Mind the Gap — Avoid Falling Into the Trap Of Impostor Syndrome

Gerard O'donovan
4 min readOct 18, 2017

Here at the-Coaching Blog-run by Gerard O’Donovan, our aim is to constantly bring value to those seeking to improve their lives. Therefore we have a policy of publishing articles and materials by guest authors whom we value and appreciate. Today’s guest author is Kim Morgan & Geoff Watts (United Kingdom).

‘Impostor Syndrome’ is the feeling that we are not as good as others think and that this will be found out. Many people feel this way and, in fact, when we give case study presentations about this topic, it is not uncommon for members of the audience to come and see us afterward exclaiming ‘You were talking about me!’

Some classic symptoms of Impostor Syndrome include:

  • Having an inability to internalize your accomplishments.
  • Feeling that other people have an overinflated view of you.
  • Attributing any success you have to luck or just being in the right place at the right time.
  • Being fearful of being ‘found out’.
  • Looking more at what you can’t do, rather than valuing what you can do.

In short, people with Impostor Syndrome tend to be harder on themselves than they deserve to be and more generous in their views of others.

Many people experience the feeling that they are an ‘Impostor’ and the insecurity this creates is often a major factor that drives success. By constantly striving to prove themselves, ‘Impostors’ impress their colleagues with their dedication and thoroughness and, because their feelings inspire extreme conscientiousness and greater effort, this usually results in even more success, which in turn results in even greater feelings of being an Impostor!

As with all of the traits we see within our coaching practices, Impostor Syndrome has the potential to contribute to one’s success while simultaneously threatening to become a trap. Our objective is to help our clients find a healthy balance.

Sometimes these feelings of insecurity can stem from childhood events such as failing a school exam. Our role as coaches can be to coach our clients to revisit those events and help bring them to bear on the early event all their adult wisdom, experience, logic, reasoning, and compassion in order to re-evaluate the experience and see it for what it was, back then.

Many people with Impostor Syndrome minimise their achievements and maximise their deficiencies. They often put their achievements down to factors outside of their control. They might say, ‘I was lucky’ or ‘if only they knew the real me and what was going on’. This is not because of a sense of humility but simply because they struggle to internalize their achievements.

One person we know who has tackled his own Impostor Syndrome over the years is BBC Business Correspondent Joe Lynam. His turning point came when, during the banking crisis, he had broken the story that Ireland was in negotiations with the EU about getting a bailout.

‘I was due to break this story again on the Ten O’clock News that night but, just before we were about to go live, the Irish government — a democratically elected and credible Western government — came out and flatly denied it. They effectively called me a liar and I knew my career was on the line.’

This was the point where he had to really evaluate whether he was an Impostor or not. He remembered being ‘behind the scenes’ at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2003 and being in a room with the OPEC Secretary General, Prime Ministers, and Heads of State who all had their guard down, not thinking the press was there.

‘Some of these important people were sitting on their own looking nervous, sheepish even, and I realized they are just human beings. I realized that governments are just a collection of humans too — they make mistakes and they lie just like any other humans.’

In essence, the key to bringing Impostor Syndrome into balance involves reducing what we call the ‘Impostor Syndrome Gap’. The ‘Impostor Syndrome Gap’ is the difference between the perception of self and the perception of others. Coaches can help their clients to close the ‘Impostor Syndrome gap’ is by having them walk through their career timeline, focussing on the successes and achievements throughout their career and particularly noticing their part in them. As coaches, we also encourage our clients to seek out feedback from people they respect and practice accepting compliments. Think of a compliment as a gift that somebody is giving you. You would not reject a birthday present from someone, would you?

Impostor Syndrome is one of the twelve most common traits that we see in our coaching practice. All of these traits contribute to our clients’ successes but, at times, can become a trap for them.

About the authors

Kim Morgan is the owner and Director of Barefoot Coaching Ltd. Kim was awarded Coaching Person of the Year 2012 and is a visiting research fellow on coaching at the University of Chester.

Geoff Watts is a leadership and performance coach and is a regular keynote speaker about coaching, collaboration and change. He is a member of the ICF, NCP and ABP.

Together they have co-authored The Coach’s Casebook: Mastering the twelve traits that trap us (published February 2015).

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