Those of you that follow my blogs or social media, know that I have been banging on about The Imposter Syndrome for some time now. It’s becoming one of the things I’m known for and, to be honest, it’s becoming a bit of a mission for me. I’ll talk more about why in a bit, but last week it was brought home to me that many people still don’t know about it and so, I thought this might be a good chance to just write about what it is and what it can do.
The Imposter Syndrome is a widely accepted term used to describe that feeling that many people, yes you read correctly, many people experience. It’s the feeling that they’re not good enough; that they’re in the position they’re in by accident and that at any moment people will find out and they’ll be exposed as a fraud and an imposter. So many people are said to be sufferers; from Maya Angelou to Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg; from Albert Einstein to actor and activist, Emma Watson.
You might wonder if this is just a symptom of modern life; another first world issue, but apparently Imposter Syndrome is rooted in our evolution. To worry is a natural thing. In past and more dangerous times, it was important to worry about where your food and shelter was going to come from, what or who might attack you, as this worry made you plan and take adequate precautions. So, the worry and anxiety element of it is bred into us. The thing is that, fortunately, most of us don’t have to worry about basic survival on an hourly basis any more and so we focus on other things.
We are also taught, from an early age, not to brag and shout about our achievements as this is seen as brash and cocky. After all, no one likes the person who’s constantly telling everyone how great they are do they? This is especially the case for those of us who have been brought up with a modest British mentality and for girls who are told to play nice, be nice and make everyone feel comfortable, which usually means downplay our abilities. Remember all those 1970s British sitcoms with the annoying and loud know-it-all man and the, equally annoying, social climbing woman? We would laugh at them, but no one wanted to be them. Therefore, we’re almost conditioned to have Imposter Syndrome, especially if we’re a woman.
As we become more successful, reality starts to rub up against this conditioning and we start to worry about the success. We’ve been downplaying our abilities for so long that we believe that we don’t have them. We don’t want to be seen as bragging and so we don’t own our successes and we self-deprecate; that further feeds our conditioning. And so, we have Imposter Syndrome.
I told you I’d tell you why this is becoming my mission.
I was speaking about Imposter Syndrome at the North East England Chamber of Commerce Inspiring Females conference last week and had a familiar but no less moving experience. A female leader (and if you’re reading this yes, you are a female leader) thanked me for my presentation. She had never heard of Imposter Syndrome before and had believed that it was just her. She was quite emotional about this and I could see the relief on her face as she realised that this wasn’t just her and that this was a thing. That is why I’m doing this.
I want everyone to realise that Imposter Syndrome is a thing and that it can be controlled. That it doesn’t have to stop you from achieving the life you desire, and it doesn’t have to make you stressed and anxious. I remember the relief I felt when I discovered that what I was feeling wasn’t just me being incompetent; I want everyone to experience that relief. But there is more than that.
My daughter is now almost 14, and the other day I asked her a question. I asked if she ever sat in her maths class and wondered if she was in the right set. My daughter is good at maths, she used to really like it, and she’s in the top set at school. However, she thinks she’s rubbish at it. When I asked her if she wondered if she was in the right set I was obviously trying to work out if she already has Imposter Syndrome. She does. She admitted that she sometimes thinks that they must have made a mistake when they did the test that determined maths sets and she has been put in the wrong one. You can imagine the conversation that followed (much rolling of eyes and cries of, “stop doing that coaching thing on me”).
It breaks my heart to know that we are bringing forward a group of young people, particularly young women, who have Imposter Syndrome. We know about this now. There are hundreds if not thousands of books, articles and talks about it. But unless you know about it you’re unlikely to seek out help. We need role models like you and like me to talk to people about it. We need to confess that we experience it. I’ve got control over mine; I’m thankful that I have but, like everyone, it’s something I have to keep working at. If we haven’t got control over it, we need to get control and we need to share far and wide. The very nature of Imposter Syndrome means that it’s unlikely you’ll admit to the feelings – remember you think you’re incompetent and that you’re going to be found out so you’re not likely to start broadcasting that. However, we know that’s not the case; we know that we are amazing; we know that we deserve to be where we are and that, because of Imposter Syndrome, we probably deserve far more success than we’re currently achieving; we know what we are worth.
So please, share this, share my lives and videos, share whatever you can about the Imposter Syndrome. Talk to colleagues and young people, especially if they are female. Join me on my mission to help everyone be who they are created to be and give the gifts they are meant to give the world.