The mixed bag of stuff that makes up what is commonly called ‘imposter syndrome’

I have no problem with the term imposter syndrome. It describes well a feeling that others’ perception of you is somehow wrong, untrue, and that sooner or later you’ll be found out for the fraud that you really are. Having said that it isn’t a term I use much, in part because I worry that it’s overused and could lose any real meaning and because I rarely hear people I work with refer to it.

What I do know is common, and what I hear about from clients every week, is the range of challenging emotions and feelings that people live with every day, all of which conspire to make the person feel useless, unworthy, somehow lacking and always less than the other people around them.

They may not use the term ‘imposter’ but they certainly don’t feel that they fully and authentically show up in the professional space that they occupy.

‘I had little faith or trust in myself’

These are the words of a charity chief executive looking back on where she was before she embarked on coaching with me. The words of someone in her fifties, highly experienced after a long and rich career, and yet her view of herself did not in any way reflect that reality.

And it’s that word ‘trust’ that seems to me to be so key. Somehow many of us don’t feel able to trust ourselves, that who we are, and who we present to the world, is actually fine. It’s more than fine in fact and there’s no need to be anyone else. Sure, we can all learn and improve skills, nuance our leadership style and embrace new ways of operating, but we are fundamentally ok as we are. And yet we don’t trust our judgments, our opinions or our abilities and are convinced that someone else would do it all so much better and we should somehow be different.

‘I am letting go of some of the ‘should’ and learning to guide myself better’

There’s another word that’s in that bag of trouble that causes imposter syndrome, lack of self-belief, low confidence, or whatever else it is you’re feeling: should.

Much of the time I also don’t use this word and have even asked clients to imagine a world where the word doesn’t exist. It may have its uses every now and again, but most of the time we use it to judge, criticise and berate ourselves. We basically beat ourselves up with it.

‘Should’ is often an external voice so, when you hear yourself say it, think who that voice might belong to that you’ve internalized. Wherever it’s from, if it’s not helping you, replacing it with ‘could’ can be so much more productive: what you have now is the opportunity to make choices.

You could write that report or you could spend some time thinking about what’s actually blocking you, or you could diary the task for early next week.

You could talk to that senior manager about others’ concerns that have been raised or you could follow your instincts and offer some kindness and space and ask them what’s going on.

‘I am being more considerate with myself. I trust myself more and follow my own thoughts’

So, there are two bags that you can carry with you. There’s the one with judgement, comparison-itis, low self-confidence and belief, shoulds and oughts…..and there’s the lighter load in which there’s compassion, self-care and belief, choices and peace.

We all tend to pick up the first bag when we’re young and most of the time don’t even know we’re carrying it. Coaching illuminates what’s going on, unearths new choices and gives you a new language with which to speak to yourself.  As another director said to me recently: ‘more importantly, I really like myself.’

When we feel like an imposter, when we don’t believe in who we are and think we should change, we probably don’t like ourselves very much so the way back to a place where we trust and like ourselves is a journey well-worth taking, both professionally and personally.

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