Imposter Syndrome’s Roots of Guilt & Shame

Root out the Guilt and Shame of Imposter Syndrome 

Lately, I have been hearing a lot of talk about “imposter syndrome.” This concept is not a new buzz word – in fact, it has been around for ages. 

According to an article in Psychology Today, psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes coined this term over 40 years ago. Initial research showed that it predominantly affected high-achieving women. Further research found that imposter syndrome was a common occurrence among all genders. In my coaching experience, all my high-end influential clients have dealt with imposter syndrome, self-consciousness, and low self-esteem to some degree.

So, what exactly is imposter syndrome?

Here is the short explanation: “People who fall prey to this destructive thinking pattern, experience intense feelings that they do not deserve their achievements, and have a constant fear of being exposed as a fraud.”

Imposter Syndrome’s Roots Might Go Back to our Childhood 

From a very early age, you learn to choose certain accepted lanes for your life. The same goes for your work, your thoughts – in fact, for your entire way of being. Perhaps your parents, your practiced religions, your friends, or the society and communities around you directed your beliefs. It is good to honor and appreciate these viewpoints in a healthy way. It becomes toxic when it limits your ability to tap into your complete aligned brilliance and honor it for what it is. Then, it is time to re-examine your feelings. It is time to flip the beliefs that no longer serve you.

As a young child, I learned that doing wrong will result in punishment. Under certain circumstances, this is still true. If I break a law, or if I harm others, there should be ramifications. I should take corrective action. 

In some instances, “corrective action” means that the “offender” is punished to the point of inducing intense feelings of guilt and shame. These emotions can be more manipulative than helpful. Might I dare say, they are usually beneficial to those around you. It might even destroy your ability to treasure and honor your personal welfare. 

Guilt and Shame – Imposter Syndrome’s Favorite Partners-in-Crime

Guilt and shame are an underlying root cause of imposter syndrome. 

How often do you hear…

  • “Who are you to step out?”
  • “Why are you not happy with where you are, and what you have, and how much money you have?
  • “It is good to be humble.”

Over time, these adages result in a life where you have defaulted to the imposter syndrome plague. You find yourself asking, “Is it even possible to elevate beyond imposter syndrome?” 

The answer is YES! At the same time, we are also human. In many cases, old beliefs and old paradigms will come back to haunt us and steal our brilliance. 

The good news is, you are now becoming aware of what those triggers mean for your life. When triggers come into your awareness, you now choose to follow a new path. A path that leads to a life that ignites your true brilliance.

What might you do once you become aware of the degree to which guilt and shame have ruled your life? 

Here are two key, next-step, simple strategies to equip you to experiment with, notice, and correct some of these old, toxic tendencies.

The First Key – Notice your Toxic Thoughts About Guilt and Shame

The first key in undoing the negativity that accompanies imposter syndrome, is to notice your own thoughts. 

This is what I hear from high-level leader clients and colleagues: 

  • I am not good enough to take that next-level role. 
  • I am not ready for this promotion, someone else is. 
  • I am not skilled enough to speak on a stage about that topic.
  • I am not good enough, I do not deserve, I am not capable…

Might this be what you have been telling yourself? 

Have you heard others say this about you, and you believe it to be true?

Our first corrective experiment is to notice thoughts, words, and beliefs that surface as criticisms and judgments. 

Consider asking these questions…

  • Does this thought serve me well?
  • Is this thought true?
  • Is this judgement or comment that is projected on me the truth?
  • Is this comment used to manipulate a direction or decision that I might take?

You will probably not make a 100% mindset flip immediately. However, the more you practice, the more this will come naturally. When you analyze the thought, you realize it has not been true for many years, even decades. 

Here is an example of a simple strategy that I use to correct a negative thought:

I receive invitations to appear as the keynote speaker on stages in front of thousands of people. This is a humbling privilege. It is also scary!

Your knee-jerk reaction in stressful situations may sound like mine…

“I am not good enough to speak in front of so many people on this topic.” (You can replace this with anything that causes you to feel inadequate.)

Instead of declining the invitation or the opportunity immediately, I notice my thoughts. Then I look at my options. 

  1. The Backpack Solution: Take a deep breath and say, “I am noticing this thought. I cannot get beyond it right now. This thought is going into my backpack, and I will do it anyway.”
  2. The Flip-the-Thought Solution: Consider your alternatives. Flip the thought by saying, “I have an important message to share. This message is founded on my decades of experience. I am the only one who can tell this important story in this way.” It is even more important to ask, “Why should I not be the one to speak on this stage? Why not me?”

