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Imposter Syndrome - Befriend your inner critic and transform the way you think about yourself

12 Actionable tips to help you change the record, gain confidence

& get going!

Imposter Syndrome – what it is & what it isn’t

Up to 70% of people understand and associate with the feelings of

‘Imposter Syndrome’:

  • The persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”

  • Internalised self-doubt and negative self-criticism

  • Thinking you'll be 'found out', found wanting and judged

  • Feeling unworthy of your accomplishments

The term was coined in the 70s by two female doctors who researched 150 high-achieving women and found common thread of ‘an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness’.

Fifty years on and it’s still widely associated with women, though it’s known to affect men and women equally.

It isn’t recognised as a mental disorder; it is recognised as a set of beliefs. As with all beliefs, the stories we tell ourselves, they’re true and real to us, we’re not conscious of them most of the time, and they affect our thoughts, emotions and the choices we make.

Why is it harder for some than for others to overcome the feelings?

While a great many people sometimes feel this way temporarily, or have moments of self-doubt, the difference is that for some it can be crippling and stops them from achieving their potential. If the feelings are accompanied by low self-esteem, you tend to hang onto the negative feelings for longer – and it can paralyse or derail you. The good news is, you can overcome them and learn how to make more conscious choices.

Famous people who’ve revealed they have ‘Imposter’ feelings:

“I still sometimes feel like a loser kid in high school and I just have to pick myself up and tell myself that I’m a superstar every morning so that I can get through this day and be for my fans what they need for me to be."

Lady Gaga

“It was tough for me to stop being Venus and become the person I am.”

Serena Williams

“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. I thought the work was the only thing of value.”

David Bowie

"I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’"

Maya Angelou

"No matter what we've done, there comes a point where you think, 'How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?'”

Tom Hanks

“Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself -- or even excelled -- I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.”

Sheryl Sandberg

Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.”

Howard Schultz

“The greatest obstacle for me has been the voice in my head that I call my obnoxious roommate. I wish someone would invent a tape recorder that we could attach to our brains to record everything we tell ourselves. We would realize how important it is to stop this negative self-talk. It means pushing back against our obnoxious roommate with a dose of wisdom.”

Arianna Huffington

Notice how you feel reading these quotes, and then seeing the person’s name. How could these amazing people possibly feel like that?

Now, if it’s on form, your own inner critic will be instantly saying: “That’s all very well, but it’s easy for them, they’re famous. I’m not like them.” Or words to that effect.

The effect being – you went to a negative thought and had a negative response. Imagine if you chose to challenge your thought and instead think: “Wow, that’s amazing! They felt like I feel. They achieved so much despite feeling like that. I can too!”. That’s the difference between the negative and positive mindset right there.

Nobody ever did anything worthwhile without trying. What all these famous and talented people have in common is that they didn’t give up, they kept on trying – worked, learned, developed and grew. They felt the fear, analysed the danger, got out of their comfort zones and did it anyway. They made the conscious choice to act.

Actionable Tip #1: Cheerleading

Being happy for others and supporting them and their achievements makes you feel good and helps you change the story you tell yourself. Try noticing and catching your negative thoughts about yourself and others and turning them into positive ones.

Like starting to notice and reframe your negative thoughts, there are more tips for practising the skill of changing your mindset – and I’ll come to those. What stands out for me, and I’m excited to share – is how making friends with your inner critic is key. It might sound counter-intuitive, so bear with me here.

Actionable Tip #2: Befriending your inner critic

There’s a reason you have your inner critic. When you hear it, whose voice its it? It might be your mother, or your father, or a younger version of you – really listen to that voice and get to know them. It might not be anyone you recognise. There might be more than one. Get to know them all. You could name them. Then consider when they pop up and why they’re being negative. Are they trying to protect you from getting hurt? Do they mean well? Perhaps they’re projecting their own fears onto you. Be kind to them, let them know you understand their fears, worries or concerns, and thank them for raising them. And then reframe what they’re saying: “you can’t do this. It’s not ready. You’re not ready. Don’t risk it.” Becomes: “you can do this. It is ready. You are enough. Be brave and give it a go.”

