“I’m a fraud, and sooner or later, everyone’s going to find out.” Sound familiar? Have you ever said to yourself, “Why did they choose me? Must be good luck rather than something I did to distinguish myself”.
I have felt this way many times in my career. I remember vividly feeling anxious during my first presentation at a conference, almost backing out of a CEO meeting during a consulting project because I felt so intimidated, feeling panic giving a performance review to an unhappy high performer on my team, and second guessing my professional existence before a chemistry meeting for my first C-level coaching opportunity - the list goes on.
An estimated 70% of people experience feelings of Imposter Syndrome at some point in their lives, according to a review published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science. Imposter syndrome is defined as doubting your abilities and competence despite your education, experience, and accomplishments. Ironically, the data also shows that a disproportionate number of people that experience this phenomenon are frequently the more capable, accomplished and intelligent ones, dispelling the myth that successful professionals don’t question their own abilities.
In my coaching practice, which primarily focuses on first-time executives, founders, and senior leaders, almost all of my clients have experienced some kind of imposter syndrome. You read that correctly - almost all of them. Regardless of gender, industry, or functional area, this experience of conflict between one’s own self-perception and the way others perceive them often becomes a focus in our coaching.
But what happens when you feel this way in the role of Coach - as the person who is responsible for helping your client dig deep into what’s getting in their way and overcome it?
How does it impact how we approach our work with the client - our ability to be present? To challenge? To be a source of reflection for the client in their development?
Why do we feel it?
Each time I meet a new potential coaching client, I’m filled with dueling feelings - a surge of adrenaline and excitement about a new relationship and opportunity, along with perplexity around “why me? Am I really the right person to be helping this leader with something so important”?
Early research found that imposter syndrome was connected to factors including early family dynamics and gender stereotypes. However - while bias and exclusion do contribute to exacerbating these feelings - it’s been shown that the phenomenon occurs in people of all backgrounds, ages, and genders, and especially within those who have a track record of success.
As coaches, these feelings may show up when we’re working with C-Suite executives who are more experienced than we are, have a higher title than we’ve held, or hold a position of power. Or, perhaps we are coming off of an engagement that didn’t go as we’d expected.
It might be attributed to the fact that coaching in a formal setting is a newer skillset that we haven’t had a chance to practice despite years in our field. For even the most experienced coaches, it might show up when coaching in a new industry, if we need to approach a client with boldness, or engage in conflict with stakeholders.
What can we do about it?
While working through feelings of imposter syndrome takes time and may creep up at various moments, there are some strategies we can employ as coaches to minimize the impact and shift our mindset.
Accept that it’s okay to feel unsure - Just like we encourage our clients to lean into their discomfort, we might have to sit with our imposter-like feelings to truly understand what’s driving them. If these feelings visit during a coaching session, put them in a figurative box and take them out when there’s time and space to evaluate them. To overcome the doubt, understand the emotion and rationale behind it and start to change our own mental models.
Channel self-doubt into learning - A useful technique is to continue to evolve our skills and expertise. This includes reading books about different lenses, focusing on various types of coaching to expand perspective (group, team, life, business), and journaling to spend time exploring our own triggers and how we can make adjustments to our approach.
Reframe the language - “Imposter” and “syndrome” have connotations that something is wrong with us. How can a new, less critical voice help reframe our perspective? For example, “I’m struggling with some self-doubt in this moment as I approach feedback with my client. These feelings are normal, and I’m motivated to overcome them.”
Seek out mentorship - Coach supervision or mentorship can provide a sounding board for our hypotheses about our clients, and it can also help us work through our own insecurities. Further, if these feelings are causing a high level of unproductive stress or anxiety, seeking out professional help through therapy can be an unblocker.
Collect and validate wins - Perhaps the best we can do is build our confidence by showing ourselves that we are in fact valuable, skilled, expert coaches. Reflect on the moments of success and dig into what made them that way. Then, channel those ideas and that confidence into each engagement going forward.
As coaches, it’s important to be authentic to who we are and present in how we’re feeling about our craft. Don’t ignore this phenomenon; rather lean into it to become an even better version of your already capable self.