Perception Overrides Reality

Coaching-World-Issue-11_-August-2014-30“You’re fired! You’re incompetent!”
“You are a fraud and a fake.”
“Did you really think you couldfool people for the rest of your life?”

As Published in Coaching World

These are the words that many professionals fear will be directed at them at any moment. As a result of this threat, confidence, risk-taking and focus are jeopardized, potentially stalling career advancement and satisfaction. These are the hallmarks of what Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., and Suzanne Imes, Ph.D., coined as the Impostor Phenomenon (IP) in 1974. IP is a feeling that high achievers experience when they deny that their accomplishments are “real,” or based on their actual skills and abilities. Instead, they attribute their success to external factors, such as luck, timing and the generosity of others. As an Executive Coach, I often hear clients express fears about their abilities, despite remarkable success in their careers. I listened to Larry proclaim his fear that it was only a matter of time before “they” realized he was nowhere near as bright, capable or talented as he had led them to believe. Anita was certain that she had achieved the position of chief operating officer only because she knew how to be charming. “I charmed them all,” she told me. “What happens when the charm doesn’t seem charming to them anymore? I know I won’t be able to pull it off.” Jerry began to suffer panic attacks daily, fearing that intellectual inferiority would end his career. “And I have four children to take care of. I’m waking up every night sweating, with my heart pounding. I keep thinking I’m having a heart attack and can’t tell my wife. I’m in over my head, and think maybe I should look for another position at a lower level.”

Other common statements (and selftalk) include:

  • “Sooner or later they will realize I’m a fake.”
  • “How could I have fooled so many people for so long?”
  • “What will I do when they discover that I don’t really know what I’m doing?”

These comments demonstrate that feelings of being an impostor persist in the 21st century. Even the comedian and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres has commented, “All of us, whether we are in [show] business or not, have little voices that tell us we’re not good enough, and we don’t deserve it.”

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