Let me start with an honest confession. I have a long-standing history with feeling like an imposter.
I'm curious if you feel like this in your practice too sometimes?
Many coaches I work with in supervision feel this way but we live in a world where it's easy to think that everyone is more experienced than us, getting more clients than us, getting better results than us. Because of this it may not be an easy experience to talk about.
Social media often depict it as a "syndrome", something with a well defined and understood set of symptoms. My experience is quite the opposite - I've seen it to be quite a layered phenomenon that differs a lot from person to person.
To give you an example, here are some of the bricks mine is built from:
"Always compare yourself to who's better than you!" was a command I heard in my childhood often.
Now, as a coach, I know how to challenge a statement like this. I have many tools in my toolkit, starting with the very first clarity questions I discovered when learning the fundamentals of coaching. Who are these people who are better? Better at what exactly? And how does this actually serve me? Our life script, rules we are given and later continue to live by can feed our imposter experience.
I'm curious what rules may be feeding yours?
There were systemic influences at play too. Born behind the iron curtain in a (then) communist Poland, success as we think of it today was unheard of. Even once Eastern Europe's communist regimes started to tumble, a path to success for an average entrepreneur was far from easy then. This fed my belief that "success = hard work and lots of sacrifice".
For some people the imposter feeling is present most of the time, for others it likes to make an appearance on special occasions, for example when we take big steps or make big changes.
Starting my first graduate job in London, I managed to convince myself that I was hired as a result of a misunderstanding. I felt it again when starting my own coaching practice and when I trained as a coach supervisor.
And here's the thing - all this time I thought that this experience was unique to me. I kept it close to my heart, suspecting my own incompetence.
But only when I started working as a trainer and supervisor did I realise how common this experience is among coaches.
And how many of us experience this self-doubt in silence.
Wondering if we are any good at this.
Questioning if our work is impactful enough.
Dwelling on things that didn't go well.
This theme is becoming more and more common. In the world of social media we keep seeing how amazing everyone is. Scrolling through a flurry of highlight reels, it's so easy to see ourselves as not enough.
I like what Alan de Botton from the School of Life said about it,
"This is the basic feature of the human condition - we know ourselves from the inside, but we know others only from the outside”.
In the context of your coaching practice, you know your fears, doubts, most embarrassing moments, moments you're not proud of, questions that fell flat, assumptions you made about your clients, judgement that you might have felt. [That's right - we all do these things because we’re human.]
But you can’t hear other people’s inner monologues of self-doubt. Unfortunately, we only have access to our own minds.
Here's what I learnt about self-doubt working with coaches in supervision:
There is no such thing as a universal experience of self-doubt or imposter syndrome.
As I look at the experience of coaches who I work with in my supervision practice, but also clients in my private coaching practice, it’s clear that imposter feelings come in many different flavours.
The genesis of this feeling, the exact experience, the thought patterns will be so different for each of us. The intensity can differ too. One side of this range is an occasional worry about not being up to the task. On the other there is the paralysing fear of being ‘found out’.
It may appear as insecurity or fear of failure. It can be that critical inner voice. It can make you work extra hard to the point of burn out or do the exact opposite - it can make you procrastinate or grind to a halt.
Also - you may experience the extremes of the experience. Feeling on top of the world after a great session one day and paralysed by self-doubt on another. Ah, the joys of being human!
To overcome it, build awareness first.
Some coaches try to push through this experience in the spirit of "feeling the fear and doing it anyway".
Don't get me wrong - pushing through the discomfort can be useful in some situations. I remember fondly the time in my life when I swore by the Amy Cuddy power pose and adopted it in the restrooms around the City before big presentations or interviews in my previous career.
But when you work as a coach, "fake it until you make it" is unlikely to work because coaching is not a performance you put on.
You are the instrument at work. You will be at your best when you are present, when you are authentic, when you are truly listening, tuned in to your intuition.
Instead, examine your own imposter experience with curiosity:
Notice your thoughts.
Notice your feelings.
Where are those sensations in your body?
Catch the stories you are telling yourself.
Notice your behaviours when those thoughts and feelings emerge.
Reflecting on your sessions can be so important in learning those patterns.
What are the beliefs behind that experience?
Just like in my own story, the imposter experience often comes with a set of beliefs about ourselves, others and the world.
My belief about the importance of hard work showed up in my client work too. When my sessions felt effortless, I suspected there was something I was missing or not doing well enough...
What are your beliefs? Are they serving you? What beliefs can you reframe or let go of altogether?
Study how it shows up in your work with your clients
In my supervision practice I see it showing up in different ways.
It can get in the way of your presence. Instead of tuning in to your intuition and instinct in a session and being there for your client, the attention is on yourself.
It can hold you back from being authentic as a coach, make you hide behind the coaching process, or revert to exercises and coaching interventions that are run of the mill and formulaic.
It can also make it tempting to "rescue" the client (the term “rescuer” from Karpman’s Drama Triangle). By wanting to prove our worth we end up wanting the results more than the client. This can feel like doing the heavy lifting in the coaching, "efforting", wanting to give advice, or letting the client overstep boundaries (e.g. excessive messaging between sessions).
It can be a gateway to important questions
I explored the way in which self-doubt and imposter chatter shows up in my work with my own supervisor.
She asked me to hold it lightly, not being good or bad, and inquire about the purpose that it serves.
What a wise question, I thought. Common advice about imposter feelings tends to focus on making them go away.
But it's not always about making us feel better. It reminds me of Freud when he said "anxiety is a nodal point at which the most important questions converge."
What is your self-doubt about? What are your growing edges? What are you worried you are actually quite bad at?
Bring on your self-doubt, I bring mine.
Becoming present with the things we normally hold in the shadow can be the real power of supervision.
Appreciate your uniqueness
Remember that you are not just a coach. Especially when you’re in the first phase of your practice and feel like a novice.
The way I see it is that coaching is a layer of skill that sits above everything else that you bring to your profession. Your knowledge and years of lived experience will inform the questions you ask.
But also, the feel of your session and the experience that you create will be so different to another practitioner’s. This experience is a unique cocktail of who you are, what you've been through, your values, your personality, the feel of the space you create, the theories and schools of thought you are drawn to.
So my question to you is: how well do you understand your own uniqueness?
My experience of working with coaches is that they don't always know the answer to that question. Yet, this knowledge can be so powerful to refer back to in those moments of doubt.
Also, remember that career transitions can be messy and complex
Launching your practice after a career elsewhere can be quite unsettling.
It can be such a paradox. To the external world we may be living our "happily ever after", admired for having quit our corporate life, being our own boss, doing work that matters.
But leaving an established career behind and moving into coaching can be a more unsettling change than many realise.
Be kind to yourself as you go through this transition.
Most people experience moments of doubt, it's part of the human experience. The goal is not to never feel like an imposter.
What matters is that you don't let it take over and stop you from being a great coach and growing a thriving practice.
I don’t think it can be "sorted" once and for all. But I do believe you can tame it by developing a healthy sense of self. This is about appreciating what you bring but continuing to grow and normalising your experience by sharing it with others.
Would you like some support in developing a healthy sense of self?
A great place to start is through reflective practice. I've designed a beautiful reflection sheet that will guide you thought this process and help you tame your self-doubt and imposter thoughts at the same time.
It can be downloaded for free here