Are you suffering from impostor syndrome … or are you an impostor?

Cathy Goodwin
Jun 19 · 6 min read

Linda was launching a new business. She was about to hang out her virtual shingle as an executive coach to professional women. Her first offer would be a nine-month program with a $12,000 price tag.

She’d worked with a marketing coach to set up timelines for the launch. Now she wanted me to help her write a sales letter.

“I’d be happy to,” I told Linda. “But I’ve got a few questions. What’s your client’s backstory — why are they coming to you? What’s your curriculum? And what’s your background for doing this?”

Linda hadn’t planned the content; she figured she’d play it by ear, session by session. She wasn’t sure where her clients were coming from.

Most important, she hesitated when I asked about her background. Had she been coaching one-on-one for a while? If she wasn’t certified, did she have other experience, perhaps as a therapist?

Linda’s background was a little hazy. I gathered she worked for a large corporation in HR. But she hadn’t made the connection to her new business.

When I asked Linda why she was even considering this option, Linda said, “I wasn’t sure at first. My coach told me I needed more confidence. She said I needed to overcome impostor syndrome.”

Linda wasn’t suffering from impostor syndrome. She was an impostor.

Linda is a composite of two or three clients I’ve worked with. And let’s be honest: most of us have been impostors in at least one part of our business at some time or other.

When I got into copywriting, I picked up the notion of writing in your own voice. So I wrote a bunch of articles on that topic. Like a lot of other copywriters I suggested ways to find your voice: read aloud, record yourself in ordinary conversation, use informal language. I truly believed in the whole concept.

But after working with my first dozen clients, I realized that “find your own voice” is one of those tips that sounds a lot more realistic than it really is. Most people won’t care about your voice; they’re reading to see if your offer matches what they need.

The lesson really hit home when I was working with a client I’ll call Bonnie. I was thrilled to work on her sales letter, as she was fairly well-known in her field.

“I’d like to emphasize these points,” Bonnie said. “And be sure to include these two paragraphs from my other sales letter. I really like them.”

So I did.

When Bonnie reviewed the letter, she said, “I mostly like what you’ve done here — except these two paragraphs. Why did you include them? I’d never use those words!”

Naturally, they were the two paragraphs she insisted I include … the word for word.

Since then, I’ve had similar experiences with many other clients. I’ve come to realize that most people don’t recognize their own copywriting style, let alone someone else’s.

Now I tell a different story.

“When prospects read your material online,” I say, “they’re skimming and scanning. They’re too busy asking the WIIFM question to notice nuances of style.”

But back then, I was an impostor. I didn’t know what I was doing in those early days. I had lots of enthusiasm and hopefully didn’t mess up anyone’s marketing too much.

How can you tell if you’re an impostor vs someone who’s caught up in impostor syndrome?

If you’ve got solid objective evidence you can do your job, it’s impostor syndrome

One of my MBA classmates, Jane, worked for a large company as the lone female in their financial department. She consistently earned glowing performance reviews and promotions. One day she told me she’d hired a career coach, who told her, “Wow — you’re really an achiever!”

I was flummoxed. “Didn’t you know?” I asked. “Did you really need to hear it from someone you hired?”

“Yes, I did,” she said firmly. “I needed that validation.”

Jane clearly suffered from impostor syndrome. She had ample evidence that she could do her job.

If you’re quoting the industry wisdom, and you’re presenting yourself as an expert, you might be an impostor.

If you’re introducing your own framework, ideas or system, and you know it works …you might be suffering from impostor syndrome.

When I first started writing about branding, I took a lot of conventional wisdom and draped some new material over it.

If you’re comfortable saying, “I’m not good at that,” you’re not an impostor.

If you never say you’re good at anything, you’ve got impostor syndrome.

I’m always amazed at how many people think you need confidence when you express an honest doubt or concern about your abilities in one area.

Me: “I’m so impressed! I could never do water-skiing the way you do. I’d be terrified!”

Friend: “Oh, but you’re so good at writing …”

I wasn’t seeking reassurance, just stating a fact. But a lot of people would have responded the way my friend did. And a lot of people need reassurance.

If you react explosively to even a little bit of criticism, you’re an impostor.
But if you humbly accept every bit of criticism that comes your way, you’re vulnerable to impostor syndrome. It’s a matter of degree.

I pride myself on having a thick skin. But just the other day, I turned in a writing assignment for a new client. It was a non-standard piece of writing — something that didn’t fit neatly into copywriting categories — and the client was a friend of a friend.

The client pointed out a couple of small changes he wanted me to make.

My first reaction was, “Did the client hate me? Did I totally not get what I was supposed to do?”

I made the changes. I held my breath.

The client wrote back, “Great job!”

Whew. They just pointed out a couple of changes. Take their comment at face value.

Impostors go ballistic when someone gives them feedback.

“How dare you!” they’ll exclaim. They’re in over their heads.

Impostor syndrome means you cringe when you get feedback. “Maybe I’m not that good.”

If you’ve been in the military or played sports, you’ve learned not to take things personally. But the rest of us need to work consciously toward thickening our skins.

Many years ago, when I was a college professor, my college Pete was the only member of my department who could get along with our temperamental dean. When the dean would say something snarky, Pete would just laugh.

One day I asked where he’d learned to do this. Turned out he’d flown helicopters for the Army in an era where flight instruction was combined with hazing. After that, nothing bothered him.

Bottom Line

I keep hearing that as many as 70% of all people experience impostor syndrome at some point in their careers. It’s normal, especially when you’re trying to achieve a stretch goal and you’re forced to leave their comfort zone.

But I bet that 90% of us have been impostors at some time or other. We decided to “fake it till you make it.” Maybe we didn’t even realize we were faking. We thought we were more advanced in our knowledge and skill than we actually were.

Hopefully, we didn’t do too much damage along the way.

I’m Cathy Goodwin, Ph.D., a copywriter, storyteller, and small business branding strategist. I would love to connect with you. If you are a service-based business seeking to differentiate yourself in the marketplace, check out my free comprehensive workbook From Story To Standout Brand: Your 3-Step Blueprint.” Discover how your personal brand helps you create compelling copy, strengthen your message and establishes your consistent, memorable presence online.

*** “Everything’s easier when you do it with stories.”***