Do you, like me, ever suffer with the overwhelming feeling that you are just not good enough to do your job? Do you sit and worry that one day you will be exposed as an imposter; that you don’t deserve the responsibility you have been given, or the title, or the status?
Back in 2002, I attended a business lunch where the guest speaker was the late, formidable Sir John Harvey Jones. Eighteen years on, I still have a vivid memory of the event, which came along at a point in my life when I’d had a break from work to have my children and I was keen to kick start my career. I was working part-time on a funded project to support new legislation on the right to request flexible working and I was invited to attend the lunch because of my work in this area.
The room was packed. We were all waiting to hear about Sir John’s exploits in his TV series ‘Back to the floor’, which was a big hit at the time. He was the first in a long line of trouble-shooters and he told us all about his work and his colourful life. He freely and frankly gave his views on business-life and he talked about how he sorted out unkempt workplaces and made CEO’s realise the error of their ways. He spoke effortlessly and with great humour. Then, right at the end of his speech, he gave away one little nugget. He said; “I wake up every morning and I think, will this be the day that they find me out?”
It hit me like a lightning bolt. I realised that he felt the same way as me.
You see, at the time, I had a dreadful sense that I was not worthy, and I wasn’t up to the job I was doing. I constantly compared myself to others and I felt that people could surely see my fear. My inner voice was constantly telling me that one day I would be found out. This fear was compounded by my age and the experiences I’d had at the outset of my career. During this time, even though I had brazened it out with confidence and charm, inside I was desperately trying to keep up with myself.
So, when Sir John made his admission to that packed room, it struck a chord and made me realise for the first time that I was not alone. I thought, if it can happen to him it can happen to anyone.
And now I am in midlife, I truly know this, because I have spoken to many women about the crippling feeling that can overcome us when we think that we don’t deserve our success. I’ve known women bosses who seemed to be effortlessly confident, mums at the school gate who always seemed so in control, and female colleagues who strolled through the day, seeming not to worry about what others thought of them. They all told me they felt this way at some point in their lives.
The Imposter Within – Friend or Foe?
Research has shown the feelings of self-doubt, known as Imposter Syndrome, affect 62% of people at work and it seems that women may be more adversely affected than men. Despite the increasing number of female entrepreneurs and the rising pace of gender equality, more successful women than ever are speaking out about how imposter syndrome affects them.
The phrase imposter syndrome was first coined in 1978 by Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes in their article “The imposter syndrome in high achieving women; dynamics and therapeutic intervention”.
We now know that imposter syndrome affects both men and women. However, compared to men, women tend not to push themselves forwards because of imposter syndrome. In a recent YouGov poll, only 44% of women said they would accept a project at work, over 59% of men.
Imposter syndrome can define the way we work and how we chose to progress in our careers. It can create tension and feelings of inadequacy that are hard to shake. It becomes more prevalent in organisational cultures where there is no space to fail. In this culture, the imposter within can breed to its heart’s content if we let it. This can lead to us working defensively and, when things go wrong, we reinforce this by saying we were never good enough in the first place.
In the same way that it impacts you and me, it can also affect celebrities. In a recent ‘Marie Claire’ article Renée Zellweger was quoted as saying; “Sometimes I wake up at night and go – Oh, damn! Here we go again! What were they thinking? They gave me this role; don’t they know I’m faking it?”. And in the same article, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said: “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.”
We all need to work on our feelings to overcome the tendency so that we avoid burnout and anxiety. Imposter syndrome occurs mostly in people who are high achievers and those who try their hardest to get things right. In fact, studies have shown that the real imposters don’t recognise the fact that they can’t do the job! They overestimate their abilities and have no fear of failure, which can be far more damaging to themselves and others.
How to overcome the feelings of self-doubt
For those of us midlifers who suffer from imposter syndrome, how do we keep things in perspective? It’s important to recognise that imposter syndrome can be a good thing. It can remind us not to take our success for granted and it makes us shine a light on our successes.
The secret is to break down the taboo by talking about our fears and anxieties with others. When I did this, I was given a great piece of advice, which was to work on my ‘elevator pitch’. This is the technique where you imagine someone gets into the lift with you and says ‘so, what do you do for a living?’ You must imagine that you have the short time it takes to get to your floor to tell them. This is usually when the panic sets in. The tip is to practice what you would say in this scenario. Learn how to describe what you do in a short and succinct way and then say it with pride.
Another tip is to work on being comfortable with who you are and try not to be like somebody else. As May Sarton wrote in her poem ‘Now I’ve become myself’; “It’s taken Time, many years and places. I have been dissolved and shaken, Worn other people’s faces”.
Finally, speaking from experience, you need to reign in the inner perfectionist and realise when your work is good. Take praise in the spirit it is meant and reward yourself when you’ve done well. Say thank you for the opportunities you’ve been given and remember it’s not luck, it’s the competence that got you to where you are today.