When Does Self-Doubt Become the Imposter Syndrome?

And the Tremendous Opportunity of Not Belonging

The relationship between self-doubt and the Imposter Syndrome is something I’ve been asked about a number of times.

People seem curious about whether it is the same thing, or whether there is a line when self-doubting can turn into the Impostor Syndrome.

As a life coach who has made it my mission to find the purpose of self-doubt, I suppose it would be natural to assume I might have some idea about this.

My independent research project into the purpose of self-doubt over the last 2.5 years has involved over 130 hours of one to one coaching with more than 20 clients. Curiously enough, apart from the odd throw-away comment, the question about the link between self-doubt and the Imposter Syndrome has never come up directly in the coaching.

Whilst its almost impossible to prove the absence of something rather than the presence of something, this has given me cause to consider why the question comes up in regular conversation rather than within the coaching.

Here’s what comes to mind.

1) A Life Coach is Not an Expert

As a life coach, I am not the holder of an expert opinion and it is certainly not my job to diagnose or label a condition that a client may be presenting.

Rather than being a disadvantage, the non-expert perspective is, in fact, a benefit for coaching.

Coaching is a non-judgemental, collaborative space where we meet on an equal basis for the benefit of the client’s growth. Without the pressure of having to produce an expert opinion, there is freedom to explore your personal conditions and experience of life, and for you to make sense in your own way. This means that you can make your own powerful choices rather than the necessity to follow a tried and tested treatment plan that may or may not suffice.

(And it’s worth mentioning that this article should not be considered an expert perspective on this matter, rather my personal musings and observations I’ve gained through my interactions with self-doubt.)

2) When Labels are Unhelpful

A diagnosis for a condition and identifying with the associated label can be extremely helpful. It eases your experience by knowing you are not alone, you can make sense of your condition through identification with others, and you discover and compare methods for treatment.

But there can be a downside to identifying with a label. The relief of knowing you’re not alone can easily translate into a sense of belonging with a group of people who really understand you. The label becomes limiting when you become identified with it and attached to the belonging of the community, which causes resistance towards healing and transcending the condition.

The exploration around giving self-doubt a purpose, or finding the purpose of self-doubt, is deep work and a highly personal experience. Rather than identifying with a common label, it is about identifying what feels true, accepting that (even when it’s a difficult truth), and developing an approach that feels helpful and possible for you.

What is the Imposter Syndrome?

The term Impostor Phenomenon (otherwise known as Imposter Syndrome) was coined by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in their landmark 1978 study at Georgia State University.

They had identified a phenomenon that was presenting through individual psychotherapy with 150 highly successful women. Despite their earned degrees and scholastic honours, these women did not experience an internal sense of success, they consider themselves to be impostors, intellectual phonies, and their results are in fact due to luck, misgrading, or faulty judgment of professors. These women found innumerable means of negating any external evidence that contradicts their belief that they are, in reality, unintelligent.

On her website, Pauline Clance states:

Most people who experience the Impostor Phenomenon would not say; “I feel an impostor.” Yet, when they read or hear about the experience, they say, “How did you know exactly how I feel?”

And how do they feel? Even though they are often very successful by external standards, they feel their success has been due to some mysterious fluke or luck or great effort; they are afraid their achievements are due to “breaks” and not the result of their own ability and competence. They are also pretty certain that, unless they go to gargantuan efforts to do so, success cannot be repeated. They are afraid that next time, I will blow it.

A 2013 article published by the American Psychological Association (APA) states:

When Clance and Imes first described the impostor phenomenon (sometimes called imposter syndrome), they thought it was unique to women. Since then, a variety of research on the topic has revealed that men, too, can have the unenviable experience of feeling like frauds.

Though the impostor phenomenon isn’t an official diagnosis listed in the DSM, psychologists and others acknowledge that it is a very real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt.

Could the Impostor Syndrome be a Sign of Success?

Whilst self-doubt is certainly a characteristic of the Imposter Syndrome, the main identifying feature is the fraudulent feeling that success is not earned but is due to luck or a mistake.

Anecdotally, I have heard people talk about experiencing this fraudulent feeling in situations such as being involved in a group of senior people, perhaps when being a new entrant to a senior management team. Or an entrepreneur who is striving to bring their passionate idea to the marketplace. The internal chatter being along the lines of; ‘what am I doing here?’ and ‘who do I think I am?’

