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  • Writer's pictureSheena Sullivan

Feel like a big ol’ fraud? You might have impostor syndrome.

Have you ever felt undeserving of your success? Have you sensed that you’re in your professional role because of luck or a lapse in judgment by a higher-up? Maybe you live with the unnerving feeling that you’ll eventually be exposed as a fraud even though you rationally know that you haven’t done anything wrong. If so, you might be experiencing impostor syndrome.

What is Impostor Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon described as a debilitating feeling that you don’t deserve your achievements.

People who experience impostor syndrome (IS) believe their achievements are largely due to luck or error. IS, also called the “fraud complex,” keeps high achievers in a loop of trying to be more, do more, and achieve more to prove their competence so as not to be “found out.”

Impostor syndrome is not a clinical diagnosis, though it might be in the future. Today, researchers call it the impostor phenomenon and define it as a psychological experience. While originally thought to plague women more often than men, we know now that IS does not discriminate based on gender or ethnicity. 70% of people experience impostor syndrome at some point.

How Imposter Syndrome Plays Out

Impostor syndrome plays out in a predictable cycle — dread, doubt, anxiety, and then

persistent questioning about whether one can be successful once more, even though they have likely demonstrated success again and again in the past.

IS typically manifests in one of two sets of behaviors: extreme preparation and perfectionism, or procrastination and avoidance followed by frantic, last-minute preparation.

Over-preparation reinforces the belief that perfectionism leads to success. Procrastination keeps the inflicted person in the mind that they keep getting “lucky.” Both perspectives perpetuate a harmful pattern of self-doubt and unfulfilled potential.

The danger is that impostor syndrome often keeps the inflicted “playing small” and avoiding the spotlight in an effort to reduce the risk of being exposed as a fraud.

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

The first step to overcoming impostor syndrome is becoming aware that you experience it and start recognizing it when it shows up. Take the quiz here to find out if you experience impostor syndrome and to what degree.

Next, make a plan to address your impostor syndrome. Researchers and authors of the study “Overcoming the Fear That Haunts Your Success” – The Effectiveness of Interventions for Reducing the Impostor Phenomenon (2020) recommend a combination of training and coaching. The training component would involve undergoing deep work to address and evolve a fixed mindset, which is tied to impostor syndrome.

When one has a fixed mindset, they strive for performance-oriented goals that help them appear competent in comparison to normative standards. A growth mindset strives for mastery and helps us work toward goals we set according to our own standards and definitions of success.

The second part of the intervention involves coaching, defined here as a goal-oriented relationship between a coach and client. Many people with impostor syndrome seek out coaching for achievement-focused reasons, like becoming more competent at a task or activity, but through the relationship, they naturally start to reframe their experiences and perspectives. With the knowledge that one experiences impostor syndrome, they can seek out coaching for that reason, specifically. Interested in coaching with me (Sheena)? Learn more here.


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