Who's That Girl...?

Abby, a client of mine, had taken her first leadership position, a complex role creating and managing strategy and production of several countries. During a 3-month coaching programme with me, she wanted us to focus on her next career move, to understand the type of role she desired and how to go about preparing for that next move. As we explored this we stumbled across something serious. She admitted that she believed the only reason she had been promoted to the multi-jurisdictional leadership role was because she was the cheapest of the applicants.

Think about it for a moment - how crippling this belief must be, to her career aspirations, how she leads her team, how she interacts with her own leadership and her peer leaders, not to mention the impact on her stress levels and well-being. Constantly reminding herself she was 'given' the job took its toll on all these - and it was something she had control over to change. Until the coaching programme, she wasn't aware it was blocking her from feeling comfortable and in her strength and power in her leadership role, and she didn't know how she could change it.

Impostor Syndrome

 - the fear of being exposed, that you don't deserve your success, and that you aren't as good as others. It's a feeling of inadequacy despite evidence to suggest it is not true e.g. in high-performing leaders. The condition was first identified by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes of the University of California in 1978, who initially thought the anxiety was unique to women. Clance and Imes also noticed a prevalence of this condition in high-achieving women, going on to write that although it occurs in men also (with less prevalence), when it occurs, it does so with less intensity. In fact, Clance later worked with Gail Matthews in the mid-80s finding that 70% of those surveyed from all walks of life, men and women, had experienced the condition at some point in their career.

Sound familiar?

This belief can be hard to shift - the strength of negative self-talk that keeps Impostor syndrome alive is very damaging and it sticks. It is so tied up in belief systems developed in family, friends, social norms, ethnicity - the iceberg of belief systems goes deep!


It can be remedied. You can try these activities (and do them on a regular basis) to get you thinking more confidently about your achievements

  1. Career Timeline: Go back over your career and list all your achievements (career or personal), where you have made an impact, where your work has been recognised and valued. Consider the skills you used to achieve those career milestones, and list them too - at least 10 for each position. How does it look? How did it feel to realise there is a long list?
  2. Limiting beliefs: Write down on post-it notes all the beliefs you have that prevent you from stepping fully into your role and feeling more confident. Then review them; challenge your beliefs. What is the concrete evidence that this is true? Physically tear up each limiting belief when you realise the belief you have serves no purpose. Any that are left are areas of focus for development - not failure;
  3. Anchoring: Consider a time when you felt most confident and deserving of success. Visualise it. How did you feel? What were you wearing? What were the circumstances? Who were you with? Go into as much detail as possible to create this vision - then 'take a picture'. You want to hold onto that vision and that feeling. When you find you doubt yourself, go back to that vision you created and how you felt, so you can recreate that feeling. You may also want to use a physical reminder e.g. a pebble in your pocket, your bracelet or watch, so that each time you touch it, you are reminded of this confidence and achievement.
  4. Celebrate your successes! However small, celebrating success makes you feel you deserved it. For some, celebrating success is difficult - an achievement to them is "No big deal", but it IS a big deal, and should be acknowledged as such. If you don't want to make a song and dance about it with others, a simple celebration of a massage, facial, new outfit, flowers, any self-care ritual you enjoy - work it into your routine of celebrating success. You should try to celebrate every week - yes, EVERY week! There is always something to celebrate that moved you further towards a goal or desire.
  5.  Ask 5 people: This is powerful - I've done it myself. It's like a mini-360. Ask 5 people, either trusted colleagues and/or friends the following questions:
What one word or phrase describes me best?
What do you think is my greatest achievement?
What do you value most about me?
What one thing could I change for my own benefit?
What do you believe to be my greatest strength?

This exercise is humbling, powerful, and gives you great insights to aspects of yourself that you overlook or take for granted - your blind spots.

Have you experienced Impostor syndrome? If it's not caught and addressed, it can prevent you from reaching your career and life goals. Coaching can help you address it, becoming a stronger individual who stands in her own power.


Psychotherapy Research and Practice, Volume 15, #3, Fall 1978

Gravois, J. (2007). You're Not Fooling Anyone. Chronicle of HIgher Education, 54(11)