Feeling like a Fraud at Work? You’re Not Alone!

Last month, I spent the day with a group of seasoned, accomplished leaders. Midway through the session, we stumbled on a topic I wasn’t expecting. It changed the course of the conversation dramatically. More insight and personal discovery took place in the 30 minutes we spent spontaneously going deeper than in the first four hours of our day.

Have you ever watched honey slowly drip from a spoon? Picture it for a minute and you’ll have a great visual of what I observed as each leader cautiously revealed their personal version of imposter’s syndrome. The comments were related to a particular facet of their roles only, not their entire leadership experience. It was slow and winding. All the comments and feelings seemed to build up in the middle of the table as they heard their peers describe experiences of low confidence and self-doubt. Each person carefully opened up more and more, shared another detail or offered another personal example.

What is it about finding out we’re not alone in our fears or self-doubt that helps us overcome it?

Having worked with this group for a while, we had already created an environment of shared growth and continuous improvement. As the conversation progressed, it was obvious that hearing similar feelings from peers they admired and respected increased their willingness to question their own past thoughts and fears. It enabled them to go below the safe, surface-level sharing and really listen, support and learn from each other.

Identifying imposter phenomenon was a new topic for them. It helped them to experience not only another shared connection but, it also began to relieve their feelings of isolation. They became even braver with their revelations. By encouraging them, I was able to watch as one by one they made their way back from the loneliness keeping silent had created to finding comfort and security in being a part of the group.

Almost 70% of us will experience imposter syndrome at some point in our careers or lives.

Moments of self-doubt and areas of our professional lives we are “faking till we make it” is more common than most of us realize. In 1978, Psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes first defined imposter phenomenon as an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness (fraud). Based on their clinical experience, they saw the phenomenon as more common in high-achieving women.

However, it is so prevalent today that psychologists continue to study it and coaches and consultants continue to specialize in techniques and strategies to help their clients move past it. More recent research shows nearly 70% of us will experience the phenomenon at some point in our lives. It’s a universal feeling that we see in every race, age, gender and profession. I’ve experienced it many times and my guess is many of you have too.

Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome

Interested in some of the specific symptoms to help determine if you’re a fellow sufferer? Here are examples of what these leaders began to overcome that day:

  • Worrying about not living up to expectations
  • Losing confidence in certain situations
  • Attributing success to “luck” or outside factors
  • Self sabotaging behaviors
  • Getting stuck or feeling paralyzed
  • Holding back thoughts, opinions or ideas
  • Going overboard on tasks and goal-setting

Doctors Clance and Imes proposed one extremely effective technique to sufferers which included group meetings with others experiencing the same feelings and distress symptoms. They proposed the key to its’ effectiveness was the realization that they were not suffering alone. By spending time with others having the same experience and talking about their fears, they were able to quiet the negative thoughts. While it wasn’t part of our agenda that day, this group became living proof that the technique works.

How Can You Overcome Imposter’s Syndrome?

Consider these additional tactics to overcome imposter’s syndrome or get yourself out of an imposter’s cycle of self-doubt.

  1. Seek to understand your triggers or recurring patterns of negative thoughts. When you can identify the situations that cause your self-doubt cycle to start, you can prepare differently for the next time those situations will arise.
  2. Set a plan to take a new risk. And, in your preparation, plan for the possibility of failing. If you fail, what will you do? How will you respond and what would be your next steps? Realizing you can survive the failure allows you to see it as a learning experience and adapt your mindset to one of growth vs performance only.
  3. Reflect regularly and identify what you are learning. Try to name the learnings as specifically as you can. How will you incorporate these new insights and increased self-awareness to your daily life? These learnings are now new experience and wisdom you have gained.
  4. Get outside help (counselor or coaching). If the above 4 steps aren’t helping you make the progress you want, talk to a professional. The field of therapists and coaches helping people overcome imposter’s syndrome has grown immensely in the 40 years since imposter’s phenomenon was first identified. With the vast options for support, a solution is easier than ever to find.

Do you catch yourself in cycles of self-doubt?   Do you fear being “find out” at times in your work or home life? You are not alone. I regularly coach and advise teams and leaders overcoming their fears and realizing their full potential. Drop me a note!