Success is a prize many high achievers — especially women — feel they don’t deserve. It’s a conundrum so prevalent, there’s a name for it: the impostor syndrome.
Reflecting a deep-seated fear that their success is more a matter of luck than a measure of true ability, the syndrome, also known as impostor phenomenon, is often the result of internalized messages, otherwise known as self-deception.
Most of us have some components of self-deception, which is why we are so often blind to ourselves, but some people are exceptionally good at it. These individuals have a habitual lens that they constantly apply in their lives. They tell themselves the same stories and believe them to be true, even when they are not.
Over the last 25 years, I’ve had the opportunity to coach many, many people who at some point, decide to apply to MBA programs. It’s a common conversation I’ve had, but out of all of those clients, six stand out to me. That’s because all of these six people were from the Chicagoland area but had no plans to apply to the University of Chicago or Northwestern University, two of the best MBA programs in the country. All of these people cited their reasons for not applying to these top schools as some or all of the following:
- I’m not smart enough.
- I don’t have a chance of getting in.
- I don’t test well.
But the problem was – none of this was true. These are smart, talented, successful, senior level executives I knew well, so I had a grounded assessment that all six of these people had a good chance of being accepted. Despite their vehement arguments, I pushed them to apply and five out of six got into either one or both of the schools. This confirmation completely blew away their belief systems that they weren’t smart enough or had the adequate testing skills to get in.
That’s how deeply we believe these stories we tell ourselves. We say things to ourselves that aren’t true, and we’ll even go so far to argue that fact with others. It’s not until someone can puncture that repetitive thought process that allows the potential for working our way out of imposter syndrome.
Imposters at the Top
Imposter syndrome isn’t just something that happens with low-level employees. It plagues leaders at the top, even in the C-suite. They fixate on worrying whether they are good enough at their role, they think others feel they are better than they really are as a leader, and some actually believe they are deceiving people. They do not have a holistic objective perspective of themselves.
The first thing to do to address imposter syndrome is become aware of your mindset.
- Are you overly self-critical?
- Do you focus only on what’s going wrong or what possibly could go wrong?
- Do you minimize how talented, effective and smart you are?
This overvaluing of negative attributes will in time, chip away at your ego. If you constantly spend time worrying about not being good enough, this internal mantra becomes a belief system whether it’s true or not. So, ask yourself this powerful question: Is it really true?
And don’t just immediately say yes like the MBA prospects did when I challenged them. Use critical thinking skills. How did you get this far in your career if you aren’t smart and talented? I often remind my executive coaching clients to celebrate their successes, no matter how minor you may think they are. Keep a journal and keep adding to that list, so that you can reflect back on your successes. If not, you will forget them, and you will only highlight what went wrong, which will be widely skewed.
Another way to address imposter syndrome is to get immersive feedback so you can understand how others perceive you through 360 reviews (a tool I use regularly in coaching). We all have areas of improvement, but the important thing to remember is not to dwell on these areas, but rather, be curious. When you are able to find balance, you are able to see strengths as well as opportunities for development. This process is usually pretty eye-opening for people.
Women Feel like Frauds
The concept of “imposter phenomenon” initially focused on women when the term was coined by psychologists back in 1978. And while there have been great strides made in recent decades, it’s still a prevalent problem. A study by KPMG in late 2022 polled 750 executive women and found:
- 75% report having personally experienced imposter syndrome at certain points in their career.
- 85% believe imposter syndrome is commonly experienced by women in corporate America.
- 74% of women believe their male counterparts do not experience feelings of self-doubt as much as female leaders do.
- 81% believe they put more pressure on themselves not to fail than men do.
Women face unconscious bias that is widely unattended to in corporate America. What is tolerated in a male leader is not necessarily tolerated in a female leader. And this all starts early in life. Some women were raised hearing messages that they weren’t — and couldn’t become — smart enough, strong enough or capable enough to achieve career success. The problem is that they believed it. Worse yet, despite their achievements, they still believe it. These women live in fear that their perceived weaknesses will be exposed, or the luck to which they credit their success will change. For these women, change is possible. But it has nothing to do with luck.
One Woman’s Transformation
A few years ago, a 24-year-old woman named Pamela (not her real name) reached out to me for executive coaching. Pamela suffered from low self-esteem. I could see it the minute she entered my office. With shoulders slouched, she had difficulty making eye contact and spoke in such a hushed voice, I had to strain to hear her.
Pamela was a programmer at a software development company. Born and raised in a low-income neighborhood, she defied the odds and became the first in her family to receive a college education and land a job in a predominantly male industry.
Still, Pamela’s shame over her background showed in her demeanor and her stories. As swiftly as she told me about her accomplishments, she minimized every one of them. She admitted feeling like an impostor. While her current position allowed her to hide behind a computer screen, avoiding customer interaction, she had lofty professional goals — well within her intellectual reach, but requiring a higher level of personal engagement.
Our next appointment commenced at 8am on a busy corner outside my office in the heart of Chicago’s business district. I asked Pamela to observe the bustling passers-by — and to identify anyone she perceived as confident. We stood there for 30 minutes, evaluating how “confident” people carried themselves.
Then it was Pamela’s turn. For the next half hour, I asked her to walk up and down the street — with confidence. Initially, she had trouble getting her own body to mimic what she had observed. She felt awkward and had to push through a new level of discomfort. With prompting (“Chin up!” “Shoulders back!” “Eye contact!”), however, she did it.
At the end of the half hour, Pamela approached me, smiling. She didn’t just look confident, she felt it. Her assignment: Practice the confident walk. Over and over again.
The following week, we began working on Pamela’s underlying operating system, one in which she had convinced herself that she wasn’t “good enough.” Within a month, she looked, sounded and even dressed differently. She joined Toastmasters International, and two years later, became the local club president.
I recently ran into Pamela (and her fiancé) at a restaurant, and she excitedly told me about her recent promotion to VP of Consumer Products, responsible for leading a 12-person team.
Related: Confidence Issues Hold Women Back
Fake It and You Will Make It
The work Pamela and I did together was transformational. The “confident walk” exercise that began as acting became more and more natural as Pamela forged new neuropathways in her brain.
If you suffer from the impostor syndrome — or simply want to catapult your success — a somatic makeover could be the answer. The following are a few strategies to set you on the path to somatic success:
- Take an improv class. One of the best ways to learn to think on your feet — and to develop trust in your ability to do so in a cooperative environment — is to participate in improv.
- Dance. Moving your body to the music isn’t just fun; it’s a scientifically proven way to improve your mood, affect and body image.
- Practice public speaking. Toastmasters and other clubs that encourage you to hone your speaking skills can make you a better — and more comfortable — presenter. The more you practice your articulation, posture and gestures, the stronger your communication will become, in both large and small groups.
- Play. Hop on a swing at the park. Pick up your son’s toy microphone and pretend you’re a rock star. Unleashing your “inner child” is a powerful way to break free of limiting forces, both literal and metaphoric. Lean into the discomfort you may feel when you act playfully.
- Adjust accordingly. Allow awareness to guide you. Remind yourself that you’re not a puppet on anyone’s string but your own. Break old habits, somatic and otherwise.
You are the product of the stories you tell yourself, even the ones in which you play the role of impostor. While leaving your comfort zone can be intimidating at first, doing things differently is the critical first step in becoming the best version of yourself.
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This article was originally published on Forbes.com as a Forbes Coaches Council post but has been updated for comprehensiveness.