What is Imposter Syndrome?

What is Imposter Syndrome?

By Liz Needham and Kath Thomas

As part of the our Annual Meeting, Liz Needham and Kath Thomas led an interactive session on Overcoming Imposter Syndrome. We’ve summarised the discussion and inputs from the 66 people who took part as follows:

  • What is Imposter Syndrome?
  • How does it arise and impact our performance (in any area)?
  • A model to support our personal best
  • Taking back your power
  • Do the words matter?
  • So what? (the action learning)

What is Imposter Syndrome?

‘The persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.’ [1]

Also known as Imposter Phenomenon and Impostorism, the term was introduced in 1978 by Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes through their research into high achieving women. The women in their study had all achieved great things and had external validation of their accomplishments. But they lacked any internal acknowledgement. In other words, they did not ‘feel it’. The Drs defined Imposter Phenomenon as a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud.

We assumed that only women were affected then, but we now know that this is not true, and we hear Imposter Syndrome mentioned increasingly by our clients and networks.

The words below are those our participants most associated with this psychological pattern where an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and fears being found out. They include fear, anxiety, doubt and feeling like a fraud.

Word Cloud : Which three words best describe Imposter Syndrome for you?

We will return to the importance of these words later, but for now, please reflect on the words that we are using to describe ourselves and those around us. Take a moment before reading on and ask yourself,

Does this language support you to feel empowered, energised and resourced to find solutions or does this language limit you in some way?

How does it arise and impact your performance (in any area)?

Each of us is wonderful, complex and unique, and we are shaped by all of our life experiences, our backgrounds and the things we see, hear, read and think about. Our personal thinking cycles are all different and are continually being shaped and reshaped in a reinforcing rhythm of our thinking, shaping our feelings, shaping our actions. The cycle repeats as shown below.

Thinking Cycle

Here you can read the story Liz told about her own experience to illustrate this thinking cycle and the patterns that we are often blind to.

I’m not creative!

I always thought that I was not creative. This was a deeply engrained belief that I held until I was in my mid 40s.  No one in my family engaged with creative activities like drawing, painting or design and I was not really drawn to these activities at School.  It was a running joke in our family that no one could draw, so this informed the mindset I brought to any creative activities I had to take part in (and I avoided them as far as I possibly could).

When I started my own business 4 years ago, I took a conscious decision to be curious about all sorts of things.  I created new experiences, met new people and generally gave myself permission to experiment more.  Rachel Burnham taught me how to sketchnote and more importantly helped me to enjoy the process.  I went on to embed sketchnoting into my work, I sketchnoted live at conferences and begin to draw and to paint using different medium.  I have even shared some of my ‘creations’ on social media, an act that makes my old self want to hide away.

Last week a good friend of mine, Lili, asked me to paint some iris flowers on canvas for her new goddaughter so that she can take it to Malaysia as a Christening gift.  Me! The person who is not creative!  There will be many, many practice runs and doubting thoughts about my abilities, but I will also enjoy creating something beautiful that I hope baby Iris will grow to love.

I am not sharing this story because that I think that I am a good ‘artist’.  I would not describe myself in that way.  But, where was the truth in my psychological pattern?  What was I missing out on by limiting myself?

I now know that I can be creative and that I enjoy many creative activities too.  I have a whole cupboard full of ‘art kit’ and one of my favourite ways to recharge is to have a playful afternoon and to not care a hoot about the result.

Our performance is directly affected by our thought patterns. The science behind this is fascinating if you are intrigued by research growth mindsets (Carol Dweck), how habits are formed (Charles Duhigg), the neuroscience of our thinking patterns and neuroplasticity.  

What you need to know is that our brains take shortcuts via routines all the time. This is the only way we can function properly because of the amount of information we continually process. But our brains also regenerate and change well into our old age, so,

If we choose to, with the proper support we can change our thinking patterns.

Take a moment… Look at the Thinking Cycle and add ‘Imposter Syndrome’ as your mindset. What impact does labelling yourself (or others) with Imposter Syndrome have on the rest of the cycle?

When you think about your goal now, are you feeling energised and looking for opportunities, or are you feeling de-energised and hopeless?  

A model to support our personal best

Performance in any aspect of work or life is made up of 3 interrelated factors: skill, motivation and practice.  

