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Alisa Cohn

Alisa Cohn is an Executive Coach who has worked with C-suite executives at prominent startups (such as Venmo, Etsy, Draft Kings, The Wirecutter, Mack Weldon, and Tory Burch) and Fortune[…]

Have you ever felt like a forgery hanging in a gallery? As in, people see a certain value or achievement in you. They even stop on occasion to admire you with appreciating nods and pleasing comments. But any day now, you know, someone will come along, squint their knowing eyes in your direction, and lean in for a closer look. The jig will be up. You’ll be spotted as the fake you are.

If that strikes a familiar chord, you may have experienced imposter syndrome (also called imposter phenomenon). First described by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes in a 1978 paper, this mental hangup renders people unable to internalize their success. They don’t attribute it to their abilities, dedication, and hard work but fret that their accomplishments are merely the result of luck or failing upward. And they live in constant fear of an inevitable unmasking — an apprehension that leads to harmful habits for their work, well-being, and potential growth.

It may be comforting to know that you’re not alone. High achievers as varied as Maya Angelou, Tom Hanks, Serena Williams, Lady Gaga, Neil Gaiman, and Neil Armstrong have expressed self-doubt in line with imposter syndrome. Even Albert Einstein — a man so smart his hairdo is synonymous with genius — once said: “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”

But that comfort may be short-lived. After all, you may think, those people are masters of their crafts. They were wrong to question their worth. I know I’m a phony. 

It’s self-reflective reasoning like that which makes imposter syndrome so pernicious, and why no amount of success can break its spell. Because it’s not a lack of skill or accomplishment that nourishes imposter syndrome. It’s your mindset.

Albert Einstein receives his certificate of American citizenship.
Even a scientist as renowned as Albert Einstein felt self-doubt in line with imposter syndrome. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The imposter syndrome cycle

The first mental shift comes with realizing that it’s likely not your failures causing you internal alarm. It’s your success.

Had you failed time and again, your ambition would have pushed you to make the requisite changes or move on. Instead, you racked up achievement after achievement to conquer your misgivings, and this perverse kind of perseverance allowed you to sideline the difficult work of refashioning your outlook.

This hardly makes it a blessing, though. As executive coach Alisa Cohn explains, imposter syndrome degrades work and life quality. That’s because those feelings of self-doubt, insecurity, and indecision don’t just stew in your head. They leak out into your habits and behavior.

In particular, imposter syndrome fuels procrastination and over-preparation. Worried that the next assignment will be your undoing, you may either put it off or hurriedly attempt to shore up your perceived lack of skill. Those approaches generate stress, create more work, hamper decision-making, and manifest a host of other dreary knock-on effects that compound across many assignments.

Even if positive feedback follows, your mind will distort it through your self-sabotaging lens. If you’re a procrastinator, you’ll believe it was only luck that something of quality sprang from your pell-mell efforts. If you over-prepare, you’ll only see the faults in your work and berate yourself for not making it perfect. Both erroneous beliefs increase your sense of fraudulence.

Clance refers to this as the Imposter Cycle, and after enough loops, you risk burnout from a lack of mental recovery. You may even find yourself struggling with anxiety and depression. 

Those negative emotions can spill out toward others, too. As Cohn noted in our interview, leaders who don’t address their imposter syndrome risk hurting those in their sphere of influence. They may shrink away from their responsibilities or put off decisions, creating a trickle-down effect of procrastination. Worse, they may direct the hypercritical voices in their head toward others. Rather than provide constructive criticism, they berate others and unknowingly champion a toxic culture of fear and mistrust.

A universal grift?

Note that while Cohn frames her discussion of imposter syndrome around leadership, it’s not to say the condition only affects those suffering confidence vertigo atop the corporate ladder. 

A 2019 systemic review totaling 62 studies found that symptoms were common for both men and women across a wide age range. It also discovered prevalence rates varying from 9–82% depending on the screening tool used. (Imposter syndrome isn’t listed as a disorder in the DMS-5, and there is no agreed-upon diagnosis.) So while imposter syndrome appears to be a human universal, it’s not yet clear how just universal it is.

For our purposes, however, the takeaway is clear: Anyone from any background, social status, or degree of expertise can experience imposter syndrome. They can be actors, students, academics, politicians, medical professionals, and so on. The only through-line seems to be the desire for high achievement and the inability to internalize past successes.

A young woman hides behind a mask
People living with imposter syndrome live in fear of an inevitable unmasking, which is why Alisa Cohn recommends creating psychological safety first. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Overcoming imposter syndrome

A difficulty of overcoming imposter syndrome is that it can lead you to focus on the wrong question. You can dedicate days to asking whether you are the real deal. But people aren’t like paintings; there is no singular moment of becoming the way, say, a Jackson Pollock comes into being once it’s adorned with the painter’s signature.

Instead of worry, you should focus on how to build the habits that allow you to grow and pursue mastery over time. Potentially a lifetime. And that type of growth mindset requires that you be open to failure, experimentation, and struggle. 

This is why Cohn advises that “the first thing you have to do is create psychological safety for yourself.” Because growth and happiness aren’t likely unless you feel secure and understand that you won’t be shamed for the mistakes you may make.

To create that sense of safety, Cohn recommends following these three steps:

Identify role models. Learn about the people you admire and the struggles they endured. Discovering how they fought their demons can be uplifting, and their life stories may hint at habits and practices you’ll want to borrow or avoid.

