How can you conquer imposter syndrome?

Do you find it difficult to voice your thoughts and opinions in meetings?

Maybe you feel uncomfortable sharing your comms expertise with senior leaders.

Perhaps you believe you are overachieving and are waiting to be found out.

Almost all of us suffer from self-doubt or a lack of confidence at times.

A YouGov survey last year showed Britons tend to have high expectations for themselves, criticise themselves more than others criticise them, and downplay their achievements – all common signs of imposter syndrome.                                                                                 

So, how can you overcome these thoughts, stop them from becoming persistent and prevent them from holding you back?

These were some of the questions we explored during our recent masterclass for members of The Media Team Academy.

James White, our managing director, was joined for the discussion by Dan Boniface and Kirsty Waite, two expert leadership and management coaches from The BCF Group.

And they began by looking at what ‘imposter syndrome’ means.

Kirsty said: “Imposter syndrome is a term coined in the late 1970s early 80s, and it labels the feeling of inadequacy and self-doubt we all experience.

“Over the last five years or so, it seems to have been used more widely and has become a buzzword.”

Type ‘imposter syndrome’ into Google, and you will be greeted by more than seven million results. And searches for that information are growing.

Dan added: “For me, it is that thought process about whether you should be in the room.

“It is not a medical or mental health condition. It is about thoughts that come into our minds and hijack how we feel, knocking our confidence and self-belief.

“Sometimes, people may build us up, and we may not be comfortable about that. We worry we will be found out, and people will notice we are not that good at it.

“The word ‘fraud’ tends to come up a lot with imposter syndrome.”

The BCF Group defines imposter syndrome as:


The feeling we don’t belong and that we have found ourselves in a situation by luck. We may feel fraudulent or that we are ‘not ready’ for this. We may compare ourselves to others and increase self-expectations while decreasing our confidence.


While imposter syndrome is not a medical condition, it can impact our wellbeing.

Kirsty: “It can create anxiety, and that can take over. Our thoughts become our feelings, and that impacts our actions. And that can trigger all kinds of physical responses.”

James added: “I can remember when I started a new role, and there were some doubters in the company, and when I walked into the office each morning, I found myself touching wood and saying ‘today will be a good day’ before I’d go into the room. And I’m not a superstitious person.

“I did that for about a year. It was horrendous.”


When does imposter syndrome strike?

There are many situations and scenarios where these feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt might strike.

It could be during moments of personal success, like starting a new role.  It might happen when we find ourselves faced with something unfamiliar.

Dealing with life events or managing challenging colleagues could be triggers.

Our Media Team Academy panellists identified nine likely situations:

  • Comparisons with others
  • When we challenge our self-efficiency
  • New situations
  • Lack of preparation
  • Self-perception
  • Pressure to succeed or fear of failure
  • Under stressful conditions
  • Feeling inadequate
  • Previous negative experiences or reinforcements from others

“Comparisons with others is common, and it is unlikely to yield good results,” Dan said.

“I used to work in the apprenticeship sector and did a lot of work with NHS senior managers, and there were many comparisons. I was always being asked how someone else was getting on, and it was never useful because they worked in different departments and faced different pressures.”

James added: “Whenever you compare yourself with anyone, it is a 50/50 chance it will work out for you. You’re comparing because you subconsciously hope it will put you in a better light. But the other option is they are doing better than you. It is a red or black bet, and I wouldn’t recommend it.”

But comparison must not be confused with modelling.

“Modelling is looking at others and thinking about how they do things well. How do they cope with presentations? How do they deal with difficult conversations? And then taking bits of that and implementing it into what you do.”

Kirsty added: “With comparisons, we are looking for validation. And you need to find a way of doing that internally rather than externally. When you look externally, you’ll find people are doing things differently, and you start to think, ‘I’m not doing that’, ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I haven’t got to that point’.”

Another situation when imposter syndrome tends to strike is when we are not properly prepared.

“When we are not prepared for something, these feelings of anxiety and stress creep in,” Dan said.

“The more prepared we are, the more relaxed we will be. And if we have contingency plans in place, that is even more effective.”

Fear of failure is another one Dan highlighted.

“This is borne out of pushing ourselves towards unrealistic targets or having unrealistic expectations.

“But it is also about culture. Leaders must set realistic expectations and create an environment where people can thrive.”


Self-sabotage and the hijacked state

Well, this all sounds a bit dramatic.

But when imposter syndrome strikes, deeper negative thoughts can take over our minds, impacting our judgement, decisions, and behaviour.

Our brain is effectively hijacked by negativity.

