Tips on How to Navigate Imposter Syndrome

Many people suffer from Impostor Syndrome at some point in their lives.  There are more women affected by it than men, but irrespective of gender, some can carry it throughout their lives.

The key findings of this 2020 KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit report are astonishing:

  • 75% of executive women report having personally experienced imposter syndrome at certain points in their career.
  • 85% believe imposter syndrome is commonly experienced by women in corporate America. 
  • 74% of executive women believe that their male counterparts do not experience feelings of self-doubt as much as female leaders do. 
  • 81% believe they put more pressure on themselves not to fail than men do.

So why is it that women experience this more than men.  Having coached professionals for over 10 years, I’m stunned at how many highly talented women struggle with imposter syndrome, feeling inadequate, lacking confidence, having low self-esteem and experiencing self-doubt.

As a Coach, one area that comes through often is lack of confidence and this can be a major reason that prevents women from reaching their full potential. 

Leadership requires you to lead, not do the do. 

Effective leadership is a combination of regular and clear communication, the ability to motivate and importantly, delegate. The reason why some leaders don’t do this is not because of skills or ability, it’s because they lack self-confidence and potentially are experiencing Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter syndrome can be linked with traits like perfectionism where people expect too much of themselves, leading to feelings like shame, anger, sadness or frustration, which leads to low self-esteem and lack of confidence. 

This state of striving for perfection can create an unhealthy cycle, in which the person is not satisfied with their results, because they think “they could have done better”, believing they are unworthy and that they don’t deserve recognition or success.

When talking with clients they tell me that they don’t think they’re as good as others say they are.  Or I hear comments such as “I don’t know why my boss tells everyone I’m the ‘go to’ person”, or
“I don’t deserve to be a leader because I don’t have as much experience as those in my team”

It seems others can see their brilliance as evidenced through 360 surveys, comments on a job well done etc, but they cannot. 

In my experience, this normally stems from an earlier event in their lives where they were told they weren’t good enough or something similar, and subconsciously they’re still relating to that out of date or inaccurate assumption about them.

If you think you are experiencing imposter syndrome, ask yourself these questions:

Do you:

  • Feel your success was “lucky” or influenced by outside factors
  • Downplay your achievements
  • Avoid seeking or accepting feedback
  • Feel ashamed or reluctant to ask for help 
  • Decline offers or say no to new opportunities 
  • Worry about even the smallest errors or mistakes?
  • Tone down your level of knowledge, skills, experience and expertise, even in situations where you are the subject matter expert and actually have more skills and knowledge than others?
  • Are you over sensitive to feedback and feel like you’re being criticised or put down?

These are some common characteristics of imposter syndrome:

  • Fearing that you won’t live up to others’ expectations
  • Feeling that you’ll be “found out” sooner or later
  • An inability to understand and see yourself as others do – eg: you can’t see, recognise or assess your competence and skills
  • Self-doubting, self-loathing and/or self-sabotaging your own success
  • Setting unreasonably high expectations, feeling disappointment when you don’t’ reach them or criticising yourself/your performance
  • Running yourself into the ground and overachieving to prove yourself?

You’ve reached the level you’re at because someone believes in you.  A good way to gauge what others think about you is to ask them.  This can be scary – especially if you are experiencing imposter syndrome – but you there is a simple way to approach this.

Ask someone you do trust – maybe your boss(?), someone who hired you or a trusted colleague?  Arrange a quick coffee catch up and as you’re walking to the café, casually say something like: . . .

“I’ve been reflecting on myself lately and I’d really appreciate if you could tell me the first thing that comes to mind when you think of me?”

And then be quiet and wait for them to answer! 
No matter how long it feels like, just stay quiet and give them the space to respond.

Now, they may respond in a nano-second or they make take a few minutes – either way, is fine. 

When they’ve answered just say “thank you, I appreciate that” and give yourself time to reflect on what they have said.

And as a female leader you own the role just as much as a man does – probably more if you’re a working mum or someone caring for an elderly parent and you’re juggling work and those added responsibilities as well. 

Your time management is probably great (although you might be saying to yourself as you read this “my time management is sh*t).

Your role is to lead your tribe to your best ability – not to do the work and have all the answers. 

As a leader you do not have to know how to do it all.  In fact, you shouldn’t!

Leadership is about creating an environment where people can express themselves, their ideas and opinions, where they can thrive, grow, and develop. 

Being honest about what you do and don’t know speaks volumes for leaders because they are showing it’s OK to not have the answers and to ask others for help.  This is a great leadership trait.  Showing others you don’t have all the answers doesn’t make you an imposter, it demonstrates that you’re human.

You have worked hard to get where you are, and this is what draws people to you – your unique self.  Let that shine through as a leader, be you!  People are drawn to people – not to perceptions and masks of who we are.

Here’s some tips on how to overcome or push imposter syndrome aside:

Next time you feel those feelings arising, those triggers going off or that cycle kicking in think of this:

  • What is the one thing you’re most proud of?
  • What else have you done that is great, that they haven’t seen or acknowledged?
  • Will this thing or this person(s) opinion matter in 1 week, 1 month or 3 months time? (probably not)
  • What are the actual facts of the situation?  How big is that “thing” they’re commenting on anyway?  Are they just nitpicking?
  • You have great talents and just because your thinking may be different to there’s doesn’t mean they’re right.
  • Remember YOU are amazing – you have life experience, talents, thought processes and problem-solving approaches that are unique to you and you can bring a different and new perspective
  • No one is perfect, and it’s ok to make mistakes and learn from experiences
  • We are never going to be great at everything – and that’s OK – build your team and tribe by respecting and harnessing differences
  • Back yourself, if you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect others to?

Next time you’re facing a challenge, going for that promotion or new role, remember how great you are, that your different perspective is valued and valid and that you have what it takes.

The good news is, you can change your inner dialogue around your strengths and learn to recognise, acknowledge and celebrate how great you are.

People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision”. ~John Maxwell~

Be your authentic self.  Let your light shine.

Trust and be kind to yourself, be true to who you are, and others will see you your light.  And it is that light that will attract your followers.

You may find it helpful to speak with someone if you identify with these examples and think you may be experiencing imposter syndrome.  Negative thoughts, self-doubt and lack of confidence can have an effect on many areas of your life, not just work.

If you find yourself focussing on what you’re not capable of doing; self-doubting your ability to make decisions; or feeling that your inner critic is constantly rearing its ugly head, you may benefit from working with an NLP coach.

This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.

Image from AdobeFreeStock CC Axel Bueckert

About the author

Helen Luxford is a Leadership Coach, Hypnotherapist and NLP practitioner.  Helen’s passion is helping  stressed professionals turn overwhelm and uncertainty into calm and confidence in 6 weeks or less.

Helen is an experienced Executive and HR Leader.  Helen combines her corporate experience with her qualifications and skills in coaching, Neurolinguistic Programming and Hypnotherapy to provide tailored programs for her clients. 


Helen is the co-author of Amazon best-selling book, Heart Centred Leadership.


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