CASE STUDY: Sarah - Professional suffering from imposter syndrome
Sarah* is a 38-year-old senior consultant. She came to me for coaching because she was feeling like a fraud at work and was worried that she would be “found out”. This was causing her great anxiety and she was losing sleep and feeling tired all the time, and as a result it was affecting her relationship with her husband, friends and family.
This is her story when we started working together.
Sarah was a highly competent and capable individual who had achieved great success in her career in management consultancy so far. However, she believed that her success was down to luck or had happened by accident and so she didn’t deserve to be where she was. She was plagued by feelings of self-doubt, feeling like a complete fraud, and that someone would find out that she didn’t really know what she was doing. (This often happens when you are naturally good at something and it comes easy to you, but you don’t realise it). This caused her to feel incredibly anxious, physically sick at times, and to worry a lot about work when at home and even during the night. She would often lay awake in the early hours worrying about everything; analysing things she had said and done and what others might think of her. She had a constant movie running in her mind that she couldn’t switch off. She was exhausted and felt like she couldn’t carry on like this anymore.
She believed that everyone else had got it together and she was the only person feeling this way, and so she had carried this burden alone for a long time.
She confessed that she often felt tearful for no apparent reason, and that often on the way to work, she wished for something terrible to happen so that she had an excuse not to go in.
She was working long hours as well as evenings and weekends, which she realised was unhealthy and unsustainable. This was also causing friction between her and her husband as it meant that they didn’t get much time together, and when they did, she was tired and irritable.
She was extremely driven, had exceptionally high standards for herself and was ambitious. She wanted to be successful in her career, but she was paying a high price with all the anxiety.
She very much wanted to achieve her goals but without the worry, constant analysing and stress she was placing on herself.
Sarah and I worked together for a series of six coaching sessions. This is her story three months later in her own words.
My boss very kindly offered for our company to provide me with executive coaching because she could see that I was struggling, despite doing well in my role. When I started working with Marie, I was feeling quite desperate and didn’t know how I could overcome how I was feeling. I didn’t even know that imposter syndrome was a thing!
It was so reassuring to discover that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way, and to learn that many other people suffer from it as well. Often very successful people – so I was in good company! That in itself was such a relief; it was comforting to learn that there was nothing wrong with me.
I cannot believe that I now feel calm and serene the majority of the time. When I notice any anxiety returning, I now have the tools and techniques to manage it, and I am able to dissipate it.
I also realise that I am competent and successful in my own right, and I am not a fraud! I finally have belief in myself, which feels amazing.
The other great outcome is that I now have so much more energy. I no longer feel heavy and drained. I actually feel fully alive and happy. This has made such a difference to my life. Marie has also helped me to put boundaries in place so that I have a cut off from work and actually enjoy my downtime. I have even started painting again, which is something I used to love to do but stopped doing several years ago when work took over my life. I have also started exercising again, and to my surprise actually enjoy my weekly yoga classes – who knew!
I am also beginning to face my fears and be more courageous. Marie helped me to realise how much fear was holding me back and she has helped me to arm myself with the tools to mostly overcome them. I still get fearful at times, but it doesn’t paralyse me anymore, and more often than not, I am able to talk myself into facing them head on. The more I realise it’s never as bad as I imagine, the more I am able to just get on a do it anyway. This has meant that I am able to say yes more often, which has led to more openings and opportunities for me and has definitely helped with my career development.
Life now feels much easier. I no longer try and control everything and am able to go with the flow much more. This in itself has been incredibly liberating for me and has benefitted me both personally and professionally.
Although I still have some way to go with not worrying about what other people think of me, I am getting better with this. One big improvement has been that I now feel more present with my friends and family, rather than ‘being in my head’ all the time. I am now able to relax more around other people and actually enjoy their company without the anxiety I felt before the coaching.
Marie has helped me to learn so much about myself and how I was ‘getting in my own way’ with my tendency for perfection and comparison with others. I was so scared of failure, that I wasn’t able to learn and grow in a way that was helpful. I spent so much time in my head analysing everything I said or did, that I couldn’t see what was important.
I feel like a different person than I did before the coaching and I now sleep really well. I no longer lie awake at 3am worrying about my performance in a particular meeting and whether I could have said something differently or made my point in a more professional manner. I have finally learnt to be compassionate toward myself and I no longer feel like a fraud. It is such a relief!
*Name changed to protect identity