Updated: Jun 15
Recently I’ve seen a surge in the number of clients struggling with impostor syndrome and it’s associated feelings.
Most of these clients have something in common; the fact that they have recently started either a completely new role at a new organisation or have been promoted to their most senior role so far.
They are, quite naturally, feeling stretched.
They feel out of their comfort zone and even 'incapable’ of succeeding at this new challenge.
And they are describing these feelings as “impostor syndrome”
In this blog I'm going to break down the reasons why labelling ourselves in this way can be unhelpful to our overall sense of ability.
I’ll also suggest alternative ways we can interpret and manage these symptoms and how we can feel more able to tell the difference between impostor syndrome and natural discomfort.
Let's start with what Impostor syndrome is…
Originally called “impostor phenomenon” the concept was developed by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes after a study focused on high-achieving women in 1978.
There were so many traits common across the experiences of these women, they labelled them and over time, the overwhelming number of people experiencing these feelings has led to the development of the term “Impostor Syndrome”
Some common Impostor Syndrome feelings:
-no matter how well educated or knowledgeable you are that you don’t know enough
-that everyone is doing a better job than you
-that if you don’t do something perfectly it will show that you don’t know enough
-that you’ll get “found out” and people will realise you’re “a fraud” or tricked them into thinking you’re better than you are
(this is by no means an exhaustive list)
I’d like to be clear before we go any further that I am not for a moment suggesting any of my clients, or anyone for that matter, is not experiencing Impostor Syndrome traits.
The term has, however, become a buzz word of recent years and the label may not be as helpful as we imagine.
As humans we love to be able to put a label and a meaning on everything - this helps us understand, interpret and navigate the world around us.
But it can go too far...
When we label the all too natural feelings when trying something new as anything other than... "the all too natural feelings when we are trying something new" we can actually make ourselves feel less capable.
The words themselves interpret as
“I am an impostor” - and I do not belong here - ie. I am not welcome here
“I have a syndrome” ie there is something wrong with me, I have a condition or abnormality.
In my mind, both of these words conjure up feelings of disempowerment, exclusion and being less than we should be. Not a helpful place to start when we’re already struggling with feelings of uncertainty, doubt and discomfort.
We are by nature, curious, ever growing and evolving beings
Some of us find 'newness exciting, others find it challenging. The common thing is that these feelings only pop up when we are moving beyond what we already know how to do easily.
When things are 'easy' or they come 'naturally' we are sitting squarely in our comfort zone.
While there's nothing inherently wrong with being in your comfort zone - unless it's causing you to feel frustrated (but that's a blog for another day...) we thrive on growing and learning, so this becomes part of our life.
Every new experience and challenge forces us out of our comfort zone.
The new job at a new company means learning new systems, getting to know how to work best with new colleagues and how to thrive (ok, let's be honest, excel) with a new set of company rules- is it any surprise it feels intimidating nerve wracking and sometimes bloody awful - even if you couldn't be more thrilled about the role?
And new responsibility within your current company?
You're having to take on new tasks you've never done before, take a more involved, perhaps higher risk position, and often learn to navigate a changed work dynamic with existing colleagues who you may now need to manage - even harder when they are friends - is it any wonder this sometimes feels too much?
(Now would be a great time to reflect on how much you have recently taken on which is new to you!)
This newness is uncomfortable, yes. But is it impostor syndrome? Maybe, maybe not, let's dig a little deeper.
Impostor Syndrome commonly shows up in the feeling that you'll be "found out" or "fall short"
You might feel you've tricked people into believing you're better than you are, and that no matter how hard you try, you'll never be good enough.
As an example, perhaps you have to give a presentation, monthly, of your team's progress.
Every month, you give a clear, concise roundup of the information needed. You're told that you did really well by your peers and management team, but every time you think "they're just being nice" or "I'm going to mess this up and look so stupid" even though the facts and past evidence show the exact opposite.
or, as I often see in my own industry, brilliant coaches doubting that they are “good enough” and constantly trying to upskill (hmmm do I need a psychology degree to really be a good coach) even though their clients are already getting fantastic results by working with them.
(OK guilty as charged, but I’m now able separate these feelings from my work and ability, and recognise those which are still of interest to me for my love of learning rather than because I need to validate myself by knowing “everything”)
These feelings are natural
-in fact so natural that rather than giving them a label - I believe it's far more helpful to accept them as something completely different - part of being human.
We don’t call living “human syndrome” (maybe we should) so recognising that not everything has to have a label can be a great point from which to start separating the many feelings you experience on a daily basis.
How can I tell difference between impostor feelings and those of being 'new to this and out of our comfort zone?
Remember I suggested earlier in the blog that you reflect on how much you’ve taken on recently?
If you've started something new, taken on more responsibility or are in an unfamiliar situation entirely, it's very likely your feelings are coming from a lack of confidence around your ability and because you likely haven't yet proved your competence to yourself (there's another blog coming for a more in-depth exploration of confidence vs competence).
It’s natural to want to do well in a new role, to feel you are doing a good job, showing that your employer made the right decision in hiring you and proving you’re contributing.
But it’s also essential to remember that if things are new, no-one is expecting you to know how to do everything immediately (except perhaps yourself and it may be a good time to consider asking yourself how reasonable this expectation of yourself is) and that learning to do things is ALWAYS part of a new role, experience or situation.
If you're already doing things well, but think that you'll never be good enough at them, or that someone will 'find out' you're not good at all then it may be that you're experiencing impostor like feelings.
So what can we do about it?
There are things common to both scenarios which can help.
Start by separating facts from the feelings
-what is actually expected of you by your employer / team / peers
-what are you expecting of yourself? And is this reasonable? Would you expect it of everyone or only yourself?
2. Let go of thinking you have to know everything
-this is a toughie, I know, along with perfectionism but we ONLY learn by learning…
-once you let go of the need to be great at everything, THEN you start to really learn
-embrace “beginners mind” be open to the fact that you can learn from everyone around you - and vice versa - and the world becomes a much more enjoyable space rather than a challenging one where you feel you don’t know enough
3. Acknowledge you achievements regularly, no matter how small
-Shift your focus from what you haven’t managed to do and focus on what you have done or achieved regularly - weekly is good, daily even better!
-My favourite way to do this is to create a Ta-dah list instead of a to-do list - this is a jot down of what you’ve done already and is a great reminder to reflect on when you’re feeling like you’re not doing enough
-Reflecting in this way, trying to separate the feelings and look at the facts of your achievements can help you feel more productive and accomplished
-Think about the last time you felt this way. What happened? How do you feel now? Can you use this as proof that although you feel completely overwhelmed and falling short at the moment, that this is part of the process and you’ve already proved you can overcome challenges?
-What skills or experiences from your reflections could help you navigate this period?
4. Talk about how you’re feeling
-Talking to a trusted colleague, ideally your boss, about the feelings you’re having can help you see things from another point of view.
-If you don’t have someone you feel you can speak to in your workplace or in your circle of loved ones (feeling as though you’re making a fuss of nothing and you just need to get over yourself is another common feeling) then consider speaking to a coach, mentor or therapist about these feelings
-voicing your thoughts and feelings out loud with someone else can often help you understand and reframe these. You may also find that you’re not alone in feeling unsure sometimes, which can help with acceptance that it is very natural to feel out of our depth at times
If you’re struggling with feelings of low confidence and Impostor Syndrome or feeling inadequate in a new situation I’m here to help.
My other blogs explore related topics, you can read them here, or you can arrange a free chat about how I can help you feel more confident in navigating these feelings by clicking this link