First, she is elated about the appraisal of her performance. Her hard work has been noticed and paid off. How great it was to hear the compliments and get rewarded for it all.
A split second later, the second emotion sets in and she is overcome with doubt. “How long will it be before they find out, I don’t have a clue about what I’m doing?!”
By the time the elevator reaches the ground floor, she has put the mask of self-confidence back in place. She wishes the receptionist a good evening, walks out the door to start her weekend. Nobody has noticed the brief slip of the self-confidence mask.
Nobody has witnessed the temporary crack in her armour of hard work and perfectionism. She barely acknowledges it herself.
It will be another couple of years before the crack in her armour becomes too big to hide and she is no longer able to keep the mask in place.
It will be another couple of years before she is able to acknowledge her success as being of her own making. It is only then that she will be able to drop the mask entirely, leave the feelings of fraudulence behind and confidently stride into her own future.
1.2 Feeling like a fraud
The story in § 1.1 is not fictional. My name is Gerdi and the story is mine.
For the longest time I felt like a fraud in my profession. First as a project leader and later as an experienced and successful project manager and consultant.
I was considered a talented, bright and goal oriented action taker. I had a proven track record of success and people expected me to go far. Yet, I was regularly overcome with feelings and thoughts of doubt and anxiety.
They must have made a mistake hiring me. I have no idea what I’m doing.
I’m sure I’m only in this position because they think I’m capable of things I am not.
They only think it’s a good report because I made it look good. Anybody with some knowledge of MS Word could have done that.
I’m reading the same book my clients are reading. It’s just that I am two pages ahead of them. Please let them not read any faster!
As a project leader I often wondered by what right I was sitting in the chair at the head of the table. Not just because I felt I lacked in skills and knowledge. I sometimes wondered if I belonged there at all.
In those moments I felt like a fraud. As I climbed the corporate ladder that feeling would become a familiar if not particularly welcome companion.
Only recently did I discover that many more people experience feelings similar to the ones I used to have. Reading the book “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg these words jumped out at me.
Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are – impostors with limited skills or abilities.
These words spoken by the keynote speaker at Sandberg’s induction ceremony into the Phi Betta Kappa honour society, Dr. Peggy McIntosh from the Wellesley Centers for Women, in a talk called “Feeling Like a Fraud”ii, identified exactly what I had been experiencing while still in a corporate career.
As it turned out there is a name for the phenomenon that had been plaguing me: the Impostor Syndrome (IS).
In this paper I explore how coaching can help people who feel like an impostor move past this feeling. How coaching can then support them stepping into their self-confidence to start a life and/or career in which they can proudly acknowledge their successes and achievements.
2 Impostor Syndrome
2.1 A short history
In 1978 two clinical psychologists (Clance, Imes) from Georgia State University first coined the term “impostor phenomenon” iii stating that “Women who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise” iv.
Though the first studies of the Impostor Syndrom (IS), as the phenomenon came to be known, focussed on women, results from later studies suggest that both genders are affected in equal numbersv. It is estimated by some that approximately 70-80% of the population in some measure experiences feelings connected with IS. Among top performers it is thought to be even higher. vi