We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy!

Who? Me? Imposter Syndrome and British business womenImposter Syndrome and the fear of not deserving it

You do not deserve the career position you have achieved. You have blagged your way to lofty heights. You are a fraud and one day everyone will realise this. Does this resonate with you? This, ladies, is called Imposter Syndrome – a growing condition amongst successful women who, according to Wikipedia, leaves sufferers feeling that “despite external evidence of their competence, they remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.”

If you do feel that you are ‘getting away with it’, don’t worry – you are not alone. So why do we feel like this and is it a typically female reaction to success? I think there are a number of factors that conspire to make us believe that we’re not quite as good as we ought to be…

  1. We are women – getting on in business or in our careers can be quite paradoxical. On the one hand we’re told there is a glass ceiling and that there aren’t as many opportunities for women. On the other we hear about positive discrimination and quotas for women on boards so that niggly voice in our heads often unsettles us by saying ‘you only got there through tokenism because you ‘ticked a box’ or because you shouted loudest’. It starts to confuse us and we question our merit.
  2. We are British – something we hate in this country is blowing our own trumpet. We don’t want to be seen as brash, heck we find it difficult to take a compliment half the time – throwing them back in the faces of those who give them (“what this old thing?” “it was only a cheap” “no I don’t, I look a mess” – sound familiar?)! We are often self-deprecating and rarely openly celebrate our successes.
  3. We are mums – OK maybe not all of us but those of us who are and juggling family life with work constantly question whether doing a hundred jobs at once ever allows us to do any of them well. We also feel we have something to prove and mother’s guilt has a lot to answer for, not only in our home lives. I think we tend to try and over compensate so when success does come it feels false, undeserved and sometimes even accidental.
  4. We want to be liked – most of us seek affirmation from those around us. If people like me I must be a nice person. If I talk about how brilliant I am they will think I am obnoxious and arrogant and they won’t like me. Therefore I will talk about all the things that I do that are rubbish and eventually I will start to believe my own hype.
Sarah Ainslie - freelance marketer
Me ‘being American’!

So, what do we do? Notice all the above factors are linked to confidence and perception – our perception of our own abilities and our concerns over the perception that others have of us. Do our American counterparts have the same crises of confidence? I would estimate not to the same degree because they have a culture of confidence there where celebrating successes is the norm and not perceived to be a negative thing (imagine that!). I recently posed for some new profile photos and one of the directions the photographer gave me was to ‘be more American’. What she meant was to ooze the same kind of confidence and attitude that American business people do so it communicates through the image. It did work.

My own personal Imposter Syndrome

I’m as guilty of this as the next person. Last year I entered the Forward Ladies Women in Business Awards and was shortlisted in my category of Best Home Based Business Woman. Even having the ‘audacity’ to enter it was a stretch for me but I’d not seen that category come up in a business awards before and as I offer award entry writing as a service I thought I ought to practice what I preach. To my amazement I was shortlisted! When I went to the Awards ceremony and read the bios of my fellow finalists I had an overwhelming feeling of ‘why am I here?’. I was mortally embarrassed that they were going to read out my bio alongside those of the fabulous women I had been shortlisted with who I perceived to be so much more worthy than me.

I didn’t win. I didn’t feel I deserved to win and I couldn’t even understand why I had made the shortlist, even though everyone told me how well I’d done to get that far. Shortly afterwards I started working with Forward Ladies and learned, without giving too much insider information away, that it had been incredibly close and they couldn’t understand my self-doubt. That was an important lesson for me and I think it did help chip away at my own Imposter Syndrome. Just a little! (By the way, the deadline for 2012’s awards is 29th June so if you’d like to laugh in the face of your inner niggle why not get your entry in?!).

Self doubt: there’s nothing for you here!

It’s not a simple thing to overcome Imposter Syndrome. I have a friend who is the Creative Director for a large global company. She told me that she can’t quite believe how she got to be in such a senior role and puts it down to ‘being in the right place at the right time’. Clearly that kind of luck can only get a person so far and she would have been fired long ago had she not been extremely talented at what she does but try telling her that. Even high achieving people like Meryl Streep feel it so what chance do we have (sorry, self-deprecation again!)? It would be easy to say be ‘more American’, celebrate your successes, accept compliments etc – all good advice but easier said than done. I think, however, that there are a few things we can do:

  • Understand our successes – if we can show the horrible inner niggly voice that success has come as a direct result of the things that we have put in place it becomes harder for it to argue otherwise. Track back the sequence of events that have led to that great conclusion – the decisions we made, the good work we did, the way in which we did it etc. This not only helps us fight against the self-sabotage we like to inflict, it allows us to reproduce it in the future.
  • Mentoring – both mentoring and being mentored can be extremely powerful. A good mentor will guide us but give us the credit for doing things well and the inner niggle is always easier to appease through third party affirmation. Mentoring others is a great way to make you realise that you do actually know your stuff. I’ve recently been mentoring another business through Forward Ladies and it has been incredibly rewarding because people actually listen to me and seem really impressed with what I’m saying! All the stuff I thought was just common sense turns out to be invaluable expertise that I’ve developed over many years of being a marketer, who knew?! Mentoring someone is also a great way to pay it forward and chip away at someone else’s Imposter Syndrome. (Mentor training is available free of charge from Forward Ladies through the government’s Get Mentoring programme).
  • Negotiate with the niggle – don’t try to ignore the niggle, don’t try to argue with the niggle, defy the niggle and it will continue to re-emerge, usually at the worst possible moment. If you negotiate with the niggle and reassure it, giving it valid reasons why it’s wrong, it will eventually realise that it’s actually worrying about nothing. I recently took part in a workshop with Amanda Farrell from Present with Confidence and she talked about the monkey that sits on your shoulder, verbalising all the things that could go wrong when faced with presenting in public. Her solution was to counter all monkey’s concerns with an answer, to stop it worrying. This is the same principle – convince the niggle that there’s nothing to worry about by responding to every concern with a valid reason why you are in fact, truly fabulous!

What do I know? Sorry, I meant listen to me – I KNOW!

I’m not a coach or a business guru; these observations are based on my experience as a woman, and mum, running a business (you’ve no idea how hard I had to fight to not put the word ‘just’ in there!). If you read this thinking, ‘that’s not me I deserve every bit of success I have’ then I applaud you and aspire to be like you. If, on the other hand, you recognise the symptoms of Imposter Syndrome in yourself then I hope this blog has some kind of positive impact on you. Please use the comments section to share your tips, describe your experience of Imposter Syndrome or just tell everyone how fabulous you are! In fact that’s my challenge to you – tell me one thing that you do really well with no ifs, buts or self-deprecation of any kind. Go on, what are you waiting for? YOU ARE AMAZING!

The Author

By Sarah Ainslie of Sarah Ainslie Marketing. It was originally posted on Sarah’s Marketing Mummy UK blog.

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