These two strategies seem very simple, and that is why I use them. Simple strategies work. Complicated strategies often lead us back to our old tendencies. 

The Second Key – Love and Honor Your Unique, Brilliant Self

The second step to overcome the guilt and shame association of imposter syndrome is to start loving your perfect, authentic self.

Guilt and shame create a path that leads away from your unique brilliance. 

I use a process of discovery by asking this important question: “Who am I now, at this time in my life?” 

I notice that we look to others, trying to mirror what they are doing. We allow their example to guide our beliefs about the acceptable way to act, live, be, and experience life. Social media platforms create the perfect breeding ground where imposter syndrome thrives. In this fake universe, most people post, comment, and report only about the exciting and perfect events in their lives. If you compare your life to their experiences, you will always come up short. 

To counteract this tendency, you can embrace new perspectives to turn the guilt and shame around. 

You are not vain when you say: 

  • “I am perfect as I am.”
  • “I am brilliant as I have been created for this lifetime.”
  • “I am a human being, experiencing my own, authentic, unapologetic, perfect journey for my life.” 

The second key of owning and honoring who you are, is empowering yourself. You gain a new conviction to say no when needed. You act and speak your truth when you notice that guilt and shame might be thrown upon you in a way that is destructive for your sense of self, and for your journey.

This does not mean that you get mean, cruel, and unwilling to work with others. It is exactly the opposite. When you step into the essence of who you are, you come alive. You act in love. As you learn to have grace for yourself, you are compassionate towards others. I call this strategy “returning the guilt-and-shame ball.” 

As you increase your awareness of how guilt and shame affect your life, you can act in the moment. 

Returning the guilt-and-shame ball works like this: You become aware that guilt and shame is put on you in a way that is not serving you.

You return those emotions to the person that is projecting it on you. 

How do you do that? It might mean having a conversation: “I notice that you are trying to make me feel guilty. You may be trying to shame me into doing something that is less than the best option for me now. I am returning that to you because that no longer works.”

Your new approach will probably cause a reaction in the people that have been successful in placing guilt and shame on you. They may feel uncomfortable, and that is OK. This is an emotion they can examine. Returning the guilt and shame ball, usually works quickly. Then you can return to building healthy relationships, successful partnerships, and grounded and balanced human flourishing. As a result, you enter a happier state of being. 

Stay tuned. I will explore the concept of returning the guilt-and-shame ball in more detail in a future blog post.

Transcending the Toxic Fumes of Guilt and Shame

Transcending above current situations and challenges is a key focus in all coaching and consulting conversations I have with key leaders. Another element of eliminating imposter syndrome from your life, is thinking about transcending beyond. We hear a lot of talk about pivoting and transformation. I can understand if you are tired of hearing about this topic. You have been inundated with so much change, and so much uncertainty, especially in recent years. 

I like to think of the concept of moving into transcendence, as moving into a state of grace. A state where you have grace for who you are and your full capabilities. 

You have an ability to transcend beyond a negative state with a simple step. Yes, it might be a process. Often, it starts by making a decision – you will transcend beyond the toxic fumes of guilt and shame. 

You might say, “This used to be a huge part of my past. This used to be how I thought. Now I have elevated to the next level of human flourishing. In this state of grace, I am above that which no longer serves me well.”

Does this mean that you regard yourself to be better than others? Definitely not! Thinking these positive thoughts means that you have decided to do, and think, differently. Yes, this mindset flip can be this easy. 


I believe guilt and shame are a major root cause of imposter syndrome. This is one of the reasons for misaligned teams and dysfunctional individuals. 

Transcending the guilt and shame associated with imposter syndrome, starts with a decision. Own and honor who you are. Step unapologetically into who you know you are. Do this with a new conviction – your new awareness enables you to leave the negative in the past.

The steps suggested seem like they might not be enough. I invite you to give them a chance. Many of my high-influence coaching clients have incorporated these simple strategies. In a world where things are changing at breakneck speed, you need simple truths to execute and remember. 

It is my passion to transcend teams, individuals, and our whole human experience into a new level of flourishing.  My goal is to ignite the true brilliance of each individual and each team. 

Yes, the strategies are simple. Simple solutions in uncertain times work best.  

For further exploration, please reach out to me for a private conversation. We will discuss how you might incorporate these steps into your own path or in your workplace wellness program and to get your workplace culture thriving again. It is time to rise beyond your own old stories, old cultures, and patterns. It is time to come alive as a person and as a team. 

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