Imposter syndrome is a symptom-focused conversation: How to reframe our thinking and engage differently with self-doubt

A man covering his nose with his hands.

Imposter syndrome is a widely used expression that seems to resonate deeply as an expression of self-doubt and inadequacy, blind to our achievements. It encapsulates the very human question: Am I good enough?

Although it is helpful to voice a hidden struggle powered by a profound sense of doubt, similarly to constant coughing that affects our daily functioning, it requires engaging with real issues to reach a satisfactory resolution. What is it that’s causing our sense of inadequacy? When too much attention is indeed devoted to describing how badly our symptoms are affecting our performance, we may delay diving deep to the root of our problem and engaging with our questioning selves.

Self-doubt is good: It keeps us evolving

If we wish to introduce more positive narratives surrounding our uncertainties, we could start reframing what we have taken to identifying as ‘imposter syndrome. Phrases like ‘imposter’ or ‘fraud’ are very highly restrictive and loaded with negative connotations. We can’t embrace self-doubt as a normal state of being if we judge its steps. Not knowing who we are or where we are is part of evolving; it’s leaving our old self behind to make room for our new, often better, self.

This is not to say that the anxiety, stress and sense of loneliness experienced during these times are not real or profound; these all deserve to be voiced and validated. However, since imposter syndrome is an internal experience, our perception of it can be reframed. Reframing a thought starts with rephrasing what exactly we experience when we are facing self-doubt, despite our successes and achievements. We’ve lost the plot and feel anxious about not knowing where we are .

We could also drop the ‘syndrome’ tag and embrace uncertainty and doubt as part of our introspective capacity. Indeed, the I-know-it-all people that the full-of-doubt ones often idealise are unlikely to be great role models for personal growth. Their being always right and simply perfect beyond doubt comes with enormous blind spots. And how can this lead, then, to personal growth?

Rephrasing the language of imposter syndrome self-talk

When the anxiety level reaches a difficult-to-manage high, data-driven conversation based on past successes have a role to play in restoring our confidence. But they don’t deliver a liberating answer. There is, in fact, an already consolidated hiccup in place for anyone in a self-doubt loop: Achievements and success no longer do the job of fuelling self-esteem. More data about previous wins will not restore our self-assurance.

Since feeling like an imposter is a perception-related issue, it can be powerfully addressed by reframing the language around that perception . By building more positive language about this inner narrative, we open the door to looking at what’s really bubbling underneath. This can go from exploring our own expectations and how they have evolved to revisiting our core limiting beliefs.

I have captured the following 3 negative self-talk expressions that are recurrent when we are caught in a repetitive self-doubt mindset. For each, I offer an alternative method for starting to disentangle the underlying issues and addressing the sense of doubt in the form of an open question. These questions aim to access the underlying problem, not just the symptoms; for example, we can ask, ‘Where is this really coming from?’ rather than ‘So how inadequate do you feel?

Reaching our full potential requires courageously diving deep into who we are or who we have become, what we really want and what we have learned about ourselves so far.

1. I am not good enough

Instead of exploring the perception that we are a ‘fake’ or ‘deceiving someone, we could start talking about feeling temporarily lost and no longer sure about where exactly we are going. And perhaps we can dare to wonder who exactly we are thinking we are deceiving .

For example, we may notice we don’t feel we are where we thought we would be , despite having invested substantially in our work and in our career development. We may wonder: Have my expectations evolved? Am I prepared to step back, zoom out and reconsider what matters most to me now? Am I willing to suspend judgement about who I am becoming?

2. I shouldn’t be here

Feeling out of place in our environment can raise a deeper question: Who is sending me the message that I am a bad fit? And why does this resonate so loudly with me right now? I may experience feeling more and more disconnected from my work environment; it feels like I no longer belong, but let me remind myself: What did I like about it in the first place? Why do I no longer feel attracted and energised by it? Is there anything else that is getting a large part of my attention instead?

3. Everyone is better than me

What am I trying to achieve by repetitively measuring myself against other people’s achievements? Why do I think they are successful? What is my new idea of success now, not the idea I conceived of five or ten years ago? And what will happen if I shift my focus from their achievements to mine?

Self-doubt, uncertainty and feeling lost can be lonely journeys filled with conversations and self-talk that tend to go in circles. They are temporary. It is often by introducing small shifts and different language into our thinking that new thinking can slowly find its way in and bring us to new places. We tricked no-one in the process: It was just a messy conversation with our old self.

Experiencing any of these issues? Find out how coaching can support your specific challenges.

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