Defining and Defeating Imposter Syndrome

According to current research, up to 70% of adults will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their life (Mann, 2019). This is especially true for high achievers such as executives and business leaders. Imposter syndrome can have many negative consequences on quality of life, mental health, and business performance. Without proper knowledge on what imposter syndrome is and how to defeat it, executive coaches can miss the “red flags” of imposter syndrome and miss opportunities to get to the root of their clients' challenges.


Executive coaches themselves can also suffer from imposter syndrome, leading to less effective coaching, dissatisfied executives, and reduced quality of life. Because of this, it is vital for executive coaches to be aware of not only what imposter syndrome is, but what beliefs are associated with it, what groups are most vulnerable to it, triggers of it, and consequences of it. Furthermore, after learning to identify imposter syndrome, executive coaches can build up their coaching toolbox with coaching methods and powerful questions to help their clients and themselves defeat imposter syndrome.



“Be the kind of person who dares to face life’s challenges and overcome them rather than dodging them.” - Roy T. Bennett

Defining imposter syndrome

In order to best combat imposter syndrome, it is important to have an accurate and researched-based understanding of what imposter syndrome is. In Dr. Sandi Mann’s book, “Why Do I Feel Like an Imposter, How to Understand and Cope with Imposter Syndrome,” Dr. Mann points to Clance and Imes as the first researchers to identify imposter syndrome in 1978 (Mann, 2019).


In Clance and Imes’ 1978 research article, they define imposter syndrome as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness…despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments” (Clance & Imes, 1978). Like the title suggests, imposter syndrome is essentially feeling like an imposter or fraud despite having skill, intellect, and/or success. While Clance and Imes’ research focused solely on women in the workplace, more recent research reveals that imposter syndrome can affect both men and women.


An article in the 2020 Journal of General Internal Medicine reviewed 33 independent research studies that compared the rates of imposter syndrome between men and women. This review found that 16 of 33 studies reported that women suffer from imposter syndrome more than men, while the other 17 studies indicated they both suffered from imposter syndrome at similar rates.


Because of these findings, researchers state that “while impostor syndrome is common in women, it also affects men” (Bravata et al., 2020). According to Dr. Mann, “at least 70%” of adults will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. However, it is “more common among high achievers,” much like the business leaders that executive coaches serve day-to-day (Mann, 2019).


Beliefs and fears of imposter syndrome

Inspired by Clance and Imes’ research, Dr. Mann outlines three core beliefs and fears that make up imposter syndrome.

  1. Belief that others have inflated views of your abilities

  2. Fear of being exposed as a fraud

  3. Attributing your success to external factors (for example: luck, others, or coincidence) (Mann, 2019)

These beliefs and fears are central to imposter syndrome. Through discussion and questions, some of these beliefs might become apparent in an executive or coachee. If this happens, it should be taken as a warning sign of imposter syndrome and seen as an opportunity to collectively dive deeper into the coachee’s beliefs and perspectives.


“There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud not sure I should be where I am.” - Cheryl Sandberg, COO Facebook

Those likely to experience imposter syndrome

There are several groups of people that are more likely to experience imposter syndrome than others. According to Psychology Today, both men and women can develop imposter syndrome, but women are more likely to develop it than men. Dr. Mann states that students, those with creative careers, those in academics, highly successful individuals, those with early career success, first-generation professionals or college students, those who have unique routes to their position, under-represented groups, those with high achieving parents, self-employed individuals, and lone workers are more prone to imposter syndrome (2019). For those in under-represented groups, imposter syndrome poses a distinct threat.


In a 2020 BBC article, Sheryl Nance-Nash quotes Brian Daniel Norton, a psychotherapist and executive coach, as saying, “When you experience systemic oppression or are directly or indirectly told your whole life that you are less-than or undeserving of success and you begin to achieve things in a way that goes against a long-standing narrative in the mind, imposter syndrome will occur.” Because imposter syndrome is built on the belief that abilities and accomplishments achieved by an individual are undeserving, oppression or discrimination can speed the development of imposter syndrome in marginalized groups. Emily Hu, a clinical psychologist, is also quoted as saying “We’re more likely to experience imposter syndrome if we don't see many examples of people who look like us or share our background who are clearly succeeding in our field” (Nance-Nash, 2020).