Also look for people that can serve as coaches, mentors, or lenders of a caring ear. Mentors can reinforce the idea that your struggles aren’t a detriment but part of the professional path. Meanwhile, those outside your professional sphere can help you interrogate your thoughts from a fresh perspective.

Focus on your successes. Success doesn’t advance happiness. It’s the other way round. But imposter syndrome derails progression and replaces it with the Imposter Cycle.

To break free, Cohn advises you to create a “success highlight reel”. The reel could be a professional portfolio, a timeline of your career, or as simple as a honey-been-there-did-that list you keep on your notes app.

Then when you feel imposter syndrome creeping into your headspace, you can review the reel to remind yourself of your successes and better cope with those unwanted emotions.

Radical self-examination. By radical, Cohn doesn’t mean over-hyping yourself to self-deluded perfection. She is instead asking that you undertake an honest appraisal of your strengths and weaknesses so you can lean on the former while shoring up the latter.

That requires shifting your questions from, Am I fake or not? to more substantial fare. Consider questions such as:

  • What evidence do I have for these thoughts?
  • What evidence stands contrary to these thoughts?
  • What strengths contradict my imposter feelings? 
  • What weaknesses or blind spots do I have? Are these proof of imposter syndrome or just part of the professional path?
  • Must I be perfect to be successful? Was the role model I chose perfect, too?
  • Will this project/assignment matter a year from now? Five?

Cohn recommends performing this examination with a trusted coach or friend — someone who can offer you the “unvarnished truth.” You may not like all the answers you receive, but such people likely see the real you better than you think. 

After all, do you really believe that you are both an imposter and also such a masterful sham artist as to fool them? Or that the people you trust and admire are so gullible to fall for your act? Such thoughts do not add up.

Once you have a realistic assessment of your abilities, you can better determine where you need improvement and where you are being the authentic you.

The great imposter irony

Of course, there are other ways to create psychological safety, such as not comparing yourself to others, becoming a mentor yourself, and even using social media more moderately. (Social media compels us to always present our best, most perfect self, which can exacerbate feelings of inauthenticity.)

Once you have the safety in place, you need to bring yourself to face the great irony of imposter syndrome. That is: many people feel like counterfeits, but unlike true forgeries — which are designed to trick others — the only person they have deluded is themselves. They’re likely wonderful leaders, teachers, spouses, parents, and professionals. The only skill they are truly lousy in is grifting.

As Cohn reminds us: “Leading yourself is the hardest part. And yet the first person you lead every day is yourself.”

Learn more on Big Think+

With a diverse library of lessons from the world’s biggest thinkers, Big Think+ helps businesses get smarter, faster. To access Alisa Cohn’s full class for your organization, request a demo.

Leadership is an unnatural act. You don’t naturally give feedback to your friends. You don’t praise somebody even though you may not actually have confidence in them. You don’t necessarily think about communicating over and over again. In fact, if you communicated and repeated yourself over and over again, people would think that was weird. That and so many other things are the unnatural acts of leadership that you have to learn to be effective in your role.

My name is Alisa Cohn. I’m an executive coach and the author of From Start-Up to Grown-Up.

It’s very common for leaders to face severe self-doubt, insecurity, or the feeling that I don’t know what to do in this situation. That’s true for brand new leaders. And also — I’ll tell you a secret — it’s true for most senior and seasoned leaders as well. Everybody feels imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is this feeling that you’re going to be found out. You are a fraud, the jig is up. They’re finally going to realize you are not qualified for what you’re about to do. If you don’t address your imposter syndrome, you might think that the only one you’re hurting is yourself, but that’s not true. What you’re probably doing is shrinking away and not leaning into difficult situations as a leader or putting off decisions or being hypercritical. And that’s leaking out to your team.

A CEO I worked with, he had supercritical voices in his head. His people experienced him as extremely critical, hypercritical, and he did not realize that. Now what happened to his team was they were demotivated, they were nervous, they were afraid. That’s why it’s so important for you to address what are the real internal demons that you’re experiencing. Leading yourself is the hardest part, and yet the first person you lead every day is yourself. Since leadership is an unnatural act, you have to get uncomfortable and overcome your demons. And that’s how you’re going to be a great leader for yourself. Then you can move on to managing your team and managing the company.

The first thing you have to do is create psychological safety for yourself. Psychological safety is the feeling that you’re not going to be blamed or shamed for something that happens in the workplace. That is so important to unlock the full potential of the employees around you. If they’re uncomfortable trying something new ‘cause they’re going to get punished if it doesn’t work, they’re not going to take risks. But psychological safety really starts with you. It’s about having you come to terms with some insecurities and issues you have inside of you, which are normal. And there are a few different ways to do that.

First of all, you probably have role models around you, and you can begin to pick and choose the things that they’re doing that will help you create your model of leadership. Also, in the business world, there are a lot of ups and downs. Get in the habit of noticing when things are going right, including when you overcame challenges. One thing I really like to tell people to do is to create a highlight reel for themselves. It will give you confidence and remind you of all the things that you’ve been able to do successfully. The last thing I want to say is this: radical self-examination. If leadership is an unnatural act, it really requires you to be courageous at looking at your insecurities and your doubts and also your weaknesses and blind spots.

As a coach, I work with hundreds of leaders to help them build tools and tactics to master the unnatural act of leadership. If you want to be effective at managing your team and managing your company, it starts with you.