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Overcoming Impostor Syndrome in Your Coaching Business

Posted by Kim Morgan, MCC | June 25, 2018 | Comments (13)

The term “impostor syndrome” was coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. In recent times, Amy Cuddy’s 2017 TED talk on feeling like a fraud, catapulted the concept of impostor syndrome into public awareness and into our everyday language.

If you experience impostor syndrome, you may fear that you are going to be “found out,” discount your successes by putting them down to luck, think anyone could do what you do, negate your accomplishments, feel like you don’t have the right to be doing what you are doing or have a sense that you don’t belong where you are.

Self-doubt and low self-belief contribute to feeling like an impostor and most coaching interventions for impostor syndrome focus on building confidence and self-belief. However, the impact of environmental factors in triggering impostor syndrome should not be underestimated. Moving out of a comfort zone into a new environment can give rise to impostor syndrome, even if you haven’t had it before and even if you have generally high self-belief and confidence.

Having trained thousands of coaches in the past 20 years, I am puzzled as to why so many newly trained coaches suffer from impostor syndrome. I have concluded that the environmental impact of entering a new profession (often relatively quickly) is significant. Becoming a coach means learning a new skillset, studying for qualifications and becoming a business owner, all in one go. The impact and challenge of this should not be underestimated. Is it any wonder it can take time for you to adjust to, and adopt, a completely new professional identity?

When you train as a coach you may have had a lengthy career in another sector and have built a sense of identity and credibility over the years. You may have had a previous occupation that other people recognized and understood. You didn’t find yourself having to regularly answer the question, “What is it that you do, exactly?”

If you are newly self-employed, you can find yourself without the structure, resources and sense of community that an organization provides. Although you may have longed to see the end of meetings when you left a company, you can feel lonely when they are not happening. There are no regular appraisals, no line managers and there is no one, other than your clients, to give you feedback.

As a new coach, you may now find yourself surrounded by coaches who are more qualified and experienced than you. They may let you know how high their fees are or how busy they are, and you may start to compare yourself unfavorably to them.

Feeling like an impostor as a new coach can lead to:

  • Underselling your services and being overly “grateful” to your clients, “rescuing” your clients, doing most of the work in the coaching session and demonstrating loose boundaries around duration of coaching sessions or fees
  • Putting off getting clients and instead collecting more and more qualifications until you feel you are “good enough” (often without having identified what “good enough” looks like for you)

So, how do we overcome the environmental factors which can give rise to impostor syndrome?

  • Value all you are bringing to the profession from your previous work and life experiences. Becoming a coach is probably the culmination of years of professional and personal experience and did not just happen during your coach training program! Remember that everything you are and everything you did before led you to train as a coach
  • Ask for testimonials and referrals from clients and organizations at the end of coaching assignments. If they are forthcoming and positive, decide to believe them
  • Commit to continuing professional development (CPD) and Coaching Supervision. They both provide a disproportionately positive return on investment and help you maintain continuous learning and rigorous self-reflection. They provide a framework and space to enable you to gain necessary perspective on your work and to address the aspects of your own behaviors that might get in the way of your effectiveness as a coach

 Finally, if you have even a pinch of impostor syndrome, give yourself permission to be on a learning curve. It is probably better to question your competence as a coach than to overestimate it. The opposite of impostor syndrome is the belief that you are much more competent than you are, leading to a refusal to acknowledge your limitations. So, instead, accept where you are and embrace the benefits of being a novice coach. You are probably full of enthusiasm and curiosity. You are likely to be in a state of not-knowing about your clients, which is a prerequisite to good coaching.

Repeat to yourself daily the wonderful words of Julie Starr, leading coach and author: “I am both enough and still capable of more.”

kim morgan headshot

Kim Morgan, MCC

Kim Morgan, MCC, is managing director of Barefoot Coaching and co-author of The Coach’s Casebook: Mastering the Twelve Traits That Trap Us. For more on Impostor Syndrome, read the first chapter of The Coach’s Casebook online for free.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (13)

  1. Samantha says:

    Hello Kim,

    I enjoyed reading your article! I am working in getting certified as a professional coach without previous experience in anything related to caching (i work in marketing for hotels) and even though i do not feel as an impostors, i recently started offering free coaching sessions outside the coaching school (with the disclaimer i am not certified yet and the sessions are a practice exercise). After couple of sessions i realized that coaching a person who is trying coaching for the first time and is not familiar with the coaching process is very different from coaching my peers.

    I guess what i am afraid of to give people a bad image about coaching or to disappoint them with the approach due to my lack of experience and skill that comes from being new to the profession. I am trying to be very clear and transparent as of why i am offering the sessions free of charge and where do i stand in my journey but i am not sure people will keep that in mind after the session. At the same time, i don’t want to stop trying to practice with real people because i am learning new things i did not experience in the classroom.

    Would you have any recommendations?