Triggers of imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome can have a variety of triggers. Dr. Mann claims that there are three key triggers to imposter syndrome. First, imposter syndrome can be triggered when “first qualifying” for a job, promotion, educational program, etc. For example, consider a new college graduate that now qualifies for careers that need a college degree. Because they have just attained this requirement and recently qualified, they could view their new qualification as a phony, believing that they don’t have what it takes to apply for the newly available positions.


The second trigger is when first starting a degree “course, or education experience.” Although an executive or coach may qualify for a training program or educational program, they might feel as though they are phony and do not truly qualify for the program. This can stifle opportunities to learn more and develop as a coach or executive.


Lastly, promotions to new or higher positions can be a trigger for imposter syndrome (Mann, 2019). Other researchers cited Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander in their review of imposter syndrome published in the International Journal of Behavior Science, claiming that other contributing factors of imposter syndrome include perfectionism and family environment (2011).


In their original research article, Clance and Imes state that “the real root of” imposter syndrome “lies in social expectation” pushed forth by the “differential between high achievement and low societal expectations” (1978). This “social expectation” as a trigger, correlates with the increased likelihood of underrepresented groups developing imposter syndrome as discussed above.


“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” -Henry Ford

Consequences of imposter syndrome


Poor mental health

Researchers Sakulku and Alexander state that some of the consequences of imposter syndrome are “anxiety, fear of failure,” “dissatisfaction with life,” “depression,” “psychological distress,” “self-doubt,” “fear of failure,” “emotional exhaustion,” “loss of intrinsic motivation,” and “guilt about success” (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011). According to the National Safety Council, “mentally distressed workers are 3.5 times more likely to have substance use disorders” (2021).


Furthermore, poor mental health is also associated with chronic diseases, sleep problems, and nicotine usage (WebMD Contributors, 2021). The negative consequences that imposter syndrome can have on mental health are serious and can create a cascading effect of negative consequences on executives and executive coaches alike.


Increased rates of burnout

Research has also shown that imposter syndrome is correlated with an increased risk of burnout (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011). In the 2020 issue of the Saudi Medical Journal, researchers discovered that imposter syndrome is correlated with the “development of burnout” (Alrayyes et al., 2020). This sense of burnout can reduce a coach’s ability to take on new coaching clients and effectively manage their current workload. Burnout for an executive can be very costly to his/her company via the cost of hiring new executives or leaders. It can also be costly for coaches and executives in terms of poorer decision-making due to mental exhaustion.

Workplace behaviors

Other consequences of imposter syndrome include overworking “in order to prevent… ‘phoniness’ from being discovered,” having a lack of confidence, “hiding true opinions” to protect one’s image, having a mentor only to impress them, a perfectionist perspective to prove worth and ability, downplaying achievements, “discounting praise,” and self-sabotaging behavior (Mann, 2019).


For example, an executive coach might overwork themselves at the beginning of their coaching career, because they feel they do not know enough despite passing their required certifications and current success. An executive might not share his/her opinions in the boardroom because they believe that if they do, they risk losing their “phony” success by revealing their true colors or intelligence levels.


Furthermore, an executive might demand perfection from himself/herself on all tasks and fail to allocate time and resources properly. All of these behaviors guard an executive’s or coach’s ego against potential mistakes because they fear drastic and unrealistic consequences such as being found an imposter.


Defeating imposter syndrome

Both executive coaches and business leaders can face imposter syndrome. Because of this, it is important for executive coaches to learn how to combat their own sense of imposter syndrome so they can help their clients combat imposter syndrome as well. The following methods can be used by both the executive coach and coachee to overcome imposter syndrome.


