Coaching the Imposter Syndrome using Transactional Analysis

Author : Beatrice Zornek

8th July 2020

“I had enormous self-image problems and very low self-esteem, which I hid behind obsessive writing and performing... I really felt so utterly inadequate.”

Hearing these words shared by a loved one, or even experiencing them ourselves, can feel like a sharp arrow piercing through our heart. Yet, what’s heartbreaking is that the words above were uttered by David Bowie, one of the most prolific artists of all time.

David Bowie wasn’t alone. Despite its debilitating impact, 70% of us experience Imposter Syndrome.

It can make us feel paralysed and stuck, unable to access our full resourceful self. It can oscillate between making us play small and safe, and pushing ourselves to the brink of exhaustion trying to reach that peak of success and prove our worth.

Because it’s so widespread, the Imposter Syndrome is a common challenge that people bring to the coaching space.

an image of imposter syndrome

Coaching is a safe space to express emotions and explore these painful experiences. This is why it can be very powerful to feel seen and accepted as our full self – the good, the bad and the ugly.

But how can we, as coaches, best support our clients in a heart-centred, compassionate way, while still being effective and forward-focused for them? I’ve seen questions around Imposter Syndrome come up time and again in the coaching communities that I’m part of, and this spurred me on to share my thinking around how we might use Transactional Analysis to coach issues around Imposter Syndrome.

Our Internal Experience of Imposter Syndrome

People who experience Imposter Syndrome often perceive it as an internal voice whispering (or shouting) things like:

“You’re a fraud”
“You’re not good enough”
“You will be found out”

Many of our clients may be experiencing Imposter Syndrome for the first time, but while the experience itself might be new, when we dig a little deeper through transformational coaching, we often discover that what hides underneath the surface, is that these messages are not at all new. They can be life scripts that we learn in our early years, from parents and carers, that are then reinforced over time by evidence and experience. 

Because they are so deeply embedded in our psyche, we often play these scripts unconsciously. The coaching space however, can allow clients to realise that these internal messages are coming from unhealthy scripts they have learned a long time ago, which in itself can bring a huge dose of clarity and self-awareness. 

Transactional Analysis (TA) and Imposter Syndrome

TA-inspired coaching, can be a powerful tool to support your clients through dealing with Imposter Syndrome. 

While TA can feel like a very theoretical and analytical framework when we learn about it in our coaching training course, I want to share with you a very simple method that has helped many of my clients, in the hope that it will serve you and your clients too. 

As coaches, we naturally use TA when it comes to interpersonal coaching (our relationship with others) but will less often think of it in intrapersonal coaching (in relationship with ourselves). 

However, just like we have dialogues with people outside of us, there is also an internal dialogue that’s often murmuring on constantly in the background of our minds. And often, that murmur turns into an avalanche of self-critical messages that we just can’t turn off.

an image of inner dialogue

So how does this internal dialogue happen? 

Parent-Adult-Child (PAC) Model in Interpersonal Coaching

Eric Berne introduced a simple model to explain Ego states: the Parent-Adult-Child (PAC) model. The PAC model demonstrates how unhealthy dynamics can occur when we enter a certain “voice” (or ego state) in our relationship with others.

Parent

Adult 

Child 

For example, if we communicate with someone from a Parent ego state, we invite the other person to step into and respond from a Child ego state. 

Imagine a dialogue between two partners, where the first one is shouting angrily:

“You forgot to hang the laundry AGAIN!”

(Parent Ego State)

To which the partner responds:

“I’m sorry, I’m so useless.”

(Child Ego State)

Can you see how in one person entering a Parent ego state, they unconsciously invite the other to respond from a Child ego state?

Bringing in the Adult

Being in our Parent or Child state can be a restrictive space from which we might often struggle to see creative solutions. 

This is why, when using TA in interpersonal coaching, we generally want to help our clients to anchor their Adult in relationship with others. When we’re anchored in Adult (find out more about anchoring in this article), we invite the other person’s Adult to respond to us. As a result, we can have healthy, Adult-Adult conversations which are resourceful and grounded, without any power-play taking place.

Revisiting the example above, an Adult-Adult conversation might sound something like this:

"I noticed that the laundry was still in the washing machine, could you check on it?"

(Adult Ego State)

“Thank you for reminding me. I’ll sort it out now.”

(Adult Ego State)

PAC in Intrapersonal Coaching

The same principle applies to our own internal dialogue. 

If you think of ego states, which ego state might be giving us messages like “You’re a fraud” and “You’re not good enough”?

It’s very easy to see that the critical messages linked to the Imposter Syndrome come from our internal Critical Parent voice. 

