Eyes on wellbeing

“Imposter syndrome transcends all groups of society”

Susie Edwards, director of training and executive coaching organisation, WonderIf, on how to recognise and manage your imposter syndrome

Person sitting on the ground

The name WonderIf came about because the clients that I was working with would often say, “I wonder if I’m good enough to do this? I wonder if I can take the leap to go for this senior position?”

I realised that, from a career happiness perspective, it was important to share coaching techniques to help others clear out their inner gremlins and have the confidence and self-belief to take control of their careers.

Imposter syndrome: definition, and practical advice

Imposter syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, perceived fraudulence, or inner critic) describes individuals, often high achievers, who on the outside have attained objective success in their work or life, but find it extremely difficult to internalise their achievements and have nagging feelings of self-doubt. They might feel that, at any moment, someone could tap them on the shoulder and say, “What are you doing? You are not good enough to be in this role.”

People with a strong inner critic have difficulty associating their performance or accomplishments to their own actual competence and skill. Instead of celebrating their achievements and recognising their strengths and how this helped them achieve their goals, they’ll attribute their performance to external factors such as luck or the help they received from others.

Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes first described imposter syndrome in the late 1970s. Initially, their research focused on high achieving professional women. Research has followed since, exploring this in all genders. Imposter syndrome transcends all groups of society, in a multitude of professional settings, research has found.

Our self-limiting beliefs can get in the way of being able to progress in our lives and careers. Luckily, there are things you can do to tackle these beliefs.

  • Valuing yourself. You can’t please people all the time, but when you take care of yourself and value your needs and wants first it enables you to support others around you. It does, however, start with yourself
  • Define your values. It is useful to press the pause button and write these down, so you can identify when they are being compromised as well as being met
  • Aligning your values. You will always want to ensure that your values are aligned with what you are currently doing. Think about the people that you work with, the environment that you are in, what you are doing day-to-day, and how you can look at the balance of this.

When your inner critic surfaces, one approach is to turn your inner critic on its head and become an inner coach. There are three steps to this:

  • Look at how you talk to yourself. This includes your thoughts, behaviours, and actions. From a self-compassionate perspective, talk to yourself as you would to your best friend
  • Ask yourself the following question: is this based on my perception of the situation, or the reality? Unpleasant feelings can spiral out of control based on the fear of a situation and the unknown aspects to it
  • Write down one obstacle that you are facing. What is the block that is preventing you from moving forward with the idea, project, or task? What are you able to take control of and what parts are out of your control?

Self-compassion: the three elements

All of this is connected to self-compassion. Dr Kirsten Neff’s work on self-compassion looks at three aspects: kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

Self-compassion is being warm and understanding towards yourself when you suffer, fail, or feel inadequate. Being human means we are mortal, vulnerable, and imperfect. Therefore, self-compassion recognises that suffering and personal inadequacies are part of the shared human experience – something we all go through, rather than something that you do on your own.

Self-compassion is also about keeping yourself psychologically safe. Know what you want to say yes to, so that you have the clarity to say no to projects or activities that don’t align. If people are coming to you for support, create the boundary for the discussion. Ask, “What is the most important thing that we should focus on? What is the most important thing that we should be talking about?”

Mindfulness is a non-judgemental, receptive mindset in which we observe thoughts and feelings without trying to suppress or deny them. It helps you to stay aware, rather than being a passenger of your feelings or criticising yourself.

Practise noticing your emotions. Instead of seeing them as negative, accept them and name them. For example, the next time you feel an emotion, say “I am angry” or “I am upset,” and see if you feel differently afterwards.