How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome

ClearPath has partnered with Kay Coughlin, CEO and Chief Facilitator of Facilitator On Fire, who is an expert in team productivity and overcoming team roadblocks. In this blog, Kay talks about the inner fears and struggles of leaders who suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’. Imposter Syndrome is the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.

I remember how I felt the first time I heard the term “impostor syndrome.” I was so relieved. Suddenly, I knew in my bones that I was in good company. That, beyond a shadow of a doubt, there were so many leaders who understood exactly how I was feeling because they felt they, too, had somehow landed a new job they “hadn’t earned.”

As the years (decades, actually) have gone by, though, I’ve started to wonder why I still struggle with this. (Pro tip: Want to face impostor syndrome every day? Become a full-time entrepreneur! Yikes.) Why was it okay for me to have this giant revelation about myself and then just, well, STOP there? Once again, I’m in good company. Many leaders I know have been living with this strange idea that identifying with impostor syndrome is as far as we need to go.

The problem with impostor syndrome is that we get stuck in it. We peek into our own minds and see these deflating, demoralizing, and downright depressing thoughts. And then, we stop digging. As if simply exposing our innermost fears will somehow change our lives. It’s like realizing you are an alcoholic and deciding it’s a problem, but then not taking any steps to treat the disease. We learn to live with all of the awful symptoms of impostor syndrome, but we aren’t encouraged to seek rehab. We are told it’s okay to feel unworthy by comparison, “fake it till we make it”, and generally stuff down the feelings of inadequacy, as long as we hide it well enough to get ahead.

In fact, this is on my mind because of one of my coaching clients. I was thinking about what approach to use to best coach them through this, when I realized I am going through it right now too! AGAIN! Last weekend, I did a thought download on it, and here is a sample of what I wrote in my journal about my current experience with impostor syndrome: “I am disappointed in myself… This is physically painful; these thoughts are making me physically ill in my stomach. I’m so tired, so very tired… Somehow, I’m just not enough. I am so deep in this I don’t know what to do next.” And this is only a portion of it. I can’t even bear to admit the harsh thoughts that streamed out of my head.

What’s ridiculous is that I have no reason to doubt that I am an expert in this area. I study it in my clients, I coach people through it regularly, I study behavioral science, I study AND TEACH how different generations and ages act it out – and if that weren’t enough, I’ve clearly been going through it for most of my adult life. And yet, I still feel like a fraud. This, folks, is classic impostor syndrome.

So, what have I learned about impostor syndrome by living with it, studying it, and coaching on it? These three things, primarily:

  1. There is at least some truth in it. Many of these things we feel, like, “I don’t have enough education,” might in fact be a little bit true. I know it’s shocking to say it, but admitting it takes a lot of the sting out. And – this is critical – if something is a little bit true, it still doesn’t mean you are a fraud!
  2. The fears impostor syndrome spurs in our minds are largely generic and undefined. One example is, “I’m not good enough.” What does that mean, anyway? Since humans fear things we don’t understand, if we can define these fears more clearly, they become far less intimidating.
  3. Impostor syndrome beliefs often fall into the extreme categories of “always” and “never.” This is simply drama manufactured by your mind. Very few things in life are an “always” or a “never.” When you discover one of these extreme beliefs, the trick is to ask if this is really one of those very rare situations or not. Impostor syndrome does not need to be your permanent mindset. It is, though, a useful diagnostic tool. It helps you see the symptoms, recognize the individual beliefs and thoughts that are keeping you stuck, change the ones you want to, and accept the bits of truth you may find in them.

Once you see the beliefs that make up your personal flavor of impostor syndrome, you can begin to change them. Will it be easy? Probably not. But it will be worth it. Maybe it will be some of the hardest and best work you ever do. You do not have to live in impostor syndrome for the rest of your career or for the rest of your life. You are never too young or too old to begin.

Here is a guide to help you begin to recognize the impostor syndrome beliefs in your own head and move through them, so you can ultimately turn them into thoughts that will be more useful for you!

I’d love to hear from you, email:

Kay Coughlin, CEO and Chief Facilitator of Facilitator On Fire, is on a mission to help the 5 adult generations in today’s workplaces (iGen/Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X-ers, Boomers, and Traditionalists) work together on teams that are higher-performing and happier.

Kay’s individual coaching program, “Jumpstart Coaching“, and “Leading Across Generations” workshops help leaders and managers build amazing multi-generational teams. (Schedule a strategy call here). Her keynote address, “Top Myths of Leading Generations,” is offered to help teams become abundantly successful, together.

For all other questions about assessing your workforce or conducting a review of your current hiring processes, the ClearPath team can assist you.