Do you ever feel fake, like a fraud, when you speak in public or in meetings? Like you’re pretending to have expertise that you don’t really have? And that your audience and colleagues are going to see right through you for the impostor you really are?
If this sounds like you, then welcome to the impostor syndrome club! This phenomenon manifests itself through the feeling of fooling everyone into believing you’re more intelligent and capable than you actually are. It would seem that it affects more women than men, which is why so much literature on the subject is directed at the female population*. However, men can suffer from it too.
The term “impostor syndrome” was first introduced in 1978 by Drs Clance and Imes (2 American psychologists) in an article in which they defined it as “an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual fraud.” They explain that people suffering from this syndrome put their success down to luck, to working particularly hard or to a mistake having been made, not thanks to their intelligence or talents. They don’t feel an internal sense of success. For example, university graduates suffering from the impostor syndrome would state that their high examination scores are due to luck, to misgrading, or to the faulty judgment of professors. Accomplished professionals feel over evaluated by colleagues and bosses.
Famous people also suffer from the impostor syndrome
If it can reassure you in any way, this syndrome affects many intelligent and successful people. There are even surprising examples of famous people who have owned up to feeling like a fraud. Meryl Streep has admitted: “You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this ?’” Ironically, Academy Award winner Jodie Foster, for her part, confessed: “I thought everybody would find out, and they’d take the Oscar back. They’d come to my house, knocking on the door, ‘Excuse me, we meant to give that to someone else. That was going to Meryl Streep.’” Tom Hanks also admitted: “No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?'”
The impostor syndrome isn’t just limited to university graduates or famous actors and actresses. Who would believe that such a successful business woman as Sheryl Sandberg would suffer from it? Yet in her book, Lean In, she wrote : “Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself – or even excelled – I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.” In an interview about her book, she shared: “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.”
The real problem with the impostor syndrome is that it can stop you from feeling proud of your achievements. It leaves you with the fear that you’re going to be found out for the fake you really are. It can also stop you from fully achieving your potential or taking risks. You feel like you’re less capable than you actually are, so you may not reach out to take the opportunities of success that are within your grasp.
How can coaching help in this case?
Let’s take an example I often encounter during my public speaking coaching. My client, a CFO, needs to give a presentation in front of the shareholders of her company. However, my client (let’s call her Francesca) has an inner fear that she’s only in her position because she has fooled her bosses into believing she has more expertise than she actually has. She’s terrified that everyone will realize during her presentation that she’s less competent than they thought and that she’s actually been a fraud all this time. During our coaching sessions I work with Francesca on building up her inner self-confidence so that she truly feels she’s in her rightful place. The coaching helps her to accept it’s ok to not know everything about everything. She also integrates that’s it’s ok to not be perfect all the time (perfectionism is often a consequence of the impostor syndrome). Letting go of the pressure she was putting on herself helps Francesca to feel more comfortable about getting up to speak in public. It means she can then successfully integrate the other public speaking tools I share with her, such as displaying confident body language. The guiding principle of our sessions is to help Francesca to believe in her true capacities so that she can then give the best of herself. She can then truly release her inner voice.
5 practical tips to beat this syndrome
I’m very happy to now be sharing with you 5 of the tips that are highly effective in my coaching sessions. They help my clients to gain self-confidence and self-belief, to overcome their feeling of being an impostor, not only during their public speaking, but also in other areas of their professional and private lives.
Fake it until you become it
Even if you feel like a fraud, you still need to force yourself to get up and give presentations or to speak up in meetings. The more you get into the habit of doing an action that makes you uncomfortable at first, the more it’ll become second nature to you. Eventually, you won’t think about it anymore and you’ll have actually become that confident person you were pretending to be.
Talk to friends and trustworthy colleagues about how you’re feeling
Part of the problem with the impostor syndrome is people think they’re the only ones feeling that way. I suggest you talk about it with friends and colleagues you feel comfortable with. You’ll no doubt be surprised to discover that seemingly confident people also feel that way. You’ll realize that you’re not the only accomplished person who has impostor feelings.
Send positive messages to your brain
The brain retains what we tell it. If you tell yourself things like: “I’m so stupid, why did I do that?”, your brain will register that thought and will believe it. Would you tell your child or nephew or niece that they’re stupid for making a mistake? Hopefully not! So be careful to talk to yourself positively too. For example, after giving a presentation, stop yourself from going through the list of what you did wrong and instead remind yourself of what you did well. This advice will help you to feel more comfortable the next time you get up to speak.
Accept that you don’t know everything
People suffering from the impostor syndrome have the feeling that they don’t have enough knowledge. By accepting that you don’t have to be an expert in all fields, you’ll be able to confidently talk about the knowledge you do have. There is no end to knowledge and there will always be someone who knows more than you in certain fields. Competence means respecting your limitations and, if necessary, delegating to someone who has the skills you lack.
Remind yourself of your achievements
Each morning, write a list of 3 things you want to achieve that day and then in the evening, tick everything you’ve done successfully. They can be professional and/or personal achievements. It’s essential that you recognise and remember everything you do well. Even small successes give a sense of satisfaction and help to build up inner self-confidence, provided you acknowledge their existence!
Which of the above tips do you feel will be the most beneficial for you? Which will help stop the impostor syndrome from having negative consequences on your professional and private life? Do you have other tips that have helped you to accept that you’re in your rightful place?
I’ll be delighted to discuss this subject further with you. I’ll also be delighted to share my coaching skills with you so that you can learn how to thrive professionally and personally in spite of the impostor syndrome.
Please do get in touch for a free 20-minute phone appointment to discuss your needs. I’ll describe in more detail my specific coaching approach. Let’s work together to release your inner voice!
* I recommend this excellent book on the Impostor Syndrome is: The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women (Why capable people suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and how to thrive in spite of it) by Valerie Young, Ed.D