The most powerful thing you can do is to understand where the story you’re telling yourself is coming from – so you can acknowledge it, put it to one side, tell yourself a different story – get yourself out of your own way and get on with living more deliberately!

It takes time, and it’s easier to work with someone so you can understand all the different parts of what makes you uniquely you – and then acknowledge and accept the light and the dark parts of yourself. You can then reframe the stories you’re telling yourself – and start listening to your innermost ‘self’ – your unwavering core - rather than being controlled, you’re in control.

It might sound crazy, and you must be prepared to be completely open and honest to yourself, but it works!

Making the transition from Manager to Leader

When you’re making the move from being a manager to a leader, where part of your role is to inspire others, be visible, open and genuine, be authentic, pass on advice, knowledge and resources to others… among many other things… it’s time to sort out your own imposter feelings once and for all.

Until you choose to work on this with someone trained to help, these tips will help – which, like anything worthwhile, will require practice.

You can’t please ‘em all

It’s important to note that there will be people who don’t like you. That’s just fine. You can’t please everyone, none of us does. Be yourself and some people will love you.

You’ll rub some people up the wrong way – and that’s OK. If you’re being true to yourself, and not hurting anyone, it’s OK to be you – I give you permission, until you’re ready to do that for yourself!

Like Tay Tay says: “haters gonna hate!” – so you have to “shake it off!". She’s not wrong. Most people are insecure to some extent, and each of has triggers we may or may not be aware of. Sometimes, people project a feeling they have about themselves onto you. And, they wrongly assume everyone feels the same way about you – and they don’t.

Actionable tip #3: Change your mood

Notice that and use it when you notice your negative emotions. I breathe, centre myself and move about to change up my energy - and get outside if I can. You do you.

I’ll let you in on a brutal, but helpful, truth - most people care about themselves very much more than they care about you. Ouch, I know, right? So, you need to be spending your valuable time on people who appreciate you, give in return and are worth your effort and devotion.

Actionable tip #4: Social media

Don’t waste your time responding to negative comments or to try to prove a point – if they’re rude, block them and report them (depending on the platform) – and then move on. As Michelle Obama said: “when they go low, we go high.”

Part of the 70%

It feels good to be part of the majority – I’m not one of the 30%. I spent my life putting others in the spotlight – making others shine, always more comfortable behind the scenes where I couldn’t be seen.

In my corporate life, as a leader, I wasn’t great at parts of my role and that was OK - when I asked others for help. I loved helping people with their professional development and career progression. I was happy to help others thrive, and I was good at it. It made the move into coaching full time seem like a natural career progression for me. ‘Seem’ being the operative word there!

Fellow coaches, entrepreneurs and everyone else wiser than me is sniggering a little right now at my naivety (kindly, I’m sure!). They know that you can’t run any kind of business without being seen! And, I think, to be a good coach, you have to do the deep self-development work – and fully understand yourself so you can get out of the way and help others! So, I did the work. It was painful at times, and both enlightening and lightening – I felt lighter.

Seven Actionable Tips - Getting out of your own way

  1. Take on a challenge you can’t back out of

    1. Tell someone you care about you’re going to do something that you fear – and do it. However your feelings manifest themselves – something to challenge that. For me it was being seen – so I made a video of myself and posted it online. Nothing terrible happened… and it felt surprisingly good!

  2. Build on the momentum of this and set yourself another challenge

    1. Remind yourself how it felt to achieve the last one. Life is trial and error – home, work, anything new to us. We learn by making mistakes. It’s necessary – good – to make mistakes. You've heard this, believe it now

  3. It’s OK to feel afraid & it’s OK to doubt yourself

    1. Feel the doubt, feel the fear, recognise it, sit with it. Challenge it. Nobody is confident all the time – we’re human and we have different emotions – get to know them. Recognise they ebb and flow - and learn to manage them

  4. Push yourself out of your comfort zone

    1. If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. I think that’s paraphrasing Einstein, so clearly wise! (Fun fact, Einstein went to my Grandpa’s house in Hawaii for tea and he wasn’t wearing socks!)

