Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Impostor Syndrome

"True glory consists in doing what deserves to be written; in writing what deserves to be read; and in so living as to make the world happier and better for our living in it." – Pliny the Elder

I keep coming across this quote in so many settings. It’s words like these that tease a coach, as it’s the basic reason why we do this kind of work in the first place, or so I would think.

I often look at the disconnects clients have in their life, their work….how they stop themselves from creating, sharing ideas, writing, as many suffer from the “Impostor Syndrome”, feeling they aren’t good enough to share their innermost thoughts and ideas.

Success comes from the inside out. You can’t be successful or recognise it if you don’t acknowledge it. And if you’re suffering from the Impostor Syndrome, then you don’t feel worthy of success, feel you’ll be ‘found out’ and dubbed the Impostor. Those living this, live in fear of being found out and not worthy of the position they hold.

Day after day they have this hidden fear that others will find out they’re not as bright and capable as they think they are….they’ll be exposed as incompetent any second. Excellence in their field, awards, recognition have nothing to do with their success; rather people living the Impostor Syndrome routinely dismiss their accomplishments as luck, being in the right place at the right time or having an engaging personality. Basically it’s a collection of feelings of inadequacy that simmer under the surface and undermine and persist even when they’re presented with information that shows otherwise.

Even in a subtle way I’ve heard how coaches don’t want to bother me because they’re not up to my level, they don’t feel they would have anything to contribute therefore won’t share. Not only are they underestimating themselves, but they’re not giving others the opportunity to listen, share and learn from experience and expertise, no matter how new.

An impostor can be one of a few things….
Firstly, feeling as if he/she doesn’t deserve their success, position or level of responsibility and by some fluke got there. They feel like intellectual frauds.

Secondly, they’re just lucky. They’re not sure what happened but it CAN’T be because they were qualified!

And thirdly, they have a very hard time accepting compliments and kudos. Successes aren’t celebrated; rather they’re minimized so as not to draw attention to the fact they don’t deserve the recognition in the first place.

Coaching people who live the Impostor Syndrome is more difficult using the classic tele-coaching model as the coach isn’t there to point out specific situational examples which would prove this theory invalid. Therefore the coach is only going by the client’s recounting of the event. Working in real time with the client is the best way to share situations as the truth of them unfolds. Clients therefore have much more difficulty convincing themselves and their coaches that the success isn’t well deserved. It’s a great starting point.

This isn’t an all or nothing kind of syndrome. Most of us could probably pinpoint a situation (or many) where someone has reacted in the same manner. Generally this syndrome is associated with high level, powerful people in positions of power. This is what distinguishes it from low self esteem. Low self esteem is when a person has a very low opinion of him/herself. The Impostor Syndrome is a disconnect between the person’s impression of their worth and their actual earned achievements.

When asked what the hardest thing to work on with clients is, my immediate answer is always “The Impostor Syndrome”. It lives deep and wide within them and takes a very long time to get past. But when they do, nothing can stop them. They just soar! And when they begin to live in alignment with who they really are....... contribute, give, share, learn and grow, the world really does become better for them living in it.

Donna Karlin

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