“A good discussion increases the dimensions of everyone who takes part.” - Randolph Bourne

Peer group discussions

Researchers, Clance and Imes, state that “a group therapy setting or an interactional group” with others facing imposter syndrome is “highly recommended.” While executive coaches do not have the tools necessary for group therapy, they can host peer advisory group discussions about imposter syndrome. Educational and conversational discussions about imposter syndrome can show executives who are facing imposter syndrome that they are not alone (Clance & Imes, 1978). Executive coaches can also have discussions with their mentors and peer coaches about imposter syndrome. This can further their resilience towards imposter syndrome and increase their understanding of why their imposter syndrome is untrue and how it hinders their success as a leader.


Name it

Licensed Master Social Worker, Melody Wilding, recommends giving the “inner critic” or voice of imposter syndrome a name. She states that doing so can give an individual “distance from” the negative self-talk by identifying outside of themselves. She uses an example of a client who named the voice of his inner critic Darth Vader. Every time her client’s inner critic caused trouble her client would say “not today, Darth” helping him “stop the negative inner dialogue in its tracks.” Wilding recommends choosing a name that is “silly and light-hearted” because this takes away some of the inner critic or imposter syndrome credibility and power (Wilding, 2021). Both executive coaches and business leaders can use this method to become mindfully aware of their own impostor syndrome thought processes and perspectives.


Power statements

Different from positive affirmations, power statements remind an individual of their own power, skills, or abilities. These statements can directly oppose beliefs of imposter syndrome such as “I’m not good at this, I’ve just been lucky” with a power statement saying “I am good at this. I have worked hard for this. I can do this.” Melody Wilding, LMSW, recommends putting these power statements “somewhere visible and prominent” like on a computer monitor, mirror, calendar, or screensaver (Wilding, 2021). For example, an executive coach can have a power statement of “I have helped many executives through my executive coaching. I am a good executive coach.” A business leader can have a power statement such as, “I can be a great executive and leader. I have worked hard and earned my position.”


“Knowing your feelings won’t change the facts, but knowing the facts can change your feelings.” - Marlene Chism

Practice separating feelings from facts

Psychologist, Susan Albers, PsyD., states that those facing imposter syndrome should practice separating their feelings from facts. This is done with mindfulness of imposter syndrome thoughts and intentionally responding with facts such as “I know I am capable in doing…” (Cleveland Clinic, 2021). For the executive that is facing a difficult season in business, their imposter syndrome would state, “you’re not qualified to lead a company,” leaving them feeling distraught and helpless. In response, the executive could state “I am qualified to lead this company because I have done….” For executive coaches feeling challenged by the difficulties associated with starting a coaching business or group, imposter syndrome might also state that they are unqualified to coach, making them feel inadequate. In response, they can separate their feelings of inadequacy from the facts of their training, experience, and knowledge.


Keep track of your accomplishments

By saving emails that recognize excellent work, keeping a journal of successes, or saving letters/cards of encouragement from others, individuals can combat the feelings of inferiority or fraud that often accompany imposter syndrome (Cleveland Clinic, 2021). Executives can do this by creating a journal of successful moments in their business. Executive coaches can do this by creating a log of positive reviews, comments, and outcomes that resulted from their coaching sessions. After making this log, journal, or database of accomplishments, executive coaches and business leaders alike can revisit and revalidate their successes when imposter syndrome thoughts arise.


Stop comparing

Dr. Albers recommends that individuals facing imposter syndrome should intentionally focus on not comparing themselves to others. Instead, they should “focus on measuring [their] own achievements instead of holding them up against others.” When coaching a business leader, executive coaches can ask their clients “who or what are you comparing yourself and your business to? Why?” Doing this can reveal unfair standards or expectations. The same is true for executive coaches. If a new executive coach is comparing some aspects of their executive coaching practice to a seasoned executive coach, they could be placing unrealistic expectations on their growing coaching business. By stopping unfair comparisons, both executive coaches and business leaders can begin to defeat their impostor syndrome.


“It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” - Eugene Jonesco

A note on making referrals

It is vital for executive coaches to remember the importance of making necessary referrals to counselors and other mental health professionals as needed for themselves and their clients as well. As research by Clance and Imes indicates, previous family environments and past experiences can contribute to imposter syndrome. Because the primary role of an executive coach is to be forward-focused, we encourage executive coaches to practice discretion and due diligence when discussing imposter syndrome with their clients. For more information on when to make mental health referrals tune into episode 1027 with Sally Rhoads LCSW on the Arete Coach podcast.


