Jennifer grew up being told she was ‘the smart one’. That she didn’t have to do any work to achieve top marks. That she was a natural. Now, as a Creative Director at a top agency, she always feels like whatever success she achieves isn’t success at all because she had to work for it. There’s a disconnect between her parents’ unrealistic view of her and the realities of being a human in this world.

Chloe remembers her childhood as a period of time when she was always in the shadow of her brother, the ‘golden child’. He could do no wrong and she saw him as superior to her. As a mother now, she goes above and beyond to be the best mother she can be and everyone praises her for it. But no matter what evidence there is of the contrary, she sees herself as failing at motherhood.

These are two classic cases of what has been observed as Impostor Phenomenon, now popularised as Impostor Syndrome (IS). IS was first described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s. It occurs when high-achieving people fail to internalise their skills and achievements and therefore feel like they are a fraud in the position they hold.

IS isn’t a good thing, it is a delusion. It is highly associated with anxiety and depression and stops you from experiencing any sort of fulfilment, joy or contentment from the fruits of your labour. However, it is possible to take advantage of the strengths and abilities you’ve honed by your experience with IS to continue to perform in the workplace and beyond while focusing on breaking the impostor cycle for good.

Self doubt Is Not Impostor Syndrome

First we need to gain some clarity on what IS is. IS is not just self-doubt. Doubting your abilities that may arise from external feedback or internal insecurities doesn’t necessarily mean you are experiencing IS, it likely just means you are human.

IS is a more complex phenomenon classified by a combination of fears and self-sabotaging behaviours. These include over-preparation, procrastination, denial of competence, fear of failure, fear of success and perfectionism. Together, these characteristics keep a person in a cycle of striving to achieve but failing to internalise those achievements, making them feel like a fraud but unable to give up.

Use Impostor Syndrome To Your Advantage

As a Holistic Leadership & Executive Coach, I observe IS to be a manifestation of self sabotage that occurs when a person steps outside of their preconceived ‘self-concept’ into a place they therefore believe they don’t belong. And no amount of success or achievement will change their mind. A self-concept is the amalgamation of who and what you consciously and subconsciously think and believe you are.

If you hold limiting beliefs in your mind causing you to resonate with the IS fears and self sabotaging behaviours above, take this as a sign that it’s time to take advantage of the skills you have honed through your experience of IS and use them to break the impostor cycle. Grit, strong work ethic, intelligence, creativity and meticulousness are often key characteristics of someone with IS and these skills are crucial to do the explorative work required to understand the limiting beliefs held in your self-concept and to change them to match reality.

This work requires repetition and consistent narrative reframing which in turn needs perseverance – someone who doesn’t give up (sounding familiar?). Over time, usually with the support of a trusted coach, mentor or friend, you can break the impostor cycle and lay the foundation of an evolved self belief system that encompasses the position you are currently in. In other words, you accept your successes and achievements as a part of who you are and you are no longer a fraud of your own experience and identity.

Harness The Stress Of Impostor Syndrome

People who experience IS are often excellent performers under pressure because they have learnt how to harness the power of stress. Stress is not inherently negative. When managed effectively, it can become a powerful tool for growth and resilience. People with IS have often become adept at reframing stress as a source of motivation rather than a hindrance and can leverage the heightened focus and drive that come with stress to continue to perform whilst simultaneously striving to break the impostor cycle.

The self sabotaging tendencies and fear that fuels the impostor cycle are masking true skill and strength underneath. Acknowledging that you already have what you need to perform and achieve in your career and life and that these are exactly the abilities that can help you break the impostor cycle and enjoy your successes, is the starting point. If you can put the perseverance you have shown through years of feeling like a fraud towards expanding your self-concept, you can come out the other side and appreciate all the advantages you have gained from your experiences and learn to see them in a whole new light.