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Executive Coaching

Executive Imposter Syndrome: What Is It And How To Overcome It

The last few years of your career have been fast-paced. You’ve climbed your way up the ladder more quickly than some of your peers - through internships, graduate schemes, and other high-intensity professional environments.

But now, as you sit at a desk and bask in your senior management role, does it all feel a bit weird?

Like you shouldn’t be there at all? Like at any point, someone is going to let you know there’s been a mistake?

While your experience may not line up word for word with what we’ve described, if you’ve ever felt like you don’t belong, that’s normal. It’s so commonplace that it’s got a name — imposter syndrome.

What is imposter syndrome, and why do I have it?

Let’s start with the ‘what’ - how do you define imposter syndrome?

In 1978 Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term “imposter phenomenon,” and claimed that someone experiencing it “persists in believing that they are not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

Sound familiar?

“People with imposter syndrome have a sense of inadequacy, dismiss their achievements, and are very critical of themselves,” says Dr Pei-Han Cheng - a psychologist, consultant, and career coach.

Clance, Imes, and Cheng have solid credentials, and their descriptions paint a clear picture of a surprisingly common phenomenon: Research from the 1980s found that “about 70 percent of people from all walks of life — men and women — have felt like impostors for at least some part of their careers.” That’s a considerable proportion of us.

When we look at the ‘why’, things get a bit more complicated.

Various theories have been put forward about why we feel out of place in our own professional lives. Theorists have suggested everything from personality traits, genetic disposition, social conditioning, behavioural roots, and more.

While the theoretical underpinning is no doubt interesting, it’s quite likely that individuals are most likely to benefit from understanding the common causes and triggers of imposter syndrome.

Looking through this lens - rather than through roots and risk factors - reveals some compelling reasons why we might experience these feelings.

Causes of imposter syndrome

Here’s award-winning author Niel Gaiman describing his experiences:

The problems of failure are hard. The problems of success can be harder because nobody warns you about them.

The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you’re getting away with something and that any moment now, they will discover you.

It’s imposter syndrome.” (Source)

Let’s look at one part of what Neil said:

Nobody warns you about them.

This quote alludes to one of the common factors leading to imposter syndrome: Being caught off guard by new feelings and not having an adequate response prepared.

When this happens, your brain is prone to default to self-doubt and anxiety: Two things at the very core of imposter syndrome.

How do you know if you have imposter syndrome?

There is no definitive list of symptoms, but there is some consensus around the following causes and feelings:

  • A feeling of falling short of the level of competence expected of you, caused by your innate understanding of expectations not matching up with reality. When this happens, it’s easy to give yourself hell with no external justification.
  • Finding yourself in a role more senior than you’re familiar with, and feeling that you don’t know what to do. This feeling comes at any level of inexperience, and settling into a new routine often helps.
  • Not having peers to compare yourself with, whether directly (by asking them what they’re feeling) or indirectly (watching to see how they act). This challenge can be especially isolating and prevalent in a new role.
  • A lack of confidence - whether chronic or acute - can cause and exacerbate all of the things listed above. Whether you don’t feel confident with the tasks now expected of you, or you are beginning to doubt the legitimacy of the trajectory that took you to your current position - lack of confidence can be debilitating.

But fear not. While it is real and commonplace, there are ways to overcome imposter syndrome.

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Dealing with imposter syndrome

The doubt and anxiety caused by imposter syndrome can be overwhelming, especially if you’ve not yet identified what’s happening. Putting a label on your experience is the first step toward overcoming imposter syndrome.

This section gives tips on reframing your experience so that you don’t feel like an impostor any more. Such feelings are mainly internal, and with the right guidance and understanding, can be beaten.

Acknowledge the negative thoughts

You need to distinguish thoughts from facts: You may feel like an impostor, but this doesn’t mean you are one. Separating the two enables you to focus on the facts of your situation, which will often paint a very different picture.

As an executive, you may feel like such feelings are beneath you - like you should have everything sorted by this point in your career.

This is not true. People experience imposter syndrome at all levels of the career ladder.

The most important thing to remember is this: Experiencing negative thoughts is not a sign of weakness.

Ask yourself what is causing these feelings

When we feel stressed or overwhelmed, feelings of self-doubt become much more likely. And as we’ve seen, imposter syndrome is a manifestation of such doubt.

When you feel imposter syndrome creeping in, take a step back and see what’s going on for you at the moment. Do you have a big stack of outstanding tasks? Is there a deadline looming?

Shifting awareness from negative feelings to the task at hand can be a great way of unblocking your mental channels, distracting yourself from the negatives, and achieving something to remind yourself of the positives.

Perfectionism illustrates this well: If you’ve achieved 95% of your goals but missed out on the 5%, which do you let define your experience?

A perfectionist will berate themselves for missing 5%.

A more realistic (and motivating!) response is to congratulate yourself on the 95%.

Cultivate a success mindset

If negative thoughts are doing you a disservice, look for positive facts.

You may think you don’t belong, when in fact you have been chosen - probably in favour of several other candidates - to fill your role.

You may think you aren’t any good at your job, when in fact you have a long list of career accomplishments to look back on.

Look at your real achievements. Write them down: A list of promotions, commendations, accolades, certifications, and accomplishments is a panacea when you feel negative thoughts creeping in. It also helps to remind you that throughout your career, you will add many more things to that list.

Put yourself in the driving seat

Negative thoughts are not ideal, but nor should they be ignored. Sometimes they can be the precursor for development or a change in trajectory.

If the negative thoughts at the root of your feelings of imposter syndrome stem from something you can change, use them as the basis for that change. Talk to a career coach and find out how to harness these feelings. Such conversations put you in a proactive position, where you are in charge of your situation, rather than a passive one, where you are beholden to unexamined feelings of doubt.

Set goals to define your future

Casting your mind forward to the negative thoughts you might experience in your future, and putting things in place now to avoid those, is effective.

If a common theme for negative thoughts is that your work isn’t of a high enough standard, for example, maybe setting a goal to request feedback more often will help to quell such concerns.

If you notice that you feel particularly overwhelmed when deadlines are approaching, and that overwhelm leads to feeling like an imposter, take steps to ensure you complete work in good time.

But if you notice, upon more in-depth examination, that your feelings are a manifestation of dissatisfaction in your current role, then you need to set change in motion. This is where talking to a career coach plays dividends. By enlisting their expertise, you will open up your future and put yourself on a trajectory toward a new role where you will thrive, rather than feeling like you don’t belong.

In conclusion

Imposter syndrome is widespread, but it doesn’t need to be debilitating.

Remember that imposter syndrome is normal, it is not a sign of weakness, and you can overcome it. This is true at any stage of the career ladder.

Recognising and accepting the phenomenon, and taking the appropriate steps forward, is the best way to beat it. Putting yourself in the driving seat and enacting change to feel less out of place, or to find a new role where you don’t feel out of place at all.