Heather Whelpley looked around the roomful of female Twin Cities executives and asked them to imagine their inner critic, then come up with a snappy phrase to thwart it.
“I love to have a little saying, a little quip that you can come back to when that inner critic rears its ugly head,” she said. “I’d love to hear from a couple of people. What are you going to say to your inner critic?”
Kim Hansen, president of the Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, piped up with: “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. You can go now!”
“I love that,” Whelpley said.
For years, Whelpley has worked to boost women’s careers, first as a human resources executive, then as a coach. Now, she has a new focus: helping women deal with impostor syndrome.
After she left Ameriprise Financial in 2017 to start her own coaching business for women, Whelpley quickly noticed a pattern. “I was seeing these amazing women hold themselves back,” she said.
Her clients knew what they wanted, had the qualifications and the skills, but they were hampered by self-doubt and tended to attribute the success they had achieved to luck or a fluke.
“No one ever came to me and said, ‘I have impostor syndrome, and I need coaching on it,’ ” said Whelpley, but she was able to identify it.
Despite its clinical-sounding name, impostor syndrome isn’t an illness. It’s the nagging feeling that you don’t deserve success, opportunity or accolades. It can lead to workaholism (to stave off the failure that feels inevitable), procrastination and can cause women to avoid participating (so they won’t be exposed as a failure) or to sabotage themselves in other ways.
While the term was coined in the 1970s, it didn’t become a buzzword until Valerie Young’s 2011 book “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive Despite It.”
Since then, impostor syndrome has catapulted into the public conversation, with viral Twitter threads, books, coaching and workshops, like the sold-out one Whelpley led recently for the Minneapolis Regional Chamber’s Executive Women’s Council (the third workshop she hosted on the topic that week).
More women — including Meryl Streep and former First Lady Michelle Obama — are now talking publicly about their own struggles with impostor syndrome. And some colleges and corporations across the country are trying to spread awareness about it, hosting sessions with experts like Young, who speaks around the globe and locally has given talks at the University of Minnesota, Macalester College and Hamline University.
As a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts in 1982, Young came across a 1978 academic paper by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes that coined the term “impostor phenomenon.” It described women who “maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”
Young, who lives in Massachusetts, went on to focus her doctoral research on the syndrome. After graduation, she gave workshops on the topic for decades before securing a Random House book deal and, later, a TED talk.
Her book introduced the term as a “women’s issue,” but impostor syndrome is now thought to be something many men struggle with, as well.
In the 1980s, Clance followed up on her original research and found that 70% of people from all backgrounds, men and women, experience impostor feelings at some point.
Young believes that number may be higher today, in part because of social media. The constant comparison on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter fuels feelings of not measuring up, as do careers in creative and academic fields, where the measure of work is subjective, she said.
Impostor syndrome also is magnified by a sense of not belonging, whether you’re the only woman on the board, the lone person of color in the conference room or the first in your family to go to college.
Too big for our britches
Then there’s the Minnesota complication.
Whelpley believes Minnesotans have an extra layer to cut through when dealing with impostor syndrome.
“We have such a culture of humility in Minnesota,” she said.
We don’t want people to think that we’re bragging, or “too big for our britches.” But that inability to claim our successes, she said, “stands in the way of you fully owning your strengths and standing in your strengths.”
Facing impostor syndrome doesn’t require a personality reboot, however. Most experts agree that acknowledging it and talking about it with others is a first big step in dealing with it.
“The more people know that this is a thing, it doesn’t have to affect them as much,” said Whelpley. “They can name it, and say, ‘Oh, this is just impostor syndrome. That’s what I’m feeling right now. I can feel it. But I don’t have to let it dictate my actions.’ ”
Young often encourages people to reframe the conversation inside their head.
“The people who don’t feel like impostors are no more intelligent, capable or competent than the rest of us, they just think differently about competence,” she said. “They think differently about failure, mistakes and criticism. And they think differently about fear.”
While Whelpley suggests keeping a “kudos” folder to look through or creating a recovery plan (from dancing to a favorite song to going for a walk outside) to boost confidence, she acknowledges that it’s not easy to banish impostor syndrome entirely.
Just last month, she wrote a bio in which she referred to herself as the “founder” of a new venture she’s launching. Right after she sent it, she started to worry if she’d sounded too presumptuous. She considered rewriting her bio. After realizing she was second-guessing herself, she went with the original.
“Yes, even coaches on impostor syndrome get impostor syndrome,” she said with a laugh. “It is the ultimate irony.”