The Impostor Syndrome…you’re not alone!
I have a law degree. And a degree in politics. I travelled the world by myself for years. I fought off two muggers with a bunch of flowers. I’ve worked in women’s rights and human rights for two decades. I’m smart and articulate. I’m a solo mama of two spirited young children who are thriving. I run a successful business supporting other women to thrive.
And yet… more often than I’d like to admit, when I find myself in a new professional situation, a stretch, a challenge, I hear the voices rising. You may recognize them… especially if you’re female. They say things like: “You can’t really do this! You’re not experienced enough, smart enough, good enough, strong enough. You’re a fraud. You’re going to fall on your face this time, and finally you’ll be exposed…”.
Those voices become so damn LOUD. And it takes all my might to shush them up and dig out the powerful, confident-in-my-ability, present, resourceful and intuitive me from under all that bullsh**.
I’m bringing this up because every single one of my amazing, high-achieving female clients and friends has expressed the same thoughts to me at one time or another. When I look at them – when everyone looks at them – we think … “You doubt yourself? How could you possibly??” But you, me, and a majority of women…we do.
Yes ladies, “The Impostor Syndrome” is alive and well. And it hits women disproportionately to our male counterparts. The term was first coined by American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, in 1978 as a result of studies of 150 professional women across varied fields. It describes their inherent belief that they are “not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” According to Susan Pinker, “Despite accolades, rank, and salary, these women felt like phonies. They didn’t believe in their own accomplishments; they felt they were scamming everyone about their skills.”
Additionally, Clance and Imes found that men are more likely to attribute their success to their own skill and competence, whereas women tend to attribute it to external or temporary factors like luck or hard work.
Sound familiar? In my experience, women across the board are afflicted by a version of this. Whether we are CEOs, artists, entrepreneurs or stay at home moms, we tend to vastly undervalue ourselves, and doubt our abilities despite all the evidence to the contrary.
I recently met with a client who is a Senior VP of a global technology company. Within the first 30 minutes she was telling me how, while she understood rationally that she must have some skills to get to where she is, she had a pervasive feeling that it was all a fluke. Just luck. And it would run out sooner or later. Why this effects more women than men is another story… and I’ll tackle THAT in another article.
In the meantime, what can we do about it?
Acknowledge the falseness of these beliefs! Collect evidence of your skill, accomplishments, and successes. I recommend to my clients that they make a list of at least 3 successes at the end of each day. No matter how “small” they seem. Since our brains tend to focus on the negative, or what we didn’t do (or do well), this practice will bring a more balanced and accurate self image over time.
Even US Supreme Court judge, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, relates – but she has developed a strategy: “I’m not a classic impostor-syndrome person because I have that initial insecurity but I’m capable of stepping outside of it and proving to myself it’s wrong.” —The Wall Street Journal, January 2013
Know you’re not alone… Many high profile “successful” women – from celebrities, to CEOs and Supreme Court judges – have reported dealing with some version of the imposter syndrome on an ongoing basis, even after achieving what others would see as optimal success (Jodie Foster, Sigourney Weaver, Emma Watson, Justice Sandra Sotomayor, Amy Schumer, Penelope Cruz, Sheryl Sandberg… to name a few.)
Jodie Foster, on winning an Oscar for The Accused: “I thought it was a big fluke. The same way when I walked on the campus at Yale, I thought everybody would find out, and then they’d take the Oscar back.” (60 Minutes, December 1999).
Manage your self-talk. When those voices start flooding in, thank them politely for sharing, put on your big girl panties, and ground into the successful, competent, adult part of you that knows she CAN do this. And if she doesn’t know how, she’ll damn well figure it out. Like she’s done time and time again in the past…
It’s ok to make mistakes! It’s natural to feel afraid when we’re stretching out of our comfort zones. But that’s how we grow. If we’re not feeling afraid, we’re not challenging ourselves! Celebrate and encourage that quality in yourself, as if you were encouraging a small child learning to ride a bike. Fall off? Get right back on. And soon enough, you’ll have it. Forever.
Get an external reality check. Ask some trusted friends/colleagues what your strengths are, and how they see you growing and succeeding in your work and life. You may be surprised.
Don’t fall into the comparison trap. Remember, we only see what others want us to see – their public facing persona (Facebook is a minefield for this). Whereas we ourselves are up close and personal with our flaws and fears. We feel that they must be obvious to everyone else. But they’re not. You are comparing someone else’s greatest hits to your behind the scenes documentary. And, the irony of it all? We are ALL doing the same thing! Each one of us is hiding our own version of dirty laundry.
Change the story. Join a women’s circle or a meet-up group of professional women who are willing to be authentic about their feelings and experiences… We can build our internal strength by realizing we’re not alone with these feelings.