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Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: The Power of Coaching

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: The Power of Coaching

There has been an incredible rise of interest in Imposter Syndrome over recent years. Imposter Syndrome, historically known as Imposter Phenomenon (which maybe does not have such a negative association), is a psychological pattern in which people doubt their accomplishments, live in fear of being exposed as a "fraud," and attribute their success to external factors rather than their own abilities or efforts. More and more is spoken and written about this, and I wonder if this is an actual increase, or are we simply more aware of the subject, and also, how can coaching help with Imposter Phenomenon?

Imposter Syndrome manifests itself in diverse ways, including self-doubt, inability to realistically assess your own competence and skills, attributing success to luck, with constant fear of failure with these feelings persist even in the face of rational evidence of success. Imposter Phenomenon is common amongst men and women and not limited to the workplace, it can also permeate educational settings and personal life, affecting individual’s mental health and wellbeing. Studies have shown that Imposter Syndrome is linked with anxiety, depression, lower job satisfaction and burnout.

When considering this phenomenon, we may want to look for a solution, how to ‘help’ someone who has a self-perception as an imposter. However, this is not so straight forward, Braveta et al (2020) looked at 62 studies of 14,161 participants stating, “None of the included articles presented an evaluation of a specific treatment... for managing impostor symptoms.” So how do we deal with Imposter Phenomenon, be it our own, or a coaching client?

The Role of Coaching 

Coaching presents a practical and effective way for addressing the effects of Imposter Phenomenon. A coach works with individuals to challenge and change the dysfunctional thought patterns associated with Imposter Phenomenon, fostering a growth mindset and promoting realistic self-assessment. For example:

  1. Creating Awareness: Coaching helps individuals recognize and acknowledge their Imposter Phenomenon. Through reflective conversations, a coach can guide individuals to become aware of their thought patterns and behaviours. Also, the coach can ask “what does this Imposter Phenomenon give you?”, for example, this may cause a person to prepare thoroughly, or to practice conscientiously. However, there is a balance between a motivational force, and detrimental behaviours.
  1. Challenging Negative Thoughts: Coaches can employ cognitive-behavioural techniques to challenge and change the negative thought patterns associated with Imposter Phenomenon. Individuals learn to identify irrational beliefs and replace them with more balanced, realistic thoughts. For example, Cognitive Behavioural Coaching, A, B, C, D, E model, considers the Activating event (what event brings on the Imposter feelings?), the Beliefs (what a person tells themselves based on the event), the Consequences (what is the result of these beliefs for the person?), and then Dispute the irrational beliefs (what are the alternative possible explanations, what would a trusted friend say, how likely are these alternatives?), and Effective new approach (what is the action plan to embed these new beliefs?)
  1. Fostering a Growth Mindset: Associated with 2. above, coaching encourages the development of a growth mindset, promoting the belief that abilities can be developed through repetition as they become habits. This perspective is a powerful antidote to Imposter Phenomenon, which is rooted in a fixed mindset thinking that things cannot change. Setting Realistic Goals and Celebrating Successes: Coaches work with individuals to set achievable goals and celebrate successes, no matter how small. This practice helps to internalize achievements and build a more realistic self-assessment of abilities and contributions.
  1. Developing Resilience: Through coaching, individuals build resilience and learn to bounce back from setbacks without internalizing failure. This is crucial for mitigating Imposter Phenomenon, which often leads individuals to view failures as evidence of their fraudulence.
  1. Group Coaching : Research showed imposters can feel isolated and that it is ‘only them’ and nobody else shares these feelings. Group coaching for people with Imposter Phenomenon can help dispel that belief and act as mutual support.
  1. Role of experimentation, and failure as an integral part of a learning process, to overcome the fear of failure. As Clance (1985) stated, “For Impostors making mistakes and not performing at the highest standard precipitates feelings of shame and humiliation.” Reframing failure as part of the process of growth can help.

Imposter Phenomenon/Syndrome is pervasive and challenging which can hinder personal and professional growth. However, with the right support and strategies, individuals can overcome these thoughts and beliefs. Coaching can provide a supportive and transformative space for individuals to confront and change the patterns associated with Imposter Phenomenon, fostering a healthier self-perception and promoting overall well-being. However, the boundaries of coaching and therapy, and the competence of the coach must be carefully considered.

About the author

Ian Day, Director at Coaching programmes, Centre for Lifelong Learning, University of Warwick

Mon 13 Nov 2023, 09:00 | Tags: staff postgraduate Coaching

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