Gifted women, imposter syndrome and the struggles of being ‘too successful’

Why do so many gifted women experience imposter syndrome in this day and age? After all, we’ve spent decades delivering assertiveness training and women in leadership programs. But still women are their own harshest critics. As one of my coaching clients recently observed, “It’s as though my success is based on beating myself up internally every day”.


Here are my thoughts on why this happens. Put simply, it’s a result of the double binds and strictures women face when they dare to excel at work. These include:


  • Pressure to excel, while, at the same time, not standing out or ‘bragging’ about their achievements
  • Condemnation for being ‘pushy’ when speaking directly and assertively
  • Internal struggles experienced when social programming around minimising power differences conflicts with the need to build authority and credibility as a leader
  • Expectations that women should be ‘nurturing and accommodating’ distorting perceptions of their behaviour when female leaders deliver assertive feedback or manage under-performance and disciplinary matters


Female professionals and leaders grapple with these pressures on a daily basis. So, it’s not surprising that many end up doubting their own credibility, competence and professional worth. In other words, experiencing chronic self-doubt.


This is the type of self-doubt that Manfred Kets de Vries labelled ‘neurotic imposture’. Kets de Vries argued that this is a pervasive form of imposter syndrome that is the “flip side of giftedness”.  It’s caused by the stress of being a high achiever while conforming to social norms that expect you to be humble.


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You can read more about neurotic imposture in my recent blog post on the topic. For now, though, let’s consider some practical steps you can take to reduce its impact in your professional life. Here are the top three strategies I share with clients in my Authentic Confidence programs.


  1. Speak up about your achievements, using relevancy frames from NLP. These help you spotlight your expertise and talents without triggering others’ ‘pushy cow’ reactions.

2.Get a kickass coach or mentor and schedule your meetings upfront. Don’t wait until something goes wrong before contacting them. Successful coaching prevents problems occurring in the first place!

  1. Work to your strengths and delegate to your weaknesses. Stop trying to be perfect at everything. Stick to being in your zone of brilliance and authentic confidence!