Angel was working as Human Resources administrator for a city agency when we started working together. Her goal was to move out of her middle management position and into a leadership role. She wanted to move away from recruiting and impact city programs on a broader level. When her department was tasked with creating a new diversity and inclusion initiative, Angel offered to put together her department’s presentation on behalf of her boss. He happily agreed.
Angel’s presentation was not only shown to senior executives at different agencies city-wide, but was also so well received that the city decided to use Angel’s work in public advertising to promote the initiative. Angel’s boss proudly gave her full credit and openly complimented her to anyone who would listen.
In other words, Angel definitely, without a doubt, nailed this presentation. When she told me about it, I was thrilled for her. But as soon as I started celebrating her accomplishment, Angel cut me off, “Oh it was nothing. I threw the presentation together really fast. It actually should have been better.” She started poking holes in her success. Her conditioned response was to discredit her efforts and not allow herself to enjoy her achievement. That’s because Angel doesn’t believe that she’s worthy of that praise, from me or from her boss. Deep down, she feels like an imposter.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
There’s been a lot of press about the Imposter Syndrome in the past few years, but what it comes down to is a feeling of intellectual fraudulence. You may have degrees, awards, good performance reviews, promotions, maybe even accolades in a public forum like Angel—but you push it all away. You minimize positive feedback. The story you tell yourself is that you’re a one-hit wonder, that your success is a fluke that couldn’t happen again. You have no idea how you landed your job or why someone gave you this authority. What you do know is that it’ll certainly all disappear if you screw up even once.
I know how Imposter Syndrome shows up because I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to constantly second guess yourself, to downplay your accomplishments, and to wonder whether you’re good enough or smart enough for the opportunities presented to you at work.
But I’ve also studied Imposter Syndrome from a psychological perspective. First noticed by researchers Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 at Oberlin College, the “Imposter Phenomenon” was common among fellow female graduate students who sought out counseling services. Despite being smart and accomplished, these students felt like they didn’t deserve their success. They were convinced that they had somehow tricked the university into accepting them.
Imposter Syndrome has a few distinct characteristics. In addition to a crippling self-belief that you don’t deserve your success or that you couldn’t replicate it, you are also unable to internalize positive achievements. Though there’s objective facts that prove you are smart and capable, you don’t believe any of it. You dismiss it the way Angel did—as a fluke or not your best work. Despite evidence showing that you are more than competent and do good things, you worry about being “found out” or exposed as unqualified.
Imposter Syndrome has lots of negative effects, including not asking for help, turning down new opportunities, avoiding feedback or criticism (no matter how well-intended or constructive), even anxiety and depression.
Understanding the Impostor Syndrome Cycle
Often the clients I work with who experience Imposter Syndrome don’t realize that they through the same sequence of emotions each time they sense their intelligence is called into question.
Essentially any challenge—a new work project, or an ambiguous email—will cause someone with Impostor Syndrome to freak out, setting off a predictable cycle of worrying, self-doubt, fear. To cope, they fall into either a pattern of perfectionism (overdoing it) or procrastination (avoiding it). You may fall into one camp or toggle back and forth between these reactions.
But there’s a catch: Because in reality you actually are smart and do good work, your imagined worse-case scenario never happens. In fact, you probably get positive feedback for your work, but you ignore it or attribute your success to luck, timing, or connections. That closes the cycle temporarily until the next challenge appears––and it begins again.
Breaking the Imposter Syndrome Cycle
Once you understand the Impostor Syndrome Cycle, you are more empowered to change it. You can catch yourself earlier in the process, before distorted thoughts get out of hand and drive your actions in unhelpful ways.
Here are a few ways to break the cycle:
1. Remind Yourself with a Rubber Band
Keep a rubber band or hair tie on your wrist. Each time you notice you’re overthinking, snap the band and silently say “STOP”. This brings you back to the present moment and grounds you in reality where you have the opportunity to reassess.
2. Say Hello to Your stories
When it comes to Impostor Syndrome, we all have our greatest hits. Mine is an Imposter Syndrome story that goes “I can’t handle this,” which pops up whenever I face a challenge. Give your repetitive thoughts a moniker and greet them kindly (Oh there’s my “I suck at everything” story again!).
3. Coach yourself
When you’re caught in a moment of intense Imposter Syndrome, it’s sometimes hard to access more supportive thinking, so here’s a list self coaching questions you can ask yourself. These questions are useful to help you tap into your own inner wisdom and to find what will work best for you.
- How would my best friend/hero/someone who is confident respond?
- If I knew everything would work out, how would my view change?
- What can I learn from this?
- When have I handled something like this before?
- What thought would get me closer to my goals?
- What other angles have I not considered yet?