Imposter syndrome has become one of those pseudo-psychological phrases that has seeped into the common consciousness, like ‘control freak’ or ‘acting out’. It’s something that clients tend to turn up to a session with, pre-labelled, self-diagnosed: I have this, I have imposter syndrome, rather like saying, I have diabetes or anaemia.
As coaches, it can be too easy to take this as a given and charge on with the session – after all, our clients are telling us what the problem is, right? Well, maybe not.
It can be more fruitful to view the term imposter syndrome as a flag in the ground, a marker to indicate that there is treasure here. But if we want to find out what the treasure is, we’re going to have to start digging.
Labels can be really effective as markers, indicators, but if we take them to mean something real and tangible, universal and predictable, then we risk adopting a ‘one size fits all’ approach with our clients. And as we know, each client is unique. So our first task is to start to discern just what exactly the term means to THIS client.
This means doing what we do best as coaches; asking questions and listening deeply to help the client sketch out how the landscape looks for them. Or, to continue the buried treasure analogy, this is where we work out whether we’re going to need a shovel, a pickaxe or a trowel! We might ask:
In discovery mode, we are trying to tune our ears into this client’s frequency, to pick up the nuanced elements of the stories they are telling themselves, and the deeper frequency of the hidden beliefs they may have about themselves and the world.
As we start to explore what imposter syndrome is for our clients, we may find that there are some common themes about how it shows up in their worlds. Often, they ‘know’ they have imposter syndrome because:
Chipping away at these themes may reveal common underlying beliefs, such as:
Unchallenged limiting beliefs can corrode away at our foundations, making it difficult to build a present that feels solid and secure. Our job as coach is to really tune in. To not only hear the beliefs, but to begin to understand what is keeping them propped up in the client’s narrative. Does the client mostly fall into the trap of:
Opening the toolkit
It is important to remember that our job as coaches is not to fix what is broken; rather, our stance is one of supporting the client to make changes or decisions that will work for them. We work to the notion that our clients are creative, resourceful and whole, so we very much work with the resource of the client’s creativity and resourcefulness when we open the toolkit. We’re inviting them to have an active role in feeling their way into the approach that is going to be most transformational for them. Some may prefer an instinctive approach, others a more rational one. Again, it’s not one size fits all.
Equally, the client decides how much change they’re ready for – they might be ready to smash their imposter into pieces with a big hammer and stride off merrily into the sunset. Or they might simply swivel it on its axis slightly so they can view it from a different perspective for a while. It’s not our job to say what’s right or necessary. We go at the client’s pace, trusting that what’s right for them is what’s right for them.
Part of finding the right tool is about giving the client something they can take with them and integrate into their lives – before they have to do a presentation, have a challenging conversation, speak up in a meeting.
Our role is to manage expectations, find the right tool(s), support fruitful experimentation and, as ever with change, appreciate that people need to live into their discoveries over time.
Some examples of tools that may support working on imposter syndrome:
When it comes to changing a deeply ingrained belief, or set of beliefs, the work is in the repetition. Occasionally, a client is able to flick a switch and almost ‘awake’ into a new way of being. But that’s not common. For most clients – for most of us – we have to live into the change. We support clients as they have some successes, some disappointments, refine their experiments, adapt and repeat and repeat and repeat…until they suddenly discover that the thing that was really disabling, isn’t.
Whichever tool the client responds to, it can be worth managing their expectations for the journey that lies ahead by covering these key steps in the coaching (not in any specific order):
One final note when considering working with imposter syndrome with our clients. It is important to recognise that their imposter can trigger our imposter, and we may get caught in some parallel process in the coaching. Supervision is so important for helping to bring this into view. If you find that you’re not getting anywhere with a client, that they’re not making enough progress…that you’re starting to wonder if you’re good enough, skilled enough, helpful enough, maybe that’s your imposter signalling its arrival into the space.
Just as we help our clients to raise their awareness and be clear on the triggers and signs that imposter is present, it’s so important that we do the same for ourselves and keep ourselves as grounded, present and prepared as possible when working in this field.
As you can see, although clients may come with one label, the label is like a tree that has many roots. We need to get under the surface of the label to find which is the root cause of each particular client’s disturbance. There is so much learning available for client and coach, it’s truly rewarding work; so good luck hunting for treasure with your own clients and their imposters!
Interested in helping others to find greater self-awareness, happiness, purpose and fulfilment?
If you would like us to help tell your story or you would like to share your coaching niche, philosophy or agenda in the form of a blog, like this one – contact Sam to express your interest: [email protected]