    Regards,
    Samantha

    • kim@barefootcoaching.co.uk says:

      Dear Samantha,
      Thank you for your honesty and openness and for asking a great question. The students on our ICF coach training programme also work with volunteer coaches during their training and many have the same sort of thoughts as you “Am I ready for this? What if I mess things up?” Your feelings are quite normal and also show that you are honouring the importance of the work you are learning to do. Congratulations on the integrity which you are approaching your new role! Here are some questions to ask yourself: “What am I assuming that is leading me to fear I might disappoint or give a bad image?” “What evidence do I have to support this assumption?” “What could I assume about this process which would be more positive and helpful?” “If I put myself in my volunteer coachee’s shoes, what do they get from having me as a coach?” You are contracting well with your volunteers and do not be afraid to revisit the contract if you feel you are outside your area of competence or personal resources. This is always good practice, with volunteers or otherwise. Finally, be proud of how much you are honouring and caring for your coaches and the coaching profession, and spend some time showing yourself as much care, too! Kim

      • kim@barefootcoaching.co.uk says:

        Hi again Samantha – in my reply, it says “coaches” but I meant “coachees” – autocorrect was at work!!

  2. Sarah@claritymatterscoach.com says:

    Thank you for this as it came at the perfect time! I recently earned my ACC and found myself thinking it wasn’t enough because I have been involved in coaching demonstrations and triads with excellent PCC and MCC colleagues. It’s been a continuous and conscious practice to remind myself we all start somewhere and I have much to offer here and now as an ACC with years of management experience and the desire to help others gain clarity.

    Thank you for normalizing this experience and providing tools to move through it.

    Best,

    Sarah

    • kim@barefootcoaching.co.uk says:

      Hi Sarah
      I’m really pleased this was helpful. I find myself in a privileged position of having trained so many coaches over nearly 20 years that I see the repeating patterns of their experience as they venture from the course into becoming credentialed and experienced coaches. I like to share this to normalise for others. Thanks again and wishing you every success as you continue to grow and develop in your practice.
      Kim

  3. This article gave me a great sense of relief, as I haven looking to identify what I am going through in my transition from a 14 year corporate career into full time coaching and consulting. I literally felt like to could breathe again and felt hopeful while reading this article. I do not feel as alone in the process in reading this, and it helps to give myself permission for the learning curve. Thank you so much for this article!

    • kim@barefootcoaching.co.uk says:

      Oh wow, Melissa. Thank you so much. I am delighted that the article gave you so much relief. You are not alone, I promise you. Wishing you all the very best as you journey along the learning curve!
      Kim

  4. Jennifer says:

    Thank you so much for this article. You nailed it! It is not lost on me that I recently coached a client on imposter syndrome and just had that light so clearly shone on how I am feeling. It was especially helpful to identify the environmental factors that can address this for coaches. I’m adding several things to my list. Thank you. Thank you.

    Jennifer

    • kim@barefootcoaching.co.uk says:

      Dear Jennifer
      Thank you for your generous comments. So pleased the blog helped you and yes, how often do we coaches coach someone on their impostor syndrome, only to have the light shone back on us! Great point. I wish you every success as a coach!
      Kim

  5. flautluna@yahoo.com says:

    Words that I need to hear in this new professional project, even when my preview experience has been as psychologist and facilitator (skills training). Thank you.

  6. kim@barefootcoaching.co.uk says:

    Hi Flautluna – thank you for your comments and so glad that I wrote some words that you needed to hear. You make a great point that even if you have been in a closely associated profession (Psychologist, facilitator) you can still experience the Impostor Factor!
    Thank you.
    Kim

  7. Jen Livings says:

    Kim,

    I always seem to find your acticles popping up at just the right time for me, it’s like your my guardian angel at times.

    Since returning back after Maternity leave with a long period off after my training I found that imposter syndrome started to creep in around my team coaching and exactly as you mention I have been feeling like I have needed to rescue my clients or provide more knowledge injection rather than staying in the unknown and trusting my instinct. After sessions I have been ruminating on whether I was offering enough and questioning why weren’t they making as much progress as quickly as I would’ve expected when actually it was some very deep work we were doing and to expect anything was in itself my agenda.

    When in reality I realise now I was coming from a place of fear of not offering enough value to the clients with it being early on in my team coaching experience and undervaluing my skill set/training and the clients capability of movement. Which caused me to prep more before sessions, offer more time and expense to my personal life, despite being very clear through the contracting process.

    It’s been so interesting reflecting reading this article, it has hit on so many factors of what has been at play for me in and out of sessions recently.

    Your comments on personal identity and ‘what do you do exactly?’ has found its way into question again since being away from the warm blanket of the training room, the community of coaches and indeed the quest for more training, knowledge and security of credentials is always there nipping at my feet.

    A great time to answer those questions that have felt unanswered until now when they seem gleamingly obvious. Nothing like a dose of your words to feel refreshing reflection at work.

    Thank you now and always for who you are and what you bring the world.

    Warm Regards,

    Jen

  8. Hello Kim,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article! I finally have a name for what I have been feeling for the past 6 years I have been coaching!!

    It was like you had been in my head these past few months. However, considering your article seems to focus on newer coaches, it does make me wonder if it isn’t something more with me???? Even this many years in and closing in on a PCC designation I still feel I”m not as good as others and that sometimes I’m getting it wrong. (like when other coaches talk about what goals have your clients reached and I cannot clearly answer that, feels to much like checking things off a list to me.)

    I will be sure to check out your book on imposter syndrome.

    Thanks so much for writing this.
    Linda

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