As I’m embracing my passion for coaching as a full-time business, I too sometimes find myself feeling like a “phony.” I too wonder if “I’m good enough to be a coach.” Never mind that I completed one of the most rigorous coach training programs — including their master’s program — with more than 300+ hours, that I have years of experience coaching as an HR leader, or that I have read more than 100 management/leadership books. There is always that voice telling me that perhaps if I read one more management book or take one more course, I will feel ready. The truth is, I know it’s never enough.
I know very well what I’m experiencing here. These are the telltale signs of impostor syndrome. I’m not alone either: 70% of the US population has experienced impostor syndrome (talk about having some company!) and this is often very much present in women, especially if they are a #firstgenriser like me. (Ding, ding, ding, I won the prize!)
So let’s look at what impostor syndrome is and some strategies that I have come up with in order to squash that inner critic once and for all.
Impostor syndrome was first discovered over 40 years ago by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance.
The phenomenon, according to Wikipedia, is “a psychological pattern in which individual doubts their accomplishments or talents and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud". Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve all they have achieved. By the feeling that our successes can be attributed to mere luck, instead of our own skills or qualifications.”
Moreover in 2011, Dr. Valerie Young found that there are 5 different types of impostor syndrome. If you are interested in reading more about her work, I highly recommend you read her book: “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.”
In a nutshell, here are the 5 types:
The Expert - They continuously seek out additional certifications or training because they feel as though they will never know enough to be truly qualified.
The Perfectionist - They have such high expectations for themselves that even small mistakes will make them feel like a failure.
The Superwoman/Superman - They put in long hours, never take days off and must succeed in all aspects of life in order to prove they are the “real deal.”
The Natural Genius - They are used to things coming easily, so when something is too hard or they don’t master it on the first try, they feel shame and self-doubt.
The Soloist - They don’t like to ask for help, so when they do, they feel like a failure or a fraud.
If you are anything like me, you probably identified at least two of these subcategories here. That is OK. Remember that statistic about 70% of the US population? I’ll let you do the math.
So what can we do about it? Well, there are many books, including the one I recommend above, that provide all sorts of tips. And I will share below what has worked for me and my clients.
1. Challenge the story. Ask yourself, how true is that for you? What evidence do you have that this is true? Facts matter. When we look closely, chances are that that story that we are telling ourselves is not the truth.
2. Re-write the message. In coach parlay, this inner critic is called the Gremlin message. One sure way to re-write this nasty fellow’s message is by replacing it with one that is more affirming or encouraging. For example, instead of “I’m not good enough,” you can swap that for “I now know everything I need to succeed.” (think about as your new affirmation) Write it on a sticky note or in a place where you often see it. You will see that, eventually, this new message will replace the old one, and your inner critic will be all but gone.
3.Take a walk down memory lane. One of my favorite things to do when I’m feeling that I do not know enough is to go back through the feedback I’ve received over the years. In particular, these days it is easy to go back to your LinkedIn and see what people wrote in your recommendations or commented on your updates. You can also lookup others with similar titles and see that, most of the time, they have as many or fewer qualifications than you do. So if they made it, you also can.
4. Reframe your mistakes as teachable moments. Mistakes are going to happen. We are only human. But it is up to us how we choose to feel after. So imagine you made a mistake. You have two options: fill____ the blank with your negative thought of choice or take that as an opportunity to reflect on what could have been done better or how you will apply this situation as a “learning experience” to avoid a similar pitfall later on? So now this mistake adds to you instead of taking away. Think about how different you would feel.
5. Acknowledge and validate the feeling, but don’t dwell on it. Instead, think you are adding to the culture or environment. If you’re the only or one of just a few women on a team or are from an underrepresented background in your field or workplace, it’s only natural to sometimes feel like you don’t totally fit in. Instead of taking your self-doubt as a sign of your lack of cognitive ability, recognize that it might be a normal response to being an outsider. However, that does not mean that you need to fit in; on the contrary, OWN your contribution to the culture of the team, organization, department, whatever...You get my point.
This brings me to my last point, and here is where I differ from most of the advice out there.
6. Don’t fake it until you make it. OWN IT. As I said above, one way to think about it is not how you can fake it and fit in, but instead, how you can add on and own it. By owning it, I mean to give it your 110% and to be OK walking away afterward. By no means am I telling you to go out there and admit in front of everyone your fear; instead, I’m asking you to prepare the best you can, speak to your mentor or your coach, and then deliver in a way that is true to yourself. Never pretend you are someone else.
Remember, we live in a day and age where diversity, inclusion, and belonging are at the forethought of every organization’s strategy. Where organizations are trying to be intentional in creating safe spaces to allow for unique voices to be heard. I can guarantee you that whoever hired you or promoted you did it for a reason. Now it’s up to you to trust yourself and to stop judging and comparing yourself to others. Your gifts are unique to you. Recognize that amazing person you are. Because, believe me, there is always someone out there who already does.