I’m an intelligent, hard-working, grown-up woman. I’ve got years of experience in my field, and plenty of reaffirming feedback from those I’ve worked with. So why, every time I get an unscheduled call from a client, do I assume it’s because they want to fire me?
Then there’s the silence after I’ve submitted a quote for a new project. Why haven’t they responded? It must be because I quoted too high. They probably think I’m ridiculous. What was I thinking? They’ll probably just do it themselves, after all, it’s not rocket science.
Sound familiar? I’m sure it does. Because as I’ve been finding out, Imposter Syndrome, just like acne, isn’t something that we easily grow out of just because we’ve grown up.
Imposter Syndrome. We know the phrase; we know the feeling. Plenty of academic studies, high-level think pieces and first-person commentary in nearly every glossy magazine have explained to us the phenomena that we all relate to so well. Typically, Imposter Syndrome is defined as an ‘internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be.’ What isn’t in the definition is that these ‘internal experiences’ seem to be inextricably linked to the experience firstly of being a woman, and secondly of being – in quotes – a Grown Up.
It seems easier to understand a young woman (or man) at school, feeling inadequate when comparing themselves with bright, sporty, or popular classmates. Similarly, for young people graduating from university or starting out in their careers, it seems understandable that this new world of work would often feel like a hamster wheel of acquiring experience and proving themselves to be worthy of more. I felt like this when I got my first ‘big’ job at a luxury fashion brand: the pool of talent was overflowing with creative and strategic minds and we all forged friendships built on staying in the game, climbing the ladder, and being noticed. The goal? It was probably abstract at the time but in the end, it was about getting to ‘The Top’.
So now, able to look back at well over a decade of experience in my field, I could be considered to be sitting pretty. As are many of my contemporaries. We made it! Didn’t we? So why is the view from the top still blurry? Why is the hamster wheel now turbo-charged? Why do we all feel like we aren’t quite there yet, sitting ducks waiting to be exposed as the frauds we believe we are?
This isn’t dramatic flair from a writer warming to her theme. It’s well documented that although both women and men suffer with Imposter Syndrome, it affects women at work more acutely and potentially with more damning effects. A 2019 studyby learning and development training provider, The Hub Events, found that 90% of women polled said they felt inadequate or incompetent at work, with 73% saying they didn’t think they deserved their current status.
The issues become even more apparent when we look at Imposter Syndrome through the lens of visibility and ambition. Wundermail, in their Women at Work 2020 report, suggested that it’s less about women feeling like frauds and more about feeling unable to take advantage of career-progressing opportunities such as salary related conversations, and practical negotiation skills. According to the research, when asked whether they would “aspire to take on their manager’s role in the future”, 72% of men claimed they would, compared to just 47% of women. It’s not that women are any less able to do the job, get the job or be the best person for the job, but if we don’t believe we can dothe job, then we won’t even put ourselves forward.
This is supported by researchby NatWest, as part of its #OwnYourImposter campaign, which showed that 60 percent of women who have considered starting a business didn’t – either due to a lack of confidence, not feeling like the type of person who could start a business or feeling that they didn’t deserve to succeed despite their skills. Only one-fifth of UK businesses are run by women.
Yet even when we do get the big roles with the greater responsibilities, or start out on our own, we still don’t seem to be able to shake the feelings of inadequacy as well as we might like. After climbing the ranks of the company for more than a decade, Bloom member Charlotte Tice left a leading media agency as a Client Partner and member of the board. “Despite being selected for my company’s future leaders programme (one of only four and the only woman), running a department of 100 people and with overall responsibility for £200m worth of investment, I still used to wonder when someone would ‘find me out’ and realise that I was, in fact, winging it.”
It’s this type of internal experience that so categorises Imposter Syndrome for high-achieving women. In fact, it’s a very consequence of the perceived compliment of being ‘high-achieving’ in the first place that can so often set women on a path to perfectionism, control, exhaustion and burn out. In this frame of mind, there is no option for simply ‘achieving’ or just getting through the day.
In research into Imposter Syndrome this is known as the ‘Superwoman’ phenomenon. It might originally manifest as not feeling you measure up against colleagues you perceive as the real deal or superior to you. But, as your career progresses, it morphs into a competition not with them but with yourself. You push harder, take on more, work longer hours and set out to prove you are the efficient, confident, together woman you believe you need to be. This is so often a cover-up for Imposter Syndrome-type insecurities, and the work overload may harm not only our mental health, but also our relationship with our job, our career and our personal relationships.
