From personal experience:
When complimented on results I often downplayed those compliments, saying things like “Anybody can make a report look good when they know how to use MS Word” (denying compliments and downplaying achievements)
When on an important otherwise successful project something went wrong because somebody else didn’t do their job, I spent the night lying awake convinced I, as the responsible project leader, was going to be fired the next day (trouble putting feelings in perspective)
To make sure nobody found out I how I felt, I worked 60-80 hour weeks in an effort to deliver the perfect product and keep everything under my control (perfectionism)
In their 1978 study Clance and Imes identify two more behavioursix used by IS sufferers to avoid detection.
The first is engagement in “intellectual flattery”. Instead of voicing their own opinions and ideas those who pick this strategy will figure out what it is their professor, manager, client or other authority figure wants to hear and give them exactly that. In doing so they make sure their ideas or opinions cannot be labelled “silly or stupid” which could lead to them being exposed as a fraud.
The second behaviour identified by Clance and Imes centres around what may be a typical female way of making sure one is not exposed. “Charm and perceptiveness” are used to “be liked as well as to be recognized as intellectually special.”
Regardless of what particular behaviour the person suffering from IS has ‘chosen’, when the feelings are severe there is a very real danger of someone developing serious mental problems. O
n the other hand there are those who have enough self-awareness to recognize they are engaging in a behaviour that is detrimental to both themselves and their career. This is especially the case for those who experience feeling like a fraud or impostor only in certain capacities, while being very confident of themselves in other roles.
When serious mental problems arise from IS, people should be referred to a therapist. A coach does not have the right qualifications to take these people on as clients.
However, when signs of IS are caught early on and/or the IS sufferer is/becomes aware of the illogicality of their feelings, coaches can help alleviate these feelings by supporting them in acknowledging their own role in the successes they have achieved.
3 Where coaching comes in
People who experience IS turn to coaching with the goal to “find out what it is others see in them”. They want to bridge the gap between how others experience them and how they feel about themselves.
The fact that they have sought out a coach means they have already taken a tentative first step: to acknowledge to themselves the discrepancy between their feelings of being an impostor and the reality of their success.
They are starting to recognize that feeling like a fraud, like an impostor, does not actually make them into a fraud or an impostor.
Coaches however have to be aware that, though our clients may have come to us because they want to explore and overcome their impostor feelings, they will not necessarily be up front about this. Having kept their IS hidden behind a mask of self-confidence and competence for so long, it is likely not easy for the client to express their true objective in working with a coach. As noted by Hindmarchx (2008) “[…] the hidden nature of self-doubt (especially amongst men) has implications for the coach’s awareness of deeper issues which may need to be explored”.
From personal experience:
Even though I experienced this feeling of being an impostor for many years I never discussed it with anyone in or outside the organization. Admitting one was perhaps not so good at a particular task was considered a weakness and something to be avoided at all costs. In other words: the environment in which I worked to me never felt safe enough to open up.
Add to that I was one of the few women and sometimes the only woman operating at a level otherwise occupied by men in a profession (construction and workplace project management & consulting) dominated by men and it is easy to see why I kept my doubts about my professional abilities to myself.
The fact that the feelings got stronger and occurred more often as I rose up the corporate ladder did nothing to change this. If anything, it made voicing my anxieties seem even more impossible.
4 Coaching a client with IS
4.1 The coach-client relationship
In coaching the relationship between a coach and their client is always a critical factor in the success, or lack thereof. However, clients who experience IS are well trained in hiding their feelings of self-doubt behind a mask of self-confidence and competence. Often it has become second nature. This is especially true when they have been experiencing these feelings in an environment that to them felt unsafe.
It is therefore incredibly important the coach creates a space in which the client feels safe and supported, is met with empathy, respect as well as an absolute belief in them and their abilities. It is to be expected the client has never before been able to express their insecurities regarding their competencies as it never felt safe to do so.
Because of that it is likely necessary for the coach to repeatedly emphasize the confidential nature of the coach-client relationship as well as the fact that they are working in a safe space.