“You’re a failure.”
“You’re no good at your job and you only got it because you’re lucky.”
This is the kind of self talk you might be familiar with if you’re experiencing impostorism: the feeling of being a fraud, intellectually or professionally, regardless of any positive feedback you may be receiving.
Impostorism is relatively indiscriminate, anyone can experience it. You’re more likely to encounter it in the workplace the more responsible you are for certain things. Sustaining a high level of performance and output, leading teams of people, or making important decisions.
You might experience it taking your first step into management, moving to a bigger and more established company, or towards the twilight of your career as you weigh up your achievements and the difference you’ve made across your working life.
At Sanctus, the job of Coaching Practice Lead is a shared role. One of two occupants, Dr. Albert Viljoen, talks about how impostorism shows up in the coaching room, in a piece about what makes a good leader:
A classic example from the coaching room, and one we see quite often: we have an almost 30 year old developer (let’s call him Matt) log into their Sanctus session, eyes wide, looking like they’ve just seen a ghost.
“Hey Matt, how are you doing today?”
“Well, I just got offered a promotion to be a manager.”
Your first response might be to say “Congratulations! You’ve worked so hard for it” but, noticing Matt’s expression, body language, and general demeanour, we instead lead with: “So, a promotion: how do you feel about it?”
“Well… overwhelmed to be honest. I’m supposed to be excited and proud of myself, but all I can think of is how I’m going to screw it up. I’m good with coding, but I’m not that great with people. Well, I’m good with people, but can I lead a team? I feel like maybe I have imposter syndrome…”
Matt’s a great developer, he’s good at what he does, he gets along with his team members, and so his boss wants to promote him. But does he have what it takes to make a good leader?
Sound familiar? It’s common. Particularly among leadership. Sanctus Co-Founder James Routledge has written about feeling like an imposter as a leader before:
At times I’ve doubted myself and lacked confidence, therefore felt like a fraud and not capable of leading a person, team or project. I’ve not felt good enough to be in the position I was in and I didn’t believe in myself.
These feelings have either been at the surface or they’ve run quite deep. Sometimes I’ve been able to take a look at myself in the mirror, give myself a pep talk in the shower and seize the day. At worst, my feelings of unworthiness and ‘not being good enough’ have gone so deep that they’ve held me back almost entirely.
The second and final Coaching Practice Lead I’ll introduce you to is Valentina Passoni. You might have seen Val in a few videos on LinkedIn. We recently had a sit down chat about what impostorism is, what it isn’t, and what you can do about it.
What is impostorism?
Impostorism is very much about identity. About what you believe regarding your strengths and capabilities. You might feel like an imposter even if you get really good feedback at work, but your own experience of your strengths and qualities is negative.
Impostorism means you discount your successes, thinking they’re due to luck or maybe hard work, as if that is a bad thing. So every time you achieve something, a negative loop has been reinforced where your achievements don’t mean anything to you, even though other people might be looking up to you.
The consequences for this range from low mood, low motivation, low self esteem, all the way to burnout, anxiety, and depression.
Why are we saying “impostorism” and not “imposter syndrome”?
Just because it’s not quite a syndrome. It’s not something you get diagnosed with. We tend to avoid talking about things in a diagnostic way in general, and syndrome feels like a diagnosis. Something permanent. Whereas with impostorism, you can learn to think differently.
It’s also because we coach people, not topics, or problems, or syndromes.
If we talk about impostor syndrome, I’m limiting that person to that little bracket. Sometimes, even impostorism feels too prescriptive. And the moment we start labelling people as one thing, we can forget to ask how that person is doing.
When the concept was first developed in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, it was known as “imposter phenomenon” and impostorism feels more in line with that kind of language.
How do you approach impostorism in coaching?
It’s very much about what we believe we can or cannot do. So the way a Sanctus Coach might approach it is to support the person to become more aware of their strengths, in order to respond to whatever the challenge in their life is.
Impostorism is about me not believing I’m “good enough” to be whoever or whatever I need to be in that particular moment.
So coaching is not about pushing myself to believe – it’s not fake it til you make it – it’s about systematically working on acknowledging my strengths, in order to then truly start believing them and showing up in a different way. So my inner critic doesn’t take over my understanding of who I am, and so I can process my situation and its challenges accurately and more effectively.
What advice would you give to someone experiencing impostorism?
The way I experience impostorism might be very different to the way someone else experiences it. And so when people come into coaching sessions going “I think I’m experiencing imposter syndrome, can you help me?” the first thing I ask is always:
“How does that show up for you?”
“What’s the way you talk to yourself?”
“What are some of the themes that come out of it or words you commonly use to address yourself?”
Then you get an idea of the person in front of you and how they’re experiencing impostorism.
I’ll give you a practical example because it’s something that often happens in coaching sessions. I might coach an introverted person who has a calm and considered way of working – which has so much strength in workplaces where everything’s going super fast – and yet the feedback they receive from their superiors is to be more vocal, be more decisive, give the appearance of trying harder, when it’s simply not how they conduct themselves.
So essentially, you’re telling them to be someone else. And that’s where the impostorism kicks in.
I might first of all acknowledge that maybe who they’re trying to be isn’t who they are. Which is perfectly fine. And then asking:
“So what’s your way to be driven? What does drive look like for an introvert, or maybe a shy person? And how can you be that, rather than just applying a blanket way of being?”
What can you do about impostorism?
Given that impostorism is about identity, what we can do is learn to acknowledge our successes, pause and reflect on the good things we’ve learned from the actions that we have taken.
We want to combat a sense of perfectionism, and a really good antidote to that is a growth mindset. So get into the habit of acknowledging your successes every day. Maybe pause and reflect on a couple of things that you’ve learned in the day and just really acknowledge your strengths as a result of it.
I call it context checking. Acknowledging where you are in your life, understanding your situation, and making that part of your analysis.
If you’re in a toxic environment where you get no praise whatsoever, this can exacerbate feelings of impostorism and not being good enough.
On the other hand, if you realise you are in the right field, in the right job, at the right level, and you’re just not taking in the good feedback other people are giving you, then acknowledging your strengths becomes more of a need in order to recognise “actually, I am in the right place. I deserve to be here.”