  5. Set yourself daily goals – and check in with yourself at the end of each day

    1. What went well, what would you do differently, what will you do tomorrow. Don’t ever beat yourself up about not doing something, better to reflect on why and commit to do better

  6. Don’t expect or wait for perfection

    1. Good enough is good enough if your standards are high enough – then reflect, revise and refine as you go. Think of whatever you’re doing as a product launch. Developers go for a minimum viable product – worthwhile, and can be built on

  7. Don’t put up your defensive walls and pretend all is terrific when it isn’t

    1. Your vulnerability is powerful. Your honesty about it draws others to you and connects you. It’s good to talk. We all have flaws. If you’re good at something (& you are) then being competent is fine for areas outside your area of expertise. Nobody is expert at everything. You do have your strengths – even if you’re not willing to acknowledge them! Aim for continuous improvement - keep learning and keep growing

Summary and Final Thoughts

Most of us feel like an imposter sometimes, depending on what we’re doing. It’s harder for some of us than for others. Don’t let your feelings be an excuse for not doing what you want to achieve.

The feelings and inner critic(s) often arise when we’re out of our comfort zone - and it’s good to be out of our comfort zone! Unless you’re a true polymath with an eidetic memory, nobody knows everything and is expert at everything.

Recognise your emotions, feel them, get comfortable with all of them and accept them as part of who you are - and don’t let them control you. Understand your story – what made you, you – and whose voice you hear – who is stepping forward to criticise you and why. Then, you can challenge it and tell yourself a different tale – one that’s forgiving, encouraging, that wants the best for you, pushing you on to keep trying.

Final Actionable Tip #12: Find someone who inspires you and motivates you to be courageous, find your will and act.

For me, it’s Amelia Earhart:

“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward.”

I know she disappeared, but before that she was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, she received the Distinguished Flying Cross, was an aeronautical engineering advisor and visiting faculty member at Purdue university and a career counsellor to women students. Born in 1897, she was also a member of the National Women’s Party and an early supporter of equal rights. She wrote best-selling books about her flying experiences and formed an organisation for female pilots – and all before she was 39!

Embrace your flaws, we all have them! The more human and relatable you are, the more easily you will form trusting relationships, the better you will inspire loyalty. And for any leader, that’s key. Build your self-awareness, see how you impact others, understand the system you work in and your stakeholders, use your will and ask others for help.

For now, I hope this has inspired you to listen up and speak up – and get yourself out of the way. And not to wait because you think you aren’t good enough or ready. Hear this:

  • You are enough

  • You are worthy

  • Have courage

  • Be kind and remember…

  • Love is a verb, and it starts with yourself

I’m passionate about sharing what I’ve learned over the years – in life and in business – if it helps others. I want you to succeed, that’s what gets me up in the morning. How do you feel now? I hope this helped. Let me know? x Polly:


About the Author. Polly Wain is an Executive Transition Coach, helping talented professionals realise their potential through their smooth transformation from skilled manager to great leader.

Polly works one-to-one privately with ambitious individuals who understand that the achievements and professional expertise that got them to this point in their career isn’t what they need to progress further. She also works one-to-one with clients sponsored by their organisation for successful promotion transitions.

Driven by her passionate belief that all managers need key leadership skills, now more than ever, she created her 3-month flagship online coaching programme:

‘In with the New: Making the successful transition from Manager to Leader’ to support more talented, highly skilled professionals to thrive through change and become modern, human, whole person leaders.

Before founding her coaching business, Polly was a Director for Subway’s professional services organisation for Europe, member or their Leadership Team and their Marketing, Communications and PR lead. She has 20+ years’ experience of global corporate life in B2B organisations of all sizes – in boardroom level, general management, leadership and management roles.


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