The experience is especially prevalent in people from working-class backgrounds or other groups who are underrepresented in the workplace.

But ask yourself this, would you be feeling these fraudulent feelings if you hadn’t achieved some measure of success?

If you hadn’t received that mark you feel is unearned, or being faced with that management meeting where you feel you don’t belong, or presenting your untested idea to a group of potential customers, would you have cause to feel like an imposter?

Therefore, couldn’t the feeling of being an imposter be a sign of success in itself?

You wouldn’t be feeling this if you’d remained in your retail job safely stacking shelves, would you?

The Purpose of Self-Doubt

In the coaching work, the first step of finding the purpose of self-doubt is to welcome it as a positive indicator. Self-doubt links to something you want, like that sense of belonging in the management meeting and contributing fabulous and respected ideas.  We acknowledge the desire that self-doubt links to.

Ignore for a moment what it would actually mean to belong in that boardroom and if, in your heart, this is what you really want and would serve your greater purpose for the world.

The next thing we do is acknowledge the positive indicators of self-doubt, so the fact that you are experiencing self-doubt is a positive thing.

Self-doubt not only links to something you want but it is an indicator that you are outside your comfort zone and in a space of growth. It also indicates that you are open and willing to question yourself, so many people lack the humility to do this.

These are amongst many positive indicators of self-doubt that my clients have identified. When you can spin the uncomfortable experience of self-doubt around like this, it makes it much more acceptable to live with.

That Internal Sense of Success

A frequent challenge that presents in the coaching is how clients struggle to acknowledge their achievements. Even when they have worked extremely hard to achieve something and they’ve set out at the beginning not believing they can do it. But once they have achieved it, they automatically discount it.

The narrative seems to be, well, if I’ve managed to do it, it can’t be that hard after all.

The non-judgemental coaching space facilitates a different perspective on this experience and with many clients, they become aware how they are discounting and recognise that as a reflection of self-worth. With a different perspective, they are often able to internalise this achievement.

However, some clients still find this a challenge. They can see how they are discounting but they are still not able to experience that internal sense of success. As a coach, it is not my job to force this or try to explain it, rather just to notice the resistance.

One of the great benefits of working with self-doubt is how the question provides a window into the deep inner self and whatever we find is an opportunity to work with. In this example, we can acknowledge that the resistance could be part of a complex defence system and survival strategies for life and there could be a whole host of reasons behind this.

That Sense of Belonging

To belong is a fundamental human need. Our primitive nervous system seeks acceptance by the group for safety and survival and considers social exclusion as an existential threat.

Let’s go back to that senior management meeting. Everyone around you seems to know exactly what to say and when to say it, and there you are like a goldfish with your mouth opening and closing but no sound is coming out.

What will it take for you to feel like you belong in this situation?

Perhaps you are driven by a desire to prove yourself and so you will always go the extra mile to do this. But being driven by the desire to belong could cause you to adapt to circumstances by ignoring your values.

The game of belonging can become a place where you can quickly lose yourself and this is the real existential threat.

The Beginner’s Mind

Being in new situations is rarely comfortable or easy but the opportunity for growth is tremendous.

The beginner’s mind is a state of openness and eagerness that is free from preconceptions. When you can relax the drive to belong and step back from the discomfort, then you could begin to recognise the value of not belonging.

“In the mind of the expert, there are few possibilities. But in the beginner’s mind, there are infinite possibilities.” (Jon Kabat-Zinn)

The answer to those questions; ‘what am I doing here?’ and ‘who do I think I am?’ can be about the opportunity for developing your unique perspective leading to infinite possibilities.

The key is meeting yourself with compassion and developing a curious attitude to life. Hopefully, you will find yourself in a culture that operates from psychological safety and where the senior leaders around you are positive examples who challenge you to bring out your best.

Then, the Imposter finds a much better way to belong!

Find out more about The Purpose of Self-Doubt: https://oliviadsilva.com/the-purpose-of-self-doubt/


The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1979-26502-001

Pauline Rose Clance Ph.D. https://paulineroseclance.com/impostor_phenomenon.html

Feel Like a Fraud? APA Article 2013 https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud

Beginner’s Mind – Jon Kabat-Zinn

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