW 

Mary was excited and flattered to get the promotion. She had been working at the company for a little over four years and was seen as a solid performer. The calls and emails from current and former co-workers were nice as well. As she shut down her laptop and packed up for the evening, a few thoughts crept into her mind. 

“Am I really up to this?” “If they knew how stressed I was on these recent projects, they probably would’ve given it to someone else.” “I’m a fraud.” Welcome to “imposter syndrome.” 

In 1978, clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term that refers to professional insecurity and nagging feelings that our accomplishments are due to luck or the generosity or naivete of others rather than our own skills and abilities. Our example with Mary is fictional, but imposter syndrome is real, and it’s rampant. According to Forbes, 70% of the US population has experienced it at some point. A study in the United Kingdom found that a whopping 60% of women put off starting a business due to imposter syndrome. 

It affects both men and women across many industries, including highly successful icons of business and entertainment such as Tom Hanks, Michelle Obama and Sonia Sotomayor. Its prevalence among accomplished people reveals the ironic truth behind imposter syndrome: To have it means you are achieving success. Self-doubt is a symptom of achievement; it just feels undeserved. 

“A crucial aspect of thinking like a non-imposter
is interpreting events with a sense of curiosity, not fear.”

There are numerous books and articles about it, but we wanted to hear from someone with first-hand expertise in dealing with it. We recently sat down with Nora Bouchard, an executive coach, to discuss how to address imposter syndrome. Bouchard spent many years coaching at Arthur Anderson and as the owner of her own coaching practice, Frontrunner Consulting. 

According to Bouchard, two of the most concerning negative consequences of imposter syndrome are procrastination to avoid challenges and overwork to overcompensate by trying to be perfect. Both consequences are brought on by fear and over time, can be debilitating. Women, in particular, can struggle with this as they can be acculturated, even today, to be modest and not celebrate their achievements. Self-confidence is founded on achievement and no one can give it to us. We must give it to ourselves through openly celebrating accomplishments.

It’s all about how we think. In a 2017 TED talk, imposter syndrome expert Valerie Young recounts a story where she had just finished a speech on the topic when an audience member asked her, “Are there any other suggestions you have about how to overcome imposter syndrome?” Young replied, “Well, I just mentioned several in my talk, have you tried any of those?” 

The women hadn’t. It dawned on Young that people expected to enter the room feeling like an imposter and leave feeling like a non-imposter. It doesn’t work that way, she noted. It’s about changing our thinking, which takes time; however, change can be accelerated using some of the following practices from Young, Bouchard, and others. 

Bring it out into the open.

Leaders can be reluctant to talk about imposter syndrome for fear of showing weakness. However, they help themselves and their colleagues by acknowledging it without dwelling on it. Secrecy is part of what gives imposter syndrome it’s power — getting it out in the open weakens its grip.

Separate facts and feelings.

This can be done with exercises that visualize your accomplishments. Bouchard has clients write down accomplishments on a whiteboard, which, because these are accomplished people, quickly fills up. An important caveat Bouchard adds is “no buts.” Some rationalize accomplishments with the phrase “but if I did it anyone can.” Young echoes this sentiment, and the person she heard it from was talking about a Ph.D. in astrophysics. No buts. 

Reframe your thoughts and language. 

A crucial aspect of thinking like a non-imposter is interpreting events with a sense of curiosity, not fear. Perhaps the most famous example is Edison’s quote about discovering two thousand ways not to invent the light bulb. 

“Fear and creativity are not compatible,” Bouchard stated. “Fear can motivate in the short term but not long term. Curiosity and wonder are better long-term motivators.”

Use humor.

Bouchard notes that humor is effective at helping clients see the unrealistic demands they place on themselves. Author, entrepreneur, and speaker Seth Godin also takes this approach in a recent blog post writing, “Superman still lives on Krypton; the rest of us are just doing our best.”

It’s this notion of doing your best, accepting what is and moving forward that lies at the heart of Bouchard’s philosophy. She often shares a quote with clients from 20th-century American literature professor Joseph Campbell: “When you are falling…dive.” 

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