executive coaching


Exposing the Imposter: How to Transform Imposter Syndrome

After writing 11 renowned books, winning three Grammys, being nominated for a Puliziter and Tony Award, Maya Angelou said, “Each time I think ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’” This is called Imposter Syndrome. I have experienced it firsthand as a founder and CEO and in my work with high achieving clients in my psychotherapy and coaching practices.

In 1978, two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, coined the term “Imposter Syndrome” after a series of studies on high-achieving women. This term describes the feeling of phoniness that many of us can feel and the belief that we are not intelligent, capable, or creative despite evidence to the contrary. We fear being found out or exposed as frauds and the anxiety we experience from these feelings often leads us sabotage ourselves by under-cutting our confidence and even avoiding potentially rewarding challenges altogether. Many founders - especially leaders from “nontraditional” backgrounds -  experience Imposter Syndrome every day, sometimes without even realizing exactly what is at work within them.

Where does Imposter Syndrome come from? Why do we so easily disregard all of our prior accomplishments and strengths that prove otherwise? How can we transform it?

Where it’s coming from: our relationships with others

To help explain where imposter syndrome comes from, let’s switch to a different psychology principle for a moment and talk about something called Object Relations theory, developed in large part by a Scottish psychoanalyst named W.D. Fairbairn. Object Relations theory essentially holds that humans seek attachment, and we internalize important people in our lives as a way to establish and maintain a connection with them.

The “Internal Saboteur” was Fairbairn’s conceptualization of how we take in the negative beliefs others have about us -- which work to undercut us and what we really want -- and come to believe they are our own. We do this in part, not to lose connection to these important people. Being successful would, in essence, be tantamount to leaving them behind (e.g. if I become a CEO I will be leaving behind my father who struggled in his career, etc.). Essentially, we accept these negative beliefs about ourselves to preserve our idealization of those we rely on for care and love. As Fairbairn articulated, “It is better to be a sinner in a world of god than to live in a world ruled by the devil.”

So, to connect these two theories now:

The origins of Imposter Syndrome stem back to early and significant times in your life when you were made to feel inadequate or that you didn’t belong. These experiences -- usually with parents, grandparents, siblings, or caregivers -- were communications to you that you were not enough (good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, etc.). Once these initial beliefs get established, they are reinforced over time by our parents, teachers, coaches, and groups we want to be a part of. It is the solidifying of Fairbairn’s “Internal Saboteur.”

We can even internalize family mythologies handed down from generation to generation. When I went out for my high school tennis team my freshman year, I struggled to win the last spot. During those frustrations, I remembered my grandfather’s story of not making his college football team which proved that we were not a “sports family.” Instead of persevering, I quit.

Why does Imposter Syndrome appear, even when we know in our minds otherwise?

(i.e. why would Maya Angelou say that?)

Feelings of Imposter Syndrome get triggered when we are in new situations, seeking acceptance, or when there is a power differential and a risk of being rejected (like applying to a school or competitive fellowship or applying for a job or going in for an interview). It can happen when people are examining us closely -- say, for example, an intense interview with super writer Maya Angelou could result in her statement.

Certain types of people are especially skilled at bringing out our feelings of inadequacy. People who fall on the narcissistic spectrum (who are grandiose on the outside but themselves actually feel inadequate on the inside) can be especially good at provoking feelings of Imposter Syndrome in us. To defend against their own feelings of phoniness, they make others feel as if they don’t belong.

So what can we do to overcome Imposter Syndrome?

1. Find the root of your imposter.

When you feel like you don’t belong, can’t succeed, or are a phony, ask yourself “whose voice(s) is this?”. Think back to earlier and significant experiences when you felt inadequate or that you didn’t belong. Identify other experiences that reinforced that same feeling. Name the belief you’ve been carrying around about yourself.

2. Rewrite the narrative.

Now that you know that these beliefs do not really belong to you and were others’ insecurities and inadequacies, what beliefs do you want to hold as your own? Look at your track record of resilience, resourcefulness, and success. Use those to write a new narrative about yourself and what you’re capable of.

3. Know when you are vulnerable, and actively respond to yourself.

Be aware of your Imposter Syndrome being triggered when you’re in a new situation, especially one which is competitive on some level and you might be rejected (e.g. pitching your idea to an investor, interviewing for a new job, applying to a prestigious fellowship, etc.) and make sure to take special care of your self confidence during these experiences. Here are some specific things you can do:

  • Use Positive Self Talk - There is strong evidence that self-talk boosts performance by increasing motivation and confidence. It helps us endure uncomfortable situations. Self-talk is most effective when it’s short, specific, and consistent.

  • Seek out believers in you - This is always good advice but especially when we are putting ourselves out there and facing rejection. Make sure you are consolidating your crew of supporters and limiting interactions with those who don’t leave you feeling so good about yourself.

  • Try the 3 Good Things exercise - This evidence-based activity asks you to write down 3 good things that happen each day and how you helped make them happen. Do this for 1 week and experience a boost in confidence for 6 months!

  • Adopt a Growth Mindset - The growth mindset tells us that we are always growing and that our effort is what matters most. If we are not so outcome focused and measuring ourselves against our own progress then we’re less likely to fall victim to the Imposter Syndrome.   

  • Continue working hard -  There’s no substitute for working hard and continuing to improve your skills and knowledge base. Competence increases confidence. So just keep at it and know you are getting better and better.

Take some comfort in knowing that many people experience similar feelings of imposterness (including people we admire and can’t imagine why they would feel those feelings). Know that with some awareness and proven techniques you can, and will, transform and overcome your Imposter Syndrome.

So get out there and conquer the world! Because you are awesome!