In my coaching sessions with leaders, they sometimes describe a persistent doubt, a fear they will be exposed as a fraud, or a deep sense of discomfort when others recognize them for their skills, talents, or accomplishments or when they approach a new challenge. They often use the term imposter syndrome to describe this psychological pattern. This term serves to encapsulate for them a cycle of psychological and emotional responses and helps them to talk about it.
However, I think there are some drawbacks to this framework or perspective. First, anytime we accept the challenge to learn a new area of knowledge or skill and/or “try on” new behaviors, it is quite natural to feel discomfort and uneasiness. In these situations, I believe it is helpful to normalize these feelings of discomfort and uneasiness for the client when they are acting outside of their comfort zone. In these situations, I affirm the client for their willingness and courage to experiment with new approaches and behaviors outside their preferred patterns of behavior in order to expand and grow as individuals and leaders.
I believe it is useful to see ourselves as in the process of ‘becoming’ more than what we have been when we seek to expand our repertoire of behaviors and to learn to see the world in more diverse ways, which is often accompanied by an acute sense of discomfort and even fear. However, rather than thinking of ourselves as phonies or frauds, we are stepping out of our comfort zone and experimenting with new ways of thinking and acting because we want to become better people and more effective leaders. If we were not willing to take a chance, to step into a space where we felt uncomfortable, we might not grow. Of course, this process must be undertaken in the context of making responsible choices and taking calculated risks.
None of what I say here negates the veracity and legitimacy of the imposter syndrome, as I recognize that these feelings are real for many individuals and this description is useful for them in understanding their inner turmoil and this psychological challenge. Further, researchers point out that low self-esteem, anxiety, and sometime depression are associated with this syndrome. Nevertheless, in accepting solely this perspective, that of the imposter syndrome, we may forego the opportunity to affirm and applaud our courage as well as that of others in moving into a new arena or field of knowledge, despite the uneasiness and discomfort it engenders. For those who embrace these challenges, we should offer positive support and understanding for their willingness to grow and develop.
For example, I have encountered many high-achieving women, including women of color, who describe experiencing feelings associated with an imposter syndrome – they feel discomfort and fear around the sense that they are representing that they are someone whom they are not. Supporting them in learning to acknowledge and affirm their accomplishments and abilities, helping them develop self-esteem and a more resilient sense of self often involves helping them to accept their discomfort as part of a “natural” cycle of growth. The perspective described above has helped to support their growth and development.
As we grow and develop to “become” whom we desire to be, there are times we will be challenged with fear and feelings of discomfort. During these times, it is important to find others who will support us in expanding our awareness of self and our impact on others, and to identify those who will offer us honest feedback to both challenge and nurture us. Experienced coaches can help you learn to affirm who you are and create a safe space for you to examine unhealthy patterns of thinking about yourself and develop more constructive, productive ways of thinking and behaving, so you may grow and develop into the person and leader you wish to become.