I was out to dinner with friends some months ago when one of them started talking about an amazing promotion she had got with a really good pay rise. This particularl friend is a total grafter; she will always goes the extra mile and is dedicated and intelligent. Yet she felt she didn’t deserve the opportunity she’d worked for.
This was the first time I had heard of Imposter Syndrome and my friend had identified herself as having it. She talked about the feelings of incompetence and not being good enough that are associated with the syndrome and of pulling the wool over her employer’s eyes into thinking she was good enough for the job. I immediately thought “bloody hell, I’ve been there”, although I didn’t acknowledge it at the time.
It wasn’t until I started reading Feminist Fight Club by Jessica Bennett (a must read, btw) I realised that it wasn’t just my friend or me who have been battling with this horrible brain critter; so many people have those feelings of not being good enough and unsurprisingly, the majority of people dealing with such thoughts are women.
Coined in 1978, Imposter Syndrome refers to high-achieving individuals who struggle to internalise their accomplishments and carry a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud, despite external evidence of their competence. Most who exhibit the syndrome believe that they do not deserve their successes, dismissing them as luck, good timing or deception.
I wonder how many of you reading this have just had the same “bloody hell” moment that I did when I first heard this.
I also wonder how many of you have dismissed the possibility of being able to exhibit signs of Imposter Syndrome because you saw the words ‘high-achieving’ and immediately removed yourself from that category.
My assumption is quite a few of you, as an estimated 70% of the population have suffered from it, especially if you’re a woman, or from an ethnic minority group.
As a kid, when I was misbehaving or being generally foul my mum used to call me ‘Esmeralda’ and would say things like “stop grizzling, Esmeralda”. When I started thinking about Imposter Syndrome, I decide the best way to tackle it would be to make it an alter-ego. Humanising it meant that I could speak to it woman to woman, I could take those thoughts saying I wasn’t good enough and say ‘No, you don’t get to make me feel this way’ and throw it out of my head. Now, if I feel those thoughts popping into my head I can be the one in control and tell Esmeralda that she’s barred!
As someone who recognises that women have a more difficult time in the work place than men anyway, having a voice in my head telling me that everything good I did was a lie and would soon be found out was not going to help my chances of reaching a senior position in my career. Giving it a name made it feel real to me and therefore meant I had to acknowledge its existence as something having a genuine and negative impact on my ability to believe in myself.
It can be really hard to give yourself the big high five you deserve, for fear of coming across as cocky or immodest. But the truth is, you have to reflect on the all awesome things you’ve done and give yourself the credit you deserve, otherwise you’ll let Esmeralda win. By affirming yourself you gain confidence and self-esteem and take genuine delight in all the great things you’ve achieved, rather than thinking that you’ve somehow fooled everyone into believing you’ve done a good job.
I appreciate this can be hard. Whenever my manager says she wants to speak to me, my immediate reaction is to wonder what I’ve done wrong. When I couldn’t get in touch with my mentor after a speaking opportunity my immediate reaction was to think I had done a terrible a job of my presentation and he wanted nothing else to do with me, regardless of the fact that the truth was to the contrary. I am terrible at taking work related compliments and often remain stony faced to praise. Even yesterday I said this: “I’m knackered, today required a lot of brain power and you know I don’t have a lot of that at the best of times”. It is not okay for us to be belittling ourselves in this way!
By taking time to affirm and reflect on all the brilliant things you’ve done, you can let the positive voices in your head be the prevailing ones. Even when things do go wrong (and they will, but that’s okay) you can accept it as part of the learning and growing experience rather than a sign of your overarching incompetency. And if you struggle affirming for yourself, get someone else to do it for you, until you can for yourself.
Let me help you get started, repeat after me “I am brilliant, successful and valuable to my organisation. Everything I have done in my career has not been down to luck, timing or deception, but hard work, motivation and determination”