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Imposter Syndrome, or "I don't recognise myself!"

Updated: Jan 13, 2022

Something I often hear from clients when they see their new CV for the first time is "wow, I hardly recognise myself" or "who is this amazing person?" - and the answer I always give is that it is, of course, you!

When working on a CV, I take an achievement-centred approach and the whole process can often be a real period of discovery for a client. I will question and probe during our consultation to make sure we draw out the scale or impact of what someone has delivered, and it's often then that she or he will say "oh yeh, that was pretty good wasn't it?!" - and yes! Yes it was! As an executive level client told me recently when I sent over a new CV and covering letter, "I've never felt so good about myself". And that's exactly as should be. Rest assured I NEVER make anything up either, I simply don't need to!

That said, Imposter Syndrome is very real and is something I do come across a lot. It was identified by American psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes back in 1978 in a paper titled 'The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention'. They studied 150 women who, despite their advanced levels of academic ability, viewed themselves as phonies who had somehow arrived in their positions by some kind of administrative error, or had managed to hoodwink everyone around them into believing they are more capable than they are. As Clance and Imes wrote "these women find innumerable means of negating any external evidence that contradicts their belief that they are, in reality, unintelligent".

The paper discussed 4 types of behaviour which unhelpfully conspire to maintain the position; do you recognise yourself doing any of these?

Diligence and hard work - completing the rituals of hard work that builds a kind cyclical cover up to mitigate the risk of being "found out", which is, of course, pretty exhausting to maintain and falsely serves to reinforce that it's hard work, rather than capability, that is at the root of your success.

Intellectual flattery - putting forward only arguments or views that are popular, accepted or belong to others which are a safe bet and means they don't have to risk voicing their authentic views. Again, this is draining to keep up and helps the misguided belief that your own views are weak through total avoidance of them.

Use of charm and perceptiveness - a doomed quest for approval from an intellectual superior whereby a targeted individual is deemed "the one" who may be able to reveal the true abilities of "the imposter", if they exist at all. Of course when this superior subject is won over, they are immediately discounted as unfit to judge, the abilities remain uncovered and the whole thing starts again.

Response to precedent - this is about believing there are negative consequences of being intellectual or capable based on high profile or historic cases of where it has gone wrong for others. The solution is to avoid the risk of social rejection completely by simply maintaining the position as an intellectual phoney (I have a friend in a senior recruitment role who tells me all the time "I don't know what I'm doing", which I don't believe for a minute. But if you say you don't know what you're doing, then at least you're right when you get it wrong?).

Academic bit over, it seems there is no singular cause as to why some people experience Imposter Syndrome but it can become a troubling psychological rut that is is very difficult to climb out of. It's wrapped up with feelings of fear, anxiety and depression as well as reduced wellbeing, lower levels of job satisfaction, and, ironically, poor performance. And to top it off, being described as an "imposter" who "suffers" from this "condition" is an altogether pathologised way of looking at a vulnerability, which just isn't a nice place to be.

I've always thought that Imposter Syndrome is an odd paradox - if all the evidence of your career achievements, your promotions, the feedback from your colleagues (which I always ask my client to gather so I can build it into their CV) says you're brilliant at what you do, why would suddenly you choose to believe in your own voice on this sole point? If you lack self-belief then why choose this moment to be the one where you do believe the voice in your head when believing in others would actually empower you?

As Wharton Business School Organisational Psychologist Adam Grant succinctly tweeted in November 2021:

- Others believe in you

- You don't believe in yourself

- Yet you believe yourself instead of them

It hurts my brain a bit, as paradoxes do, but this sums it up perfectly. (Of course the other key point is that if you really were an imposter you certainly wouldn't be worrying about it.)

Whilst developing coaching practice and techniques during completion of my ILM Level 7 Certificate in Executive Coaching and Mentoring in 2019, I came across the concept of "self-limiting beliefs" which is very similar: when wanting to make a change in life (a clear goal is the crux of coaching), it is easy to cling to a self-reinforced assumption that holds us back - "I'm not smart enough", "that type of job isn't for someone from my background or "I'm only in my current role thanks to luck". It's a kind of self-sabotage that can really stop talent in its tracks and a great coach will help to free up the client from this kind of restrictive belief by exploring other possibilities and perspectives.

I'm in no way a psychologist, but I'd bet that almost all of us have an inner narrative that says "can I do that?", "is this right for me", "will I make a good fit", or "what if I'm not good enough" - even after we've been offered the job! Believing that inner voice rather than in the rigorous application and decision making process is most definitely a case in point of the paradox that is Imposter Syndrome.

How do we get past this? Is it just a case of fake it till you make it?

Many of the clients I work with are high achievers with a fantastic list of accomplishments, high impact roles and swift career progression, making an important impacts in their fields be that in manufacturing, education, operations, HR and public policy to name a few. As a CV writer, what I am able to do is frame these accomplishments in a new way: always truthful and with a wholly positive regard towards my client, I help them to see their capability more objectively and for what it really is.

So when it comes to Imposter Syndrome, being kind starts with yourself. Here are some ideas that might help:

Find balance - be honest with yourself about what went well and what didn't, but assess it fairly. Don't get hung up on mistakes - forgive yourself and focus on looking forward, just as you would likely forgive others. Try a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative to challenge your own thinking and shake off those self-limiting beliefs until you can train your brain to not head straight, and only, to the negative.

Accept yourself - negative thoughts and self criticism can be constructive - to a point. They are also human. So beating yourself about beating yourself? That's just a whole double cycle of negativity there! Take your goal and ask yourself what you need to get there - if you flipped that negative belief to the opposite, what would that do to help you? What strengths do you need and when have you felt them before? What might your world look like?

Comparison is the thief of joy - don't worry about what anyone else is up to, we all have our own trajectories. Building your self-esteem on the validations of others is never going to be sustainable - set YOUR goals, work to YOUR pace and celebrate YOUR achievements. Contrary to popular belief, we don't all have the same 24 hours...

Take a step back - literally and metaphorically. Things are always better in the morning aren't they? So step away from the desk, get some fresh air and walk off your thoughts. Give yourself some distance, relax your brain and breathe.


Rewrite your CV - well yes, of course I would say this! But truly, having a CV that captures your professional achievements, skills and strengths is the proof that you ARE capable and will give you the confidence you need to own your career. It's a practical investment that will not only furnish you with a tool to achieve your goal, but will help you to reflect and be more objective (kind!) towards yourself. My job is about helping people feel great about themselves so they can open up the opportunities they deserve, and it continues to be a pleasure and a privilege for me to do this with the incredible clients I support.

So to all my clients - you are AWESOME, and now you have a CV that shows this. I believe in you, and I hope the process of creating your CV with me will help you to believe in yourself too.

If you want not only a CV that will help you feel good, but one that comes with a coaching-informed approach to the process that positions your goals, strengths and achievements at the heart of it, then contact me at and I will be happy to help.

Believe me, you deserve it.


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