Tips for Coaching Someone with Imposter Syndrome - International Coaching Federation
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Tips for Coaching Someone with Imposter Syndrome

Posted by Vatsala Sarathy, ACC | February 21, 2022 | Comments (4)

Many of us have successful clients who suffer from imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome takes the forms of fear, anxiety, self-doubt, second-guessing, and lack of confidence and/or self-worth. Does having one or more of these feelings necessarily imply that the person has imposter syndrome? Or could it just be a situational fear? Of course, it is natural to feel worry or self-doubt when one takes up a new position or starts a new venture. However, when fears are constant or chronic and hinder one’s work repeatedly, they can turn into a long- term condition that impedes a person’s ability to be the best they can be.

The Good and Bad Side of Imposter Syndrome

The good news for someone with this syndrome is that a healthy dose of self-doubt might be helping them achieve more. They realize and accept that they don’t know everything. They assume that their constraints need to be supplemented by learning and are typically more willing to work hard to get better.

Their perceived constraints open their minds to new possibilities, and they become better problem solvers. On the other hand, excessive self-doubt and lack of self-confidence severely undermines motivation and courage. Fear becomes an armor to hide behind, an excuse to evade new opportunities. They may hesitate to ask for help, lest someone discover their weaknesses, leading to a stagnation in growth. They tend to be workaholics. They might even punish themselves because they feel simultaneously undeserving of their achievements and unqualified for their role.

What’s on The Other End of the Spectrum?

The opposite of imposter syndrome is arrogance. In his book, “Think Again”, Adam Grant refers to this as the “Armchair Quarterback Syndrome.” It is also known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. These are the people who have opinions of their skills and are ignorant of any weaknesses they may have.

Is There a Sweet Spot on this Spectrum of Confidence Levels?

When there is an imbalance between confidence and competence, issues of either arrogance or imposterdom arise. Both types of people need to move toward the other side of the spectrum to get to a place where there is a healthy dose of confidence and humility, also known as “confident humility.” In her book, “Dare to Lead”, Brené Brown calls this “grounded confidence.”

What are some strategies for turning imposter thoughts into opportunities?

  1. Embrace uncertainty. Accept that every action we take is rife with uncertainty. Accepting this fundamental truth will help us differentiate between what we can control, what we can influence, and what we need to
  2. No one knows everything. Every person, without exception, has blind spots and Acknowledge and address your weaknesses with courage, but do not allow weaknesses to undermine your self-worth.
  3. Believe in yourself. Tennis player Serena Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou says “To be able to want something, you must first believe in it. Then add some hard work, and everything becomes possible.” Confidence must be practiced. Regularly investing time to showcase your strengths will reinforce your confidence.
  4. Keep a success inventory. Success breeds confidence. In your success inventory, record all your successes, big and small, along with a list of skills and personal qualities you used, and what you learned along the way. Being detailed and specific will help you notice your own strengths and see patterns of behavior that made you successful. This exercise will also highlight instances where you refused credit for your successes, discounting them or re-attributing them to others (typical imposter syndrome characteristics).
  5. Reframe your perspective. Find excitement in fear. Feel gratitude and curiosity amidst anxiety. Don’t let negative emotions control the narrative, and you will find the courage to act.
  6. You don’t have to have all the answers. The best leaders don’t know everything, but they are willing to work collaboratively through uncertainties. Be a learner versus a knower.
  7. Breathe. Dr. Dorothy Siminovitch says, “The difference between anxiety and excitement is breath…the dangers look less bleak.” Prioritize making time to step back from situations in order to reframe your perspective (see no. 5 above).
  8. Reconnect with your purpose. Re-orient yourself to your guiding values – what you stand for, what motivates you, and what matters to you. Purpose gives us the courage to move forward even when afraid.

While helping your clients quell their inner critic and build confident humility, remind them of the value of doing the work to fight imposter syndrome. The inner achievement of becoming a more confident, self-aware and resilient person is just as important as outward success.  After all, as the Dalai Lama says, “The goal is not to be better than the other man, but better than your previous self.”

Headshot of contributing author Vatsala Sarathy

Vatsala Sarathy, ACC

Vatsala Sarathy, ACC believes in the inherent capacity of each of us to live fully the one precious life we are uniquely capable of living.  She applies this guiding principle to coach leaders to be bold, dream big, and reach their potential.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (4)

  1. Daniela Descovich says:

    Gracias por esa entrega por blog. Reafirmando la práctica del coaching desde la mirada de gestionar emociones elevadas abrazando las sombras, valorando las fortalezas en cada ser y desde allí, lograr avanzar.

  2. Daniela Descovich says:

    Gracias Vatsala Sarathy, por el aprendizaje y distinciones en esta entrega por blog. Reafirmando la práctica del coaching desde la mirada de gestionar emociones elevadas abrazando las sombras, valorando las fortalezas en cada ser y desde allí, lograr avanzar.

  3. Scott Burns says:

    Wonderful perspective on confidence and the imposter syndrome, Vatsala. Thank you, I plan to offer this advice to clients when they could benefit from a good confidence boost.

    I also appreciate your reference to Brené Brown’s focus on “confident humility.” I’ve found that confidence is particularly powerful when it is balanced with a good measure of humility. Our clients are well-served when they are able to lean on their well-earned confidence and utilize it as a strength.

  4. Vatsala this is a powerful piece of advice. I will use it with my 14/5 year old students.

    My students are struggling to believe in themselves. They always come up with the best excuse why they cannot do the work.

    I like the success journal. We take small steps at the time and eventually we achieve our goal.

    Thank you very much and keep up the good work

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