To perform to your best, you need to know where to place your energy. 

Kath shared her story of training for her next open water swim (a distance of 7 miles, which will take her from one end of Ullswater to the other on the 17th July!) and how lockdown has affected her usual training routine to illustrate the three factors. 

SkillsThe skills and knowledge to complete the activity. Kath has successfully completed triathlons and long distances in open water, so she knows that she has the skills she needs.
MotivationThe right motivation to deliver. If anything, the lockdown has made Kath even more determined to get back into these challenges she enjoys.
PracticeThe opportunity to develop and learn from experience. This has been difficult with irregular swims due to changing restrictions and fewer opportunities to maintain training.  

For Kath, her energy is now focussed on practice, practice, practice to give her the best chance of smashing her swim challenge.

Now look at your goal. Score the three areas out of 10. Where could you place your energy right now to achieve the performance of your life?

Knowing whether you need to learn more, seek out more information, work on your engagement, or gain more experience of ‘doing’ helps you focus on the limited energy and resources you have.

Taking back your power

Many techniques can support you to overcome the feelings associated with Imposter Syndrome in addition to the performance model. We shared:

  • Challenging yourself to move out of your comfort zone and into your stretch zone
  • Identifying your strengths (or superpowers) and how they can support you with your performance challenge
  • Ways of increasing your awareness of your thinking patterns and whether these are putting you on the Path of Possibility or the Path of Limitation [2]

Do the words matter?

We have explored what Imposter Syndrome is; the language we use to define it; how it arises from our thinking, a model for delivering our best performance, and some ways to overcome Imposter Syndrome.

We want to look back at the words in our word cloud and the feelings associated with Imposter Syndrome. 

Why have we asked you to think about the words we use and how the term Imposter Syndrome makes you think, feel and behave?

We have both witnessed the power that positive mindsets can have many times and the way that seemingly immovable obstacles can be removed when we dig beneath some of our deeply ingrained (and sometimes unhelpful) thinking patterns. We believe that labelling yourself with Imposter Syndrome is limiting because it activates our negativity bias and the human tendency to focus on what we cannot do, or what we do not have, rather than what is possible.

Many of the thoughts and feelings associated with Imposter Syndrome are a natural part of everyday life. 

  • If you step into that new role, you will be feeling an element of self-doubt
  • If you try something for the first time, you will have some fear of failure
  • If you register for a new qualification, you will notice gaps in your skills and experience 

These are entirely natural and temporary feelings that we all experience at some point.  

Do they deserve the label ‘Imposter Syndrome’ as often as we rush to apply the term?  

So what? (the action learning bit)

If you have taken the time to read this blog, there has to be a ‘so what?’ What will you do now to take a step forward towards your goal or to shift how you think and talk about Imposter Syndrome? Can you be kinder to yourself and others, and what might that bring?

We will be sharing some more thoughts over the next few months, and we would love your feedback and questions.


About the authors

Liz Needham and Kath Thomas are both accredited coaches and Strengthscope® Master Practitioners. This blog draws on their experience as Coaches and Consultants who have supported individuals to deliver their best performance in hundreds of situations and their work leading teams across complex organisations. They are not Psychologists.

Liz is a performance coach, facilitator and change consultant who works with individuals, teams and organisations to help them to overcome business challenges that mean thinking and working differently. She has experience across sectors and geographies and with organisations both large and small. Her clients describe her as a trusted thinking partner who challenges them to expand their boundaries.  

See more at Lizneedham.com or email yourgoals@lizneedham.com.

Kath is a leadership development and sports coach. As an age-group triathlete and open water swimmer, performance and progress are at the heart of Kath’s own life. She uses her core beliefs around practice, support and stretch to create the right environment for people to grow and develop. She supports the development of strengths, management of risks to performance and builds understanding and appreciation of our own uniqueness and the possibilities this brings. Kath has experience across sectors and geographies, and you can see more at https://www.clearwater.coach/ or email kath@clearwater.coach

If you’d like to view the imposter syndrome session you can watch the playback here

Watch the playback on YouTube and use the timestamps in the description to skip directly to Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

[1] Oxford Languages

[2] This tool is one of a suite of tools developed and used by Strengthscope®