I’ve mentioned this a few times before, in various blogs under various categories. It is something that once I found the word for it, made me understand so much about myself. This is a little more personal than I like to go normally and perhaps this is airing a little too much of myself on the internet but hey, this is my blog, not yours.
Plus, on a podcast I’m currently obsessed with (Ladies and Tangents), they covered it over two different sessions, spanning a year gap. Despite already knowing what it meant, I really did have this ‘oh, fuck’ moment listening to it (ngl, I had a little cry).
So I think there’s power to someone naming and discussing something openly, especially as professional women tend to suffer with this a lot (not that I’m claiming womanhood as an excuse, or downplaying it appearing in your life, it affects all genders but has been said to be more prolific among those in the workforce who identify as female).
So what’s the definition of ‘imposter syndrome’?
Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve all they have achieved. Individuals with impostorism incorrectly attribute their success to luck, or interpret it as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be. Impostor syndrome also occurs in normal human-to-human relationships. Based on this syndrome, continuing doubts about people and individual defense mechanisms are considered difficult to achieve healthy relationships. While early research focused on the prevalence among high-achieving women, impostor syndrome has been recognized to affect both men and women equally
From an article in The Harvard Business Review:
Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence. They seem unable to internalize their accomplishments, however successful they are in their field. High achieving, highly successful people often suffer, so imposter syndrome doesn’t equate with low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence. In fact, some researchers have linked it with perfectionism, especially in women and among academics.
How imposter syndrome feels to me/ how I believe some of my thoughts and feelings embody this term
Honestly, GSCE’s were mostly a test of your memory and I could never get why exams were meant to be so hard but course work and presenting work to a class was absolutely horrific. A levels were where I had to put some actual work in and I really struggled with discovering that I’d never learned how to study and the teachers made it sound like the world would end if you didn’t get into university.
However, university was were most of this began, which I talk about for a bit in this blog. But to save you reading it, essentially I went there to study writing and discovered, to my horror, that you had to share your writing. I think I liked the idea of having a group of fellow writers to critique my work in abstract but in reality, I found myself constantly afraid someone was going to ‘find me out’, that I didn’t belong on the course. Everyone was just so much better than me. I was the odd one out. I was going to fail (ahem, got a pretty decent 2:1, so that was clearly bullshit).
On some level, I still don’t believe I deserve my degree. Like they somehow made a mistake or felt sorry for me. At my graduation I was so uncomfortable. I didn’t deserve this praise, this ceremony, all the fuss of family trip to Birmingham with presents, hotels and nice dinners out, because I did not deserve my degree.
In my professional life
A long time before I discovered there was a word for this feeling, I remember telling a colleague at this particular job, when trying to explain why I was so stressed out:
“I think at any moment you guys will find me out. I feel like a fraud and at any minute everything’s going to come crashing down around me and you’ll realise I’m no good.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the most supportive working environment, which I don’t intend to go too much into but it was a very busy, fast paced, intensive, customer facing role. I was asked to take on responsibilities that I wasn’t trained for, certainly wasn’t paid for and that I didn’t feel capable of doing. Every mistake was on me, not on the people that put me in that position. I know now that I was clearly very capable, otherwise I wouldn’t have been handed those responsibilities and I would not have been able to handle them the way I did, which was very well, if I do say so myself.
In this instance though, imposter syndrome was not only crippling every decision I made professionally, it also made me very easy to take advantage of. I would accept blame at every turn, even when it truly did not lie with me because I was already blaming myself. I was the fraud. I was a mistake, they shouldn’t have hired me and now they’re stuck with me until I fuck up so badly I get fired. I was constantly over preparing for every disaster, convinced that if I planned well enough, if I prepared hard enough, it would circumvent my ineptitude (again I am NOT inept but I was convinced that I was).
In my new job (or not so new, its been well over a year!) I carried this with me, convinced it was a fluke that I’d landed it. That they’d hired me as a last resort. I’ve had to work very hard to move past this feeling and I guess that’s the only silver lining of the pandemic, I had plenty of time for a bit of self reflection.
Let me be very clear, I now know that I am good at what I do. I know that I pick up new skills easily and do them well. I know that when I speak, I know what I am talking about. But even as I write that there’s a little niggling voice suggesting that someone will see this and ‘out’ me on LinkedIn as a fraud and inform you all that I’m actually shit.
Personally/ as a writer
Sticking personal and writing together is also somewhat impostery but I don’t feel like writing yet falls into professional (soon though, hey?).
