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Hands off my imposter syndrome.... it's mine!

Updated: May 10

As the understanding of the term 'imposter syndrome' grows we are now increasingly hearing the bizarre practice of managers diagnosing people with it and missing the cruel irony that this only serves to exacerbate the feeling, not help it.


One of the most common feelings we uncover through coaching is 'imposter syndrome'. That feeling you don't quite deserve to be where you are, that other people in similar positions are more talented, and that you were maybe 'in the right place at the right time' to achieve what you have. It's especially common in females and minority groups who may have been told growing up that they will need to work twice as hard to be heard. It's a myth that it is rare in white males though - its frequently heard.


Most people will have felt 'imposter syndrome' at some point in their lives, notably in the first few months of a promotion or new industry. We have met chief executives who admitted doubting their worthiness of a role in the early months when first realising the total responsibility that came with it. Even the lauded author John Steinbeck wrote in his journal 'I'm not a writer, I've been fooling myself and other people'.


When imposter syndrome persists for longer periods it can become debilitating and career effecting. It is becoming an increasingly common focus for coaches to work through with clients, possibly because as awareness grows people recognise it in themselves and seek help.


There is a feature of this new awareness that isn't helping though - untrained diagnosis by colleagues or managers. Psychologists refer to this as 'Psychobabble' - in itself a syndrome! This is where those of us who have avoided the 8 years qualification to become a clinical psychologist still feel able to hold forth on areas like 'mindfulness', 'narcissism' and 'self actualisation' with the same authority - just gained in twenty minutes from a fascinating article read on a train.


If you are the colleague or manager about to diagnose - stop. However good your intention just think through the logic of telling someone who feels like an imposter that you've recognised that they are feeling like an imposter. Would you tell a shy colleague that you'd imagine they were petrified about public speaking, but help is always at hand? No. People can lack confidence for a number of reasons, imposter syndrome is just one of them. Check first that you have created an environment so open and conducive to nurturing colleagues that you are doing everything you can to reduce imposter feelings.


If you are the person feeling like an imposter and somebody untrained seeks to diagnose you, feel free to politely point out that imposter syndrome can only really be confirmed and diagnosed by one person - you. It might help your esteem to think that you are far too intuitive to ever have made the mistake they have. Maybe they should have imposter syndrome!


Working together employers, employees and a coach can employ various techniques to banish imposter syndrome and open people up to true career progression and role satisfaction. We will return to some of these techniques in a future post. In the meantime, if you recognise this and want to explore more - get in touch.

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