In this context, it is easy to see how women end up feeling more stressed, isolated or burnt out as they reach the peak of their careers. The relentless pressure, that feeling that you can’t let up even for a second, are both less obvious symptoms of Imposter Syndrome. Rather than unfavourably comparing yourself to others, you’re unfavourably comparing yourself to yourself. It’s these symptoms that so often stop women taking chances in their careers or doing anything that could be perceived as self-serving. (Sabbatical? After ten years hard work? Please. Someone might steal my job). We don’t want to make the wrong move and see what we perceive as our fragile house of cards come tumbling down and prove that we were a failure all along.
There is one contributor to modern day Imposter Syndrome that has been magnified in recent weeks. It isn’t our day job, or the future of our careers, but rather the blurring of the traditional 9-5 job with our extra-curricular lives and pursuits. On one hand we’re supposed to welcome a more flexible, multi-everything, fluid blend of passion and profession. But on the other, it is a never-ending merry-go-round of potential that isn’t easily escaped. Everywhere we look, compounded, and exaggerated on social media, there are examples of multi-hyphen careers, side hustles and weekend agendas that read like a UCAS application.
These seemingly endless opportunities to better ourselves is where classic Imposter Syndrome runs into a frenemy: the great comparison curse. Should I be launching my own brand? Be on the school parents committee? Write poetry on weekends and chair a book club? Run a homemade brownie stand at the local farmer’s market? Suddenly, even when we might feel secure in our 9-5 life, we’re back on the achievement and comparison hamster wheel. (I think we can all agree that our recent life in lockdown has exacerbated this even further).
We need to remind ourselves that the positive side of modern life’s opportunities is that they are exactly that: opportunities, not a checklist of things we must achieve. Bloom has been a brilliant example of this. When I first applied, the Imposter Syndrome kicked in quickly: surely, I wasn’t good enough to join these women? Look at how accomplished they all are! But despite all that the group achieves (and I’m seriously proud to be part of it), there is plenty of chaos, mess and people not quite at their 100% best 100% of the time. And do you know what? I still think everyone is as brilliant as before. If I feel guilty for not getting involved in something, I see examples of women passing the baton to share the load because sometimes, we can’t do it all. Everyone is each other’s mini champion and rather than competition to be queen bee, we are all working together to keep the hive alive. Perhaps this is the real sign of being a grown up?
It is also a sign that overcoming Imposter Syndrome can take a group effort. If we all respect and understand that it is something we deal with in many guises, then we can all be better champions for each other, and group support transforms into self-belief. Afterall, Imposter Syndrome is a lot less tricky to overcome when you are surrounded by people who believe you can do something, even when you don’t.
Let’s end on this spirit with a few thoughts from a Bloom member and founder of Nua Training, Mary Langan on how to challenge Imposter Syndrome. “In order to quiet your inner critic, you need to acknowledge it! Often people don’t notice how self-critical they are being. Ask others for feedback: do they notice your negative feelings and thoughts?”
Mary continues that one of the best ways to overcome our negative thinking is to think about your accomplishments and strengths. “Some of my coaching clients use journaling as a way to record things they have done well so that when negative thoughts start to infiltrate their mind, they can revisit their successes. We can choose to respond to negative thoughts in more positive ways, which will in turn help us overcome Imposter Syndrome.”
Finally, Mary advocates sharing. We should talk about how we are feeling and share it with friends or colleagues we trust. “It’s easy to think that you’re the only one who’s ever felt the way you do. You may be surprised how many other people feel the same way.”
So, there you go, I’ve shared. My name is Carli, I’m a grown up, but sometimes I still feel like a fraud. But I know I'm better than that and I hope this article helps someone to realise they're not alone: even if they feel like an imposter, I bet they’re also pretty brilliant too.
Ted Talks on Fighting Imposter Syndrome – a great round-up of individual talks on the subject and advice on how to overcome it in life and work. https://www.ted.com/playlists/503/fighting_impostor_syndrome
‘How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome’ by Jessica Bennett for the New York Times
‘Imposter Syndrome Is Real. He’s How To Deal With It’ by Abigail Abrams for Time