“I no longer start every day in dread,” Sheila (not her real name) told me as we completed a six-month coaching engagement. Her statement initially surprised me because that’s not how she described her interest in coaching when we began. She had simply and unemotionally told me that she needed a career change and didn’t want to jump into another not-quite-right situation. But as I recalled the time we spent focused on addressing imposter syndrome, her statement made complete sense. Every decision point induced stress because she doubted her ability to make the best choice.
Imposter syndrome, or imposter phenomenon, is “the experience of constantly feeling like a fraud, downplaying one’s accomplishments, and always being concerned about being exposed as incompetent or incapable.” The frequent, critical voices in a sufferer’s head cause exhausting, stressful internal battles, as every choice or action is considered and reconsidered.
Two common consequences of imposter syndrome are overwork and self-sabotage. Trying to compensate for a perceived lack in skill, experience, or expertise often leads to overworking. Individuals with imposter syndrome may create roadblocks to advancement to avoid the misery of louder internal voices proclaiming their incompetence. Positive feedback does not mitigate imposter syndrome because it conflicts with the individual’s self-assessment.
For Sheila, every decision, all day long, was fraught with self-doubt and self-recrimination. In the past, she had jumped into professional training where once in, there were few career decisions to make. In our work together, she realized that seeking the comfort of fewer decisions had not led her to a career that was a good match for her. Sheila needed to find a way to make decisions that were not driven by the anxiety caused by ongoing self-doubt.
The good news is that imposter syndrome can be quieted with increased awareness and replacing negative internal messages with positive ones. In our work together, I helped Sheila identify the voices, understand the positive role the voices fill (and there is always a positive or protective role), and find specific mechanisms for turning down the volume.
Imposter syndrome may crop up again, but she now has a toolkit to quiet the intrusive thoughts and move ahead with confidence. Not only is Sheila now waking up without dread, she’s explored several career paths and settled on one that she’s excited about.
You don’t need to stay imprisoned in the dank dungeon of imposter syndrome. With the right tools, freedom is possible. Think of all you can accomplish, and how much lighter you will feel, when a more positive set of voices fills your head.
Diane W. Shannon is an internal medicine physician and physician coach and can be reached at her self-titled site, Diane W. Shannon. This article originally appeared in Boston Executive Coaches.
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