My friends and family used to be subjected to my writing often, until about 10ish years ago (different thing besides uni that I am really not prepared to air online). Even now, they know I have this blog but most don’t read it, nor do I encourage them too. They certainly don’t get to read any of the writing that even you guys don’t get to see. One day soon I hope I’ll be ready to let go but the thought of any of you reading my precious story, which I have worked on for years now, on and off, fills me with deep dread.
I’ve managed to share this except and when a friend told me she was going to read it (because I’d been stressing at her about the fact that I’d shared it in the first place). I had to voice note her to say ‘if you think it’s shit, don’t tell me, just lie to me and I won’t ask any follow up questions’. Of course, I double whammied myself there because then when she did like it, I’m still half convinced that she told me that because I told her to lie.
To this day calling myself a writer, or even terming myself as someone who is passionate about writing, feels absurd. With all the beautiful literature in the world, what right do I have to group myself with them?
But, here I am, writing blogs for free, around a full time job, for the sheer pleasure of doing so. It’s 3am. I have to be up in seven hours (I’m writing this on a Friday night). Objectively, I have every right to at least say, I really do enjoy writing because why else would I be doing this?
As for my personal life in general, I do constantly under-value many things about myself, whether it be my looks, personality, how funny I am, how interesting I am, how smart I am or whether I am even important to my friends. I am half convinced, most of the time, that I could disappear and my friends would not care. Even in friendship I consider myself a fraud. In my family, I am sure most of the time I am the secretly hated, an annoyance, a burden; I am never doing enough to be helpful, I am never what I should be.
Neither of those two groups of people deserve this feeling I have. None of their actions lead me down this thought track.
But this is why I feel like this thing, this term that does encompass some self esteem issues, some anxious tendencies, deserve a bit of discussion. What started out as a small chink in my belief in myself, has since bled into all areas of my life.
How am I trying to fix it?
Firstly, I am obviously not a mental health professional, so speak to someone real if you’re struggling.
Secondly, the overlap between this and anxiety is fairly high, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario for me, I don’t know which came first. (btw I do not have anxiety, I just know I started to perform a lot of anxiety coping mechanisms at one point). So, most anxiety management tools will help. For me, breathing exercises worked a treat. Plus, any kind of grounding technique.
Thirdly, I took the time to separate in my head, the rational from the irrational. Anytime my brain throws up one of these ‘its because your shit’ mantras, I challenge it. I ask why. Why do I think I’m shit? Is it because this is a skill I feel less secure in, so I’m stressed about doing a good job? Then I’m not shit because clearly I care and I’m going to do the best job possible. If it’s not right, it’s okay. Because it can be worked on, either alone, or with help.
Fourth, I ask for help. It goes against everything in me because by admitting I don’t know something, or can’t do something, I am ‘officially outing myself as a fraud’. I was so afraid of admitting my short comings, of being found out, I didn’t use my uni tutors nearly enough, nor the resources the uni had, I didn’t speak to management about my worries until they literally caught me crying in an empty office. I would be on the phone with a colleague querying something in a happy voice, with tears rolling down my face.
Disclaimer- if you’re in an environment, professionally or academically, where you are not able to ask for help due to the structures already in place, choose avenues that will hold the person who is supposed to be taking care of you accountable. Get more senior staff members involved, bring hr into it, blind CC exists for a reason (even though it’s hella shady). Have written accounts of what’s been discussed, either from meeting notes (which you must also have access too) or in an email trail. If you do muck up because of poor training or poor people management, if there’s a paper trail of you requesting assistance, or highlighting an issue, you will at least be covered. But sitting in silence will do no good. It will help no one.
Fifth, believe the evidence of your own eyes and ears. If you receive praise, if something you do performs well and there’s evidence in the stats/ leads/ money etc that comes from it. Believe it. Don’t believe you have somehow tricked everyone; in my case, this includes the complete strangers on the internet who like/ interact with a thing I’ve made. How I have you all fooled.
Accept compliments with grace and internalise them until it becomes true.
It will take a long time. It is taking me a long time. I am un-learning a very long-held knee jerk reaction.
So far, I’ve been going with a ‘fake it ’till you make it’ strategy. I will fake confidence, assertiveness and assuredness until they become real. Until they are my first instinct.
If I’m always going to feel like a fake, might as well be a confident fake.
If you made it this far, well done, this was veryyy long- here’s a star *
Thank you for reading my not so funny rant!
I felt this on so many levels
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I told you that you needed to read this one!
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