The Imposter Syndrome – A Game of Whack-A-Mole You Can Win

By Karen Carmody, MBA, PCC

Have you ever doubted your success? Felt unworthy of your accomplishments? Worried you’ll be discovered as a fraud? If so, you’re in excellent company.  Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, author Maya Angelou, Academy Award winning Actress/Harvard Alum Natalie Portman and yes – even Albert Einstein – have all admitted to feeling like imposters.

Most high-achievers share a hidden secret: they suffer from chronic self-doubt. When individuals experience the Impostor Syndrome, they are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence, they remain convinced that they do not deserve their success.  Flawed beliefs about success and failure lie at the root of the Impostor Syndrome. According to a study in the  International Journal of Behavioral Science, 70 percent of people have experienced it at some point in their lives.

This is a common theme with my high-potential Executive Coaching clients. These amazing, talented, intelligent, and accomplished emerging leaders and seasoned executives often feel like Imposters. The Imposter Syndrome is distinct from a simple lack of self-esteem and occurs in conjunction with achievement. In other words, if you haven’t achieved anything, you would have no reason to feel like an imposter.

Even individuals with high self-esteem and confidence may become afflicted. Moving out of a comfort zone into a new environment can bring about the Impostor Syndrome. For my executive coaching clients, assuming a new leadership position, enhancing their scope of responsibilities, increasing their span of control, and leading high-visibility projects could all be triggers.

Self-awareness and self-acceptance are essential components to overcome the Imposter Syndrome. Impostor Syndrome coaching interventions with my clients focus on building confidence and re-framing inaccurate beliefs. This allows them to accept their accomplishments, enhance awareness about their strengths, and re-frame their limiting beliefs.

The Impostor Syndrome can adversely impact even the most successful of professionals. If not addressed, it has the potential to become a career derailer. Symptoms could include excessive stress, intense fear of failure, performance anxiety, and loss of confidence. These can manifest as procrastination, perfectionism, indecisiveness, risk aversion, micromanagement, and workaholism.

So, what can you do if you experience the Imposter Syndrome?

  • Inventory Accomplishments – Make a list of everything you have achieved – big and small. Identify what skills, experience, gifts, and talents you possessed to achieve those successes. By identifying your role in the accomplishments, you remove the limiting belief that you were lucky and don’t deserve your success.
  • Assess Competencies – Learn to accurately identify your strengths. Obtain informal feedback from colleagues or complete a formal 360 Assessment. Imposter Syndromers frequently have impossibly high standards and often rate themselves below their standards. Having external validation of your competencies will help you distinguish the difference between feeling incompetent and being incompetent.
  • Discuss It – Find a trusted colleague, friend, therapist or coach. Talking about your experience can help you normalize your situation. It also provides the opportunity to obtain positive reinforcement about accomplishments and receive support to re-frame negative thought patterns.

While overcoming The Imposter Syndrome won’t happen overnight, it is possible. As Dr. Amy Cuddy writes her in book Presence, “The more we communicate about our fears and anxieties, and the smarter we are about how they operate, the easier they’ll be to shrug off the next time they pop up. It’s a game of whack-a-mole we can win.”




To help you with your own personal game of Imposter Syndrome whack-a-mole, connect with Karen today.