The Uncomfortable Reality of Imposter Syndrome

Can we ever truly feel like a success? Jo Taylor explores life with imposter syndrome and the small tweaks that can kick the self-doubt habit forever...

“You’re 100% our type… on paper” – these seemingly innocuous words have sent a shiver down the spine of many an employee. Why? Surely this should be a positive statement? Well Love Island tells us that how a person seems ‘on paper’ vs. how they are in real life are poles apart. And this is the reality for the 70% or so of us that state that not being able to live up to expectations is our biggest fear (in the workplace). The worry is that we’ve somehow ‘over sold’ ourselves and landed the job with a glossy CV full of fancy words edited with the capability of the most seasoned reality TV producer, and not because we are, in actual fact, good enough.

This is so common a feeling that it even has its own moniker – ‘Imposter Syndrome’, described by Langford and Clance as “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments, and has a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.”

The statistic quoted above relates to both men and women – being more related to high achievement than gender. But what we do know is that women are much more likely to suffer from it. Unsurprising because there is a lot for us to contend with. Whilst the dial is slowly turning in the right direction, unconscious (even conscious) bias towards women and their abilities does still exist. This leads to women doubting themselves because, quite frankly, they’re doubted by those around them. There is an onus not only on industry, but society, to help break down the barriers women continue to face in the workplace which deplete confidence and push women away from the most senior roles. Women are worth an impressive £150bn to the economy should we get this right so really it’s just good business.

However, in my view, there is an element to Imposter Syndrome that is much more within our control. The (internal) struggle is decidedly real. An oft-cited example is that when looking at jobs, women tend to make sure that they meet nearly all the criteria before applying rather than taking a risk explaining why we should be considered via a well written, confidence exuding covering letter.

A recruiter once put me forward for a role with a long list of qualifications and experience I didn’t think aligned to my skillset. Said recruiter was confident I could do it…confidence I didn’t share. I furiously squeaked ‘WITHDRAW ME NOW BEFORE YOU EMBARRASS ME’ at him but, much to my surprise, I not only got an interview but the job itself, which I went on to do very well at. In fact, I exited that job with a leaving speech from my manager so full of praise that I basically sounded like the best thing since sliced bread. Embarrassing? Yes. Was I still a bit baffled that someone had such a high opinion of me even though I’d always performed well? Definitely. Have I printed out the speech and kept it because I need reminding on occasion that I’m pretty darn good at my job. Of course I have.

Speaking from personal experience, I have let self-doubt knock me back more times than I would like. There have been periods over the last 10 years where I have felt useless and like I don’t deliver anything of value, despite receiving good feedback and excellent performance ratings. I still didn’t feel like I was doing a good enough job. But in the absence of anyone actually saying ‘hey Jo, you’re rubbish’ why do I then feel this way?

It is an odd phenomenon and I’m almost embarrassed to admit it because it feels like I’m asking you to fawn over me saying ‘But you’re AMAZING’. Well yes on paper I am thank you very much but that’s the point. It doesn’t feel real. I don’t believe it even though I’ve lived it and I definitely do not want to say it out loud. For ‘serial self-doubters’ like myself, Imposter Syndrome in the workplace can be a crippling form of anxiety. This may sound extreme or self-absorbed – but for those of us who experience these feelings, it’s the truth. I’ve felt like an idiot for not understanding something straight away, I’ve kept quiet when I should have put myself forward, I’ve felt embarrassed accepting praise and awkward talking myself up because I’ve doubted the quality of my work based on nothing except my own standards.

To some extent we are wired this way from an evolutionary perspective. Worry can be good. It drives performance and keeps us alert, and adrenaline gets us through even the tightest of deadlines. However, when it gets out of control we end up with a problem.

So what can we do about it? How everyone learns and develops self-belief is personal, but it turns out there’s quite a lot we can do to chase this particular demon away.

1. Get up every morning and affirm that you are good at what you do and that you have value. If you don’t talk yourself up, why should anyone else?

2. Tell people how good you are. Women are taught to dumb themselves down and not sing about successes. I am a high achiever, I have some great qualifications, awesome experience and I’m proud of myself albeit nervously fretting about writing it down. Damnit. Baby steps.

3. Of course confidence comes with experience but in the meantime, ‘fake it till you make it’. There a great TED talk by Amy Cuddy who explores the notion that by imitating confidence and channelling an optimistic mind set you can actually take on those qualities in real life.

4. Don’t compare. It’s easier said than done, but focus on your own development at a pace that works for you and go from there If you are worrying about your performance or your work or anything job (or even not job) related, then talk to your manager. They can give you honest feedback. Don’t waste energy trying to second guess everyone’s opinion about you and your work.

5. Take risks like more responsibility, accept new challenges. Stretching yourself may feel uncomfortable at first but it’s a great way to jump ahead.

6. Get someone to champion you, fly your flag and wear your t-shirt (figuratively but you can try literally and see…I’m joking…do not ask your mentor to wear your t-shirt). That person should be more than a ‘performance’ manager and be willing to stick their necks on the line for you when it comes to championing you for that promotion or next role.

Doubt still rears its head from time to time. However, I now know I can rise above it. I have spent enough time with great mentors and managers, and at events focussed on women in the city, to know that I can silence that little voice in my head and just darn well get on with my career because you know what? I am good at what I do, and I am proud of what I’ve achieved. And you should be too. Because ladies (and gents), if we genuinely were imposters we wouldn’t be worrying about it.

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