With this awareness, we can then support our client to come back to their Adult self and anchor this grounded, integrated ego state. The simple understanding of this basic model can often be enough for our clients to shift back into Adult and come back to their most resourceful self. 

However, because these unhealthy life scripts are usually very deep, if we just help them to anchor their Adult state, we could leave stones unturned. This means that the client might experience the same problem after a short while.

So how do we support them in achieving long-term, transformational change, rather than just staying on the surface of things? 

Exploring All Ego States

Let’s take this thinking one step further. 

When our Critical Parent voice says “You’re a fraud”, who is it speaking to?

Is it speaking to our Adult, grounded, integrated and resourceful self?

Or is it triggering the Child part of us?

That part who might feel fearful and unworthy? Not good enough? 

Think of it this way: when we communicate with others in a Parent ego state, we automatically “invite” them to respond from their Child ego state. 

an image of child ego state

In the same way, when we speak to ourselves from a Critical Parent state, we also invite ourselves to react from a Child ego state. 

The real magic in coaching the Imposter Syndrome comes with the understanding that the Critical Parent part is actually shedding light onto our Child part. But don’t just take my word for it. See this experientially for yourself. 

Observing Our Client’s Ego State

When a client experiences these harsh internal messages, observe how they respond:

This simple scan of our clients can help us to see (and verify with them) what ego state they shift to when they explore these internal critical messages. 

Contrary to what we might believe, the Critical Parent voice was never there to make us feel miserable.

The Critical Parent voice is there to make us aware of our Child part who needs support. 

So now that our client understands what’s really happening under the surface, what do we do with this realisation that the Child part needs support? 

An image of inner child

Using TA to Coach the Inner Child

I believe that simple approaches are often the most effective. We don’t need to spend a lot of time explaining to our clients how this works from a theoretical perspective. 

Instead, I invite you to share with your client this simple visualisation: 

“Imagine that in front of you is a small child, who was just told that she is a fraud. She believes that she’s not good enough. That she needs to work harder. She is feeling fearful, and worried for her survival. You love this child very much. What do you do to support this child?”

In this exercise, you will adapt your language to reflect the words used by your own client in the space. This will allow the client to resonate with your reflections on a deeper and more personal level. 

Then, just observe how your client responds. 

Often, being introduced to this approach, allows them to connect with that child part of themselves for the first time. 

They might realise that the voice they’ve been hearing is not one to be suppressed, but one that invites them to look deeper, at a part of them that needs their attention and compassion, not rejection. It might enable them to fully experience and offer themselves self-compassion, by visualising themselves as that child who needs support.

Holding Space for Whatever Comes Up

This work can sometimes be accompanied by tears or an uncovering of painful emotions. As coaches, we may feel worried to see that our client is crying and want them to feel calm and resourceful again. However, if they feel emotional, take it as a positive sign. Crying is an emotional release and can be an indicator that they have connected with that child part of themselves. That they are finally able to offer themselves self-compassion and nurturing care, in a way that truly resonates for them. 

Using TA-inspired coaching in supporting our clients through this magical internal journey is transformational in itself. It gives us a common language and an internal map that they can navigate themselves. It can help them learn to channel this critical voice productively, in order to support the inner Child part of themselves.

When we offer self-compassion and support, the inner Child part of ourselves feels heard, seen and validated. As a result, the Critical Parent voice will gradually feel heard and seen too. By offering ourselves this internal support, the ego states naturally reach a state of balance and integration, and this allows us to come back to our fully resourceful, Adult self – without using any more tools.

Potential Limitations With Using TA to Coach Around Imposter Syndrome

TA was developed as a therapeutic approach, and even though we can apply it in coaching, it still retains the depth – which makes the Animas style of coaching deeply transformational – but we do also need to be mindful to keep our clients in the coaching space, rather than entering the grey area of therapy. 

To ensure that we stay in the coaching space, I recommend:

Keep the end of the session to use anchoring techniques and offer them homework related to your session that will allow them to further practice this internal dialogue. Support them in continuing to see their Critical Parent voice as an opportunity to connect with their inner Child part and offer it love and compassion.

In Summary:

When you are working with a client experiencing Imposter Syndrome, Transactional Analysis (specifically, the Parent-Adult-Child model) can be a powerful tool to support them through this experience. TA is a versatile approach that can be used in different ways which you can experiment with yourself, but to offer a practical example, here’s one way you might try:

Further Reading

If you found this article useful and want to learn more about supporting your clients through Imposter Syndrome or other self-critical messages, you can download my free ebook called “7 tools to coach your inner critic”.

Beatrice Zornek

Beatrice Zornek

Beatrice is a Transformational Coach whose purpose and passion is to support women to fall in love with work, in a way that feels right.

Find out more about Beatrice

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