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Article based upon webinar delivered May 2023

Authored by Dr Hayley Lewis (Chartered Occupational Psychologist; Managing Director, Halo Psychology)

Developed in the late 1970s following the work of psychologists, Dr Pauline R Clance and Suzanne A Imes, Impostor Phenomenon (IP) is where a person believes their success is down to luck or a huge amount of effort. When someone experiences impostor phenomenon they are likely to think their achievements are due to lucky breaks rather than their ability and skill. Underlying this is the feeling of ‘being found out’ because at some point their luck is bound to run out. According to Clance & O’Toole (1987), women tend to experience impostor feelings more often than men and as Geraldine Gallacher outlines in her book, Coaching women: Changing the system not the person, this is highly likely to be down to systemic and cultural issues rather than the individual. 

What do we know about IP?

Many of the people who experience IP tend to put a premium on what others think about them. Therefore, when others don’t give feedback, or give feedback that is negative (even if its constructive criticism) that only feeds the inner narrative of not being good enough and being found out.

Comparing ourselves to others who we think are like us can fuel IP. This only serves to feeds our feelings of doubt about ourselves and our achievements. A change of job can also surface feelings of being an imposter. For example, people can experience it when they step up into a more senior role, or when they’ve been asked to take on a role where they’re not the technical expert. For example, if you get your confidence from being the person who knows the most and suddenly, you’re in a situation where others know more than you but are still looking to you as the person in charge then don’t be surprised for imposter feelings to creep up.

5 ways IP manifests

  1. The Impostor Cycle: A person faces an exam or project or task. They experience great doubt or fear. They question whether they will succeed this time. They may experience anxiety, nightmares, etc. They work hard and over-prepare or procrastinates and then prepare in a frenzied manner. They succeed and receive positive feedback. The whole cycle is reinforced. They may develop the superstitious belief, “I must suffer in order to succeed”. Doubting is subsequently reinforced, and the cycle starts all over again.
  2. Fear of failure: At the heart of this is feeling afraid of the shame and humiliation associated with “looking foolish”.
  3. Guilt about success: Acknowledging success is not seen as an acceptable thing to do in some cultures and societies, such as the UK. Women, particularly, tend to be punished for not behaving in a ‘stereotypically feminine’ way, particularly if they acknowledge and talk openly about their success. And so, we handle this by either denying our success, or attributing our success to outside forces, such as luck.
  4. Difficulty in internalising positive feedback: A person scoring high on IP may have difficulty in handling the effects that come with the energy and excitement associated with positive feedback. Therefore, the person may avoid the excitement by dismissing the praise. Or it may be that they see themselves as not deserving of the feedback, and the joy that can come from this.
  5. Overestimating other people while underestimating oneself: This is where we have a huge amount of respect for the intellect of others and a tendency to compare our weaknesses with the strengths of others. Therefore, we end up undervaluing, or even completely ignoring, our own strengths abilities and overestimating others’ strengths.

5 tactics that can help overcome IP

Overcoming the imposter phenomenon starts with being compassionate to ourselves. Dr

Kristin Neff, in her book Self compassion: stop beating yourself and leave insecurity behind, suggests there are three elements of self-compassion. These are:

  • Self-kindness: Taking the time to understand rather than judge yourself.
  • Feeling connected with others in life: Recognising there is a world outside ourselves.
  • Mindfulness: Seeing a situation in real-time rather than focusing on ‘what-ifs’.

Here are some of the tools and tips that many of my clients have found helped them develop self-compassion and overcome or better manage feeling like an impostor:

  1. Keep a reflective journal. This approach is the one that has worked the most for many of my clients experiencing IP. They can write as little or as much as they want. Things they can write about include achievements at work, positive feedback they’ve received, feedback they’ve discounted, ways they’ve stopped themselves taking risks. They write every working day for four weeks and then we explore any themes at the next coaching session.
  2. Build a professional support network. These can be colleagues, past or present, who the person trusts enough to share the good, bad, and ugly of what’s going on for them at work. By sharing, they start to realise that (a) they’re not alone in how they’re feeling – important as IP can feel very isolating (b) that helping others work through issues takes their focus of themselves, and (c) that it’s okay to celebrate when things have gone well.
  3. Recognise that learning (and failure) is okay. It’s difficult to improve or achieve high performance without understanding that failing and learning is an essential component of this. All too often, those experiencing IP think failure is unacceptable, and that they have to be nothing less than perfect. I often share the Gibbs Reflective Cycle as a framework for reflecting on failure in a systematic and helpful way.
  4. Keep a positive feedback file. Another simple yet powerful tactic that many clients continue to use years after our coaching sessions have finished. Most keep them in an email folder and look at the feedback on the days when they’re struggling. It can give a much-needed boost and disrupt unhelpful thoughts.
  5. Do things outside of your work that make you feel good. Many of my clients that have experienced IP haven’t had much outside of work to focus on. I’m not talking about parenting or other commitments. I’m talking about hobbies and interests that are just for you and that provide escape. Research by Jennifer Crocker suggests people who base their own self-worth on what others think and not on their value as human beings might pay a price both physically and psychologically. One way to boost self-worth and is through volunteering. For example, one of my clients ended up combining her need to volunteer with her love of horses – helping at a stable which works with children with various disabilities. This has boosted her confidence and self-belief to the extent where she ended up making the leap into a new role which, previously, she’d have talked herself out of.

Other resources you might find helpful:



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