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Diminishing the Power of Imposter Syndrome
Upset stressed young Asian business man in suit with hands on head sitting on stairs. Unemployment and layoff concept.

During my 25 years as a financial journalist, I had the pleasure of seeing thousands of executives, politicians and thought leaders at their very best. When the cameras would roll, they would spring into action with well-crafted answers, witty stories and seemingly unflappable charm. I often left the anchor desk thinking how lucky some people were to be born with such gifts. Now, almost ten years to the day since I hosted my last program on CNBC, I have a more nuanced view of the range of confidence that exists among employees and leaders in any workplace. 

After leaving broadcasting, I became a media trainer, counsellor and executive coach. All three roles require complete confidentiality, which lifted the barrier that had separated me as a journalist from my interviewees. Now, instead of hearing the slick “corporate brochure” narrative, I am entrusted with deep, honest conversations and granted access into protected inner worlds. One of my biggest revelations over the past decade has been:  

We all suffer from imposter syndrome.

Every one of us. You. Me. Every president or prime minister who has ever held office. Every actor. Every CEO.  Even the most blustery, ambitious person you know has moments of feeling they just got lucky, that their ineptitude will soon be “exposed” and that yes, they are in fact, a complete idiot. Imposter syndrome is a universal condition that thrives under the protection of silence and shame.

One way to diminish something’s power is to normalize it. Another is to understand its origin so you can start eroding its influence on another front. My favorite approach for helping clients struggling with imposter syndrome is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT argues that the imposter syndrome you struggle with today started in your childhood. Because no upbringing is perfect and children assume everything is their fault, even the slightest infraction by caregivers allows one or a combination of three core beliefs to take hold:

I am unlovable

I am worthless

I am helpless

These core beliefs remerge in our adult lives in the form of inaccurate, derogatory thoughts. They whisper that you are not good enough and have the power to trigger a cascade of painful reactions like anxiety, stress and most damaging of all, avoidant behavior. Avoidant behavior hurts you because it dampens your ability to make crucial connections and take risks that will boost your career. Thoughts that lead to avoidant behavior may look like this:

“I am an idiot.”

“I am not going to lunch with the team because I know they don’t really like me and only invited me to be polite.”

“I am not even going to apply for that promotion because X is applying and they are so much better than me.  I won’t get it anyway. Better not to risk the humiliation…”

These thoughts are not accurate. They are the shadows of those incorrect impressions of yourself formed in childhood. CBT’s power lies in helping you realize that not every thought that crosses your mind is factual. That you have to consistently identify and challenge destructive thoughts when they arise.

Try this exercise. When you feel an uncomfortable emotion creeping in, identify the thought that triggered it and write down a list of facts that support the thought and a list of points that dispute its validity. Most of the time, when you list the evidence before you in two columns, you can clearly see that the hurtful thought has no basis in reality. If you discover the thought is indeed justified, you can try to improve your performance in that area. It’s a win-win.

Left unchecked, imposter syndrome diminishes us, drains our confidence and makes us shy away from opportunities that may enrich our lives and allow us to shine. The people you admire who seem confident and fearless also have moments of feeling inferior but they have developed a robust mental system to assess and discard unfounded destructive thoughts. This process takes time and practice but used consistently, it will strengthen your ability to shut down imposter syndrome the moment it appears.

Developing this skill will be a crucial component of your future success.

Good luck!

Lisa Oake is a counsellor, couples’ therapist and ICF-accredited executive coach at ExecutiveCounselling.com. She is a former CNBC presenter and the founder and CEO of media training company Oake Media (http://www.oakemedia.com/).