“We all have inner voices that can take over,” Kirsty said.

“They are the ones telling us we are not good enough and that we should not be in that room.

“And the hijacked state is when they take over our thoughts and behaviours, and we get into a spiral of negativity and sabotage ourselves.

“When we are hijacked, our brain operates from a different place. We are operating from anger, shame, guilt and insecurity. When we are operating from a calm, logical mind, we operate with kindness, creativity, passion and purpose.

“We are never going to get away from these feelings of self-doubt.

“The trick is to reduce the time we stay in the hijacked state. This is something we can change.”

Dan agreed, adding: “There are thoughts in neuroscience that an emotion lasts for 90 seconds. And we have the ability to let it drift off.

But most people get to about 80 to 85 seconds and think, ‘that’s still annoying me’. And then you get another 90 seconds, and you can stay in that cycle all day.

“So, you must recognise you have been hijacked and find a way out of it.”

But it is vital to remember a small amount of negative thought can be helpful.

“Negative thoughts can drive us to be better and towards high performance,” Kirsty said.


How can you escape a hijacked mind?

The answer to that question starts with awareness.

“You will be aware you have certain behaviours and actions when you are in this state,” Kirsty said.

“Once you have that awareness, you must stay curious and ask yourself coaching questions.

“Ask yourself ‘why am I feeling this way?’.

“And be honest with yourself about the insecurity triggering this response. Then you can ask yourself if those thoughts are true.

“We naturally look for confirmation bias. We look for ways to confirm what our hijacked state is telling us.

“You need to find evidence to counter that so you stay in that calm, logical mindset.”

This may feel a little tricky, so Kirsty recommends you reflect on a time when you suffered from imposter syndrome.

“Ask yourself about your behaviours, habits and how long you stayed in that state,” she said.

“The more information you give yourself, the more information you have to recognise it in future and do something about it.”


How can you manage your mindset?

What else can you do to tackle imposter syndrome?

There are some tweaks we can make to our mindset that can help. Our panel suggest:

  • Coaching
  • Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) – self-talk/imagery
  • Understanding and managing trigger points
  • Preparation
  • Recognising your role

“The more we understand what sets these emotions off, the greater our ability to control and reframe them,” Dan said.

“We may need to go through this process over time. It can take eight weeks to build a connection to something in our brain (neuro-linguistic programming or NLP).

“If you got to deliver a crucial presentation, for example, it is about understanding whether you have been in that situation before, reflecting on how you dealt with it and building on those experiences.

“Look to understand the good things you can take from that situation and why you felt that way.

“If it felt bad at the time, was it because of a lack of preparation? If it was, you can easily fix it by being better prepared next time.

“If you know that you go into a hijacked state in meetings, maybe you need to get there earlier or do more research.

“For me, the self-talk works well. When negative thoughts creep into my mind, I think about why it happened and how I can turn them around and make them positive.”

Kirsty added: “You don’t need to be a coach to ask yourself questions. It is about asking yourself simple questions on what you need and want in a situation.”

In terms of ‘recognising your role’, the skills and experiences needed to perform well are unlikely to be the same as someone in another position.

So, don’t compare. Focus on your accomplishments and skills in your role, rather than trying to emulate what someone does in a different job.


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You’re not alone

Another vital starting point is to remember you’re not alone.

That’s something you can lose sight of when gripped by those thoughts of self-doubt.

But many successful and powerful people have had those same thoughts.

During the masterclass, members saw a video of Michelle Obama talking about her experience.

We’ve quoted Maya Angelou in this blog. Tom Hanks spoke about imposter syndrome in an interview last year.

Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, has talked about his experience, saying: “Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe that today they are now qualified to be the CEO.”

Dan added: “When it comes to imposter syndrome, remember you are not alone. Even powerful leaders have these thoughts.

“It can happen to even the seemingly most confident of people. These feelings are natural. The key is to not let them hold you back.”

And remember, it is good that we think differently and have different views and opinions.

“People think in different ways,” Dan said.

“And we want that diversity. Otherwise, we just have our blinkered viewpoints, shaped by our education and experiences.

“So, you have to get to a point where, if you go into a meeting and think differently to someone else, you realise that is a good thing. You need the mindset of believing you have something to offer.”


During this exclusive session for members of The Media Team Academy, we also outlined three simple tips you can use immediately to help tackle imposter syndrome.

If you would and your team would like access to session like this, speak to your account manager about joining The Media Academy - our learning and development programme – designed specifically for comms and media teams.


Media First are media and communications training specialists with more than 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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