Powerful questions

Using the information above, here are several powerful questions for executive coaches to consider and customize to meet their executive coaching clients’ needs. Executive coaches can also ask themselves these questions and answer in a group or introspectively. Consider the following powerful questions for inspiration…


Questions that identify imposter syndrome

  • It sounds like your coworkers and superiors think highly of you. Do you agree?

  • What are you afraid of?

  • What is the cause of your success?

  • Do you believe that you are as capable as others say that you are?

  • What is your reaction to success or a promotion?

  • Do you often hide your true opinions?

  • What are your thoughts on perfectionism?

  • Share with me some successes you have had this year. Where did they come from and how did they happen?


Questions that address imposter syndrome

  • If you had to name the voice of your imposter syndrome, what would it be?

  • In this scenario, what is feeling and what is fact?

  • What is your power statement?

  • Is comparing yourself to others helpful?

  • How is your imposter syndrome holding you back?

  • How can you intentionally overcome your imposter syndrome?

  • Do you want to overcome your imposter syndrome? Do you believe that it is true? If so, why?

Main takeaway

A key feature to remember when discussing imposter syndrome is the role of an executive coach. Executive coaches are forward-focused. Psychologists, counselors, and the like have the tools necessary for diving deep into past family history and experiences. As Clance and Imes point out in their research, family history and past experiences can contribute to imposter syndrome (1978). If this is apparent with a client, it is important to make the necessary referrals for both the coach’s and the client’s wellbeing. This is also true for the executive coach themselves.


If examining and defeating imposter syndrome reveals deep-rooted or other complex mental health causes, gaining advice or guidance from a mental health professional is surmount. However, if the roots of imposter syndrome are closely tied to a business leader or executive coach’s current beliefs and outlook on the future, executive coaches can help themselves and their clients reevaluate their beliefs, separate facts from fiction, and stop unfair comparisons.


When executive coaches are aware of what imposter syndrome is and its effects on the executives they coach, they are more likely to notice potential signs of imposter syndrome. This recognition leads to deeper and more impactful executive coaching that helps executives with their genuine needs. It also helps executive coaches be the best coach they can be.


“You don’t have to attain perfection or mastery to be worthy of the success you achieved.” - Margie Warrell

References


Alrayyes, S., Dar, U. F., Alrayes, M., Alghutayghit, A., & Alrayyes, N. (2020). Burnout and imposter syndrome among Saudi young adults. Saudi Medical Journal, 41(2), 189–194. https://doi.org/10.15537/smj.2020.2.24841.


Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., Nelson, R. S., Cokley, K. O., & Hagg, H. K. (2020). Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. Journal of general internal medicine, 35(4), 1252–1275. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1.


Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006.


Cleveland Clinic. (2021, February 24). A Psychologist Explains How to Deal With Imposter Syndrome. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/a-psychologist-explains-how-to-deal-with-imposter-syndrome/.


Nance-Nash, S. (2020, July 27). Why imposter syndrome hits women and women of colour harder. BBC Worklife. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200724-why-imposter-syndrome-hits-women-and-women-of-colour-harder.


National Safety Council. (2021, May 13). New Mental Health Cost Calculator Shows Why Investing in Mental Health is Good for Business - National Safety Council. https://www.nsc.org/newsroom/new-mental-health-cost-calculator-demonstrates-why.


Mann, S. (2019). Why Do I Feel Like an Imposter?: How to Understand and Cope with Imposter Syndrome. Watkins Publishing.


Psychology Today. (n.d.). Imposter Syndrome. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/imposter-syndrome.


Sakulku, J., & Alexander, J. (2011). The Imposter Phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science, 6(1), 75–97.


WebMD Contributors. (2021, March 30). How Does Mental Health Affect Physical Health. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/how-does-mental-health-affect-physical-health.


Wilding, M. (2021, August 9). 8 Easy Tricks to Quiet Negative Inner Dialogue. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/trust-yourself/202108/8-easy-tricks-quiet-negative-inner-dialogue.


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