Coaching Session 1: The fear of being found out
Helen* had booked coaching sessions as a 50th birthday present to herself. The words came tumbling out as she told me what she wanted from the sessions. ‘I think everyone else is better than me. I feel like a fraud and I think I’m going to be found out. People think I’m better than I really am. I compare myself to others all the time, too. What’s prompted me to see you is not just my “big” birthday, but I’ve recently been made a director at work and instead of feeling good about it, I feel even more of a fraud. All the other board members are so well-educated – I didn’t even get A-levels. I give the impression that I am more competent than I am.’
As I listened to Helen, I realised this was a classic case of Imposter Syndrome. Signs of this common experience (up to 70 per cent of us feel it at one point or another) include:
- Having an inability to internalise your accomplishments
- Feeling other people have an over-inflated view of you
- Discounting success by saying, ‘Anyone could have done it’ or putting it down to good luck
- Feeling like a fraud and being fearful of being ‘found out’.
People with Imposter Syndrome push themselves further to compensate for their feelings of inadequacy, which often leads to even more success which, in turn, results in even greater feelings of being an imposter. It’s a vicious cycle.
I asked Helen to do some homework before our next session. She was to collect feedback about herself from at least six people she trusted and respected: her greatest strength, her greatest achievement, what they most admired about her and what one thing she could change for her own benefit.
Coaching Session 2: Where did this come from?
The feedback from friends and family showed they thought Helen was warm, charming, kind, clever, talented and successful and should believe in herself more.
However, the exercise didn’t make much difference to Helen’s feelings – she thought of course they would say that because they were ‘humouring’ her.
I felt frustrated by Helen’s reaction and wondered where her Imposter Syndrome came from. I had a clue from the first session that it was to do with a lack of educational qualifications. She told me she had three very clever older brothers – two of them had PhDs. The family’s perception of Helen growing up was that she was ‘not the clever one’. She’d entered the corporate world at 16 and worked her way up to being a main board director – but this meant nothing to her, as she still saw herself as ‘not the clever one’.
I met my supervisor after our second session to reflect on how to help Helen. I was feeling disproportionately frustrated with her. Here she was – charming, attractive and successful – yet she couldn’t appreciate it. My supervisor challenged me with a quote from Carl Jung: ‘Everything that irritates us about others can lead to an understanding of ourselves’.
I realised that coaching Helen was like looking in the mirror! I thought I had dealt with my own feelings of being an imposter but they were resurfacing. Although I’d achieved academic qualifications as an adult, I dropped out of university when I was 20. My supervisor suggested that I use this information when working with Helen in my next session.
Coaching Session 3: A shift in perspective
I decided on a provocative approach: ‘Helen, I need to tell you something. Although I have many years’ experience as a coach, I don’t have a degree in psychology and think you might be happier seeing a member of my team instead. He’s straight out of university and has a psychology degree.’
Helen looked shocked, then laughed. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. You are highly experienced, well-known and very successful. It doesn’t matter to me whether you got a degree when you were 21!’ We looked at one another as Helen realised what she was saying. It was a turning point for her, and my self-disclosure had been the most valuable intervention I could have made. It had enabled her to shift perspective and see a mirror image of her own situation.
We continued to work together to establish some new behaviours and thinking patterns that enabled her to celebrate her successes and accomplishments.
DO IT YOURSELF: Try these powerful exercises at home
On a large piece of paper, draw a timeline that represents your life (including your work). Put a date at the start of the timeline and end the line with today’s date.
- Mark on the timeline all the successes you've had – large or small. Include feedback you have received from others, jobs you have had, promotions, training undertaken, qualifications achieved, raising a family, supporting others, voluntary work, risks you've taken, celebrations and landmarks in your life, making important decisions, dealing with difficult situations.
- Consider all the strengths and skills and qualities you used to make all the above happen. Ask friends and family to remind you of your successes if you need help.
- Look at the timeline with fresh eyes and take ownership of all that you have made happen in your life for yourself and others. Notice what you are doing today that you couldn’t have done last year or 10 years ago. Keep it and add to it to remind yourself of your achievements.
Write your own job reference. Complete the following reference for yourself, without false modesty and with as much enthusiasm, generosity and kindness as you would use if writing a reference for a dear friend in whom you believe:
2. Greatest personal qualities:
3. Greatest professional qualities:
4. What words do others use to describe her?
5. You can have total confidence in her because:
6. During the last two years, she has managed to: