Home Concepts Interpersonal Relationships Piercing the Armor: Professional Coaching and Vulnerability

Piercing the Armor: Professional Coaching and Vulnerability

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 The Impostor Syndrome

Finally, there is the armor worn by an impostor. In many ways, the impostor is simply one form of “celebrity” that is engaged for manipulative purposes and leads to the creation of a public figure that is either a distortion of reality or an entirely fictionalized character that has been created by someone for personal gain. As in the case of Sennett’s analysis of the actor on stage, the impostor exists and is successful because other people go along with the false reality. There is collusion between the impostor and his/her “audience.”  Kets de Vries (2003) notes that we want to believe the impostor is the real person and is skillful, knowledgeable, kind or whatever we wish him/her to be. This is another case of dissonance reduction.  Just as we want policemen to be honest and physicians to be knowledgeable and skillful, so we want the impostor to be the real thing (whether serving as an accountant or airline pilot).

Kets de Vries (2003, p. 83) uses the term “true impostor” when describing the intentions and behaviors of those people whose “identity is based on impersonations rather than actual attainments and accomplishments.” He uses a different term when describes the rest of us folk: “neurotic impostors.” We are the “individuals who feel fraudulent and impostorous while actually being successful.” We have “an abiding feeling that [we] have fooled everyone and are not as competent and intelligent as others think [we] are.” While Kets de Vries has identified a specific subset us who are living in contemporary times, I have suggested that the term “neurotic impostor” applies to most of us. It is the recognition among most of us that the “persona” we carry with us most of the time or even the “character armor” that we wear as a burden when interacting in our challenging and ever-changing world.  As a colleague of mine once said (in quoting some unnamed source): “which of us when told that all has been found out about us and will be revealed tomorrow to everyone in our life won’t be taking the first train out of town tonight!!”

How do we coach an impostor? Or perhaps we are more in the role of helping our client identify impostors in their life or their own fears of being an impostor? Does the impostor really want to abandon their role? The secondary gains can be quite compelling. Are they growing tired of being the impostor or have they begun to believe their own lie and can now living comfortably with their false self? Reality and the “truth” can get quite confusing. Perhaps a “personal SWOT analysis” is appropriate. What really are your impostor-client’s strengths (that can be truthfully acknowledged and engaged) and what are the weaknesses that this client should acknowledge (as a first step toward moving into a more authentic role). And to whom should the impostor-client first convey this more realistic analysis of strengths and weaknesses? What about the environment in which the impostor is working. Given that the impostor is often quite narcissistic, it might require quite a bit of “heavy lifting” for you as the coach to bring the realistic threats (as well as realistic opportunities) to the attention of your client. The impostor might be quite gifted with regard to opportunities – but even here we are likely to find both false opportunities and “botched” opportunities – from which one’s client can learn (with your help as her coach).

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