Imposter syndrome: They ooze confidence, so why do so many career women feel they’re not up to it
You'd never suspect Veronica Henry was anything but confidently on top of her game
She’s a successful novelist with a stack of best-sellers to her name, and a scriptwriter whose credits range from The Archers to Holby City. Were you to meet Veronica Henry, you’d never suspect she was anything but confidently on top of her game.
Yet she has a secret — like a surprising number of high-flying women she feels unworthy of her success. It’s the little voice inside our heads declaring that we’re not as good as everyone else seems to think — that we somehow just got lucky, and any minute now we’ll be found out.
Veronica explains: ‘Lots of people envy the ability to write, and so think you’re a genius, and you sit there and think: “No, I’m not!”. That leads you to think: “Am I a fraud Am I lucky Am I just hard-working” You flip between feeling very confident and then not at all.’
Psychologists call this ‘Imposter Syndrome’ — or the nagging feeling that we haven’t really earned our success. It’s astonishingly common: raise the subject in any circle of good female friends, and confessions will tumble forth.
But what’s intriguing is the growing number of high-profile women now prepared to speak openly about it. Professor Athene Donald is an award-winning physicist and senior academic at Cambridge University, who recently described her own experience of Imposter Syndrome on her blog.
While admitting publicly to what could be seen as a weakness may seem risky, she believes that by doing so, senior women can help younger colleagues see that self-doubt is common — and needn’t necessarily hold them back.
‘We have risen to a degree of seniority that means we have less to fear,’ says Professor Donald, who decided to speak out after realising how many senior scientists and academics she knew felt the same. ‘What I find really interesting about the response to that blog was that suddenly everyone wanted to put up their hand and says “yes, me too”, which I wasn’t really expecting.’
Even former Cambridge vice-chancellor, Alison Richard has confessed that when, as a teenager, she got a letter confirming her place to study at the university, she assumed it was a mistake — an early indicator of Imposter Syndrome.
Feeling judged in a very competitive industry Meryl Streep once wailed 'I don't know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this'
Other giveaways include brushing off
compliments and downplaying achievements, protesting that you were just
‘in the right place at the right time’, had lots of help, or that
‘anyone could have done it’.
And while for many women that just feels like good manners — who wants to brag, or hog all the credit for a team effort — there’s a fine line between self-deprecation and self-destruction. Some ‘imposters’ work themselves into the ground, worried their best isn’t good enough or are driven to keep checking and re-checking their work for mistakes.
Others avoid speaking up in meetings or seeking promotion, even when they’re more than capable. At their worst, like anorexics convinced they see a fat girl staring back from the mirror, they see only failings where the rest of the world sees talent.
Sadly, Imposter Syndrome often stops us really savouring success, since we’re worried it can’t last. Veronica Henry says: ‘We beat ourselves up so much about not being seen to be boastful. But I think as women we should train ourselves to enjoy it a bit more, raise a glass to success, rather than worrying about whether we can do it again.’
I think as women we should train
ourselves to enjoy it a bit more, raise a glass to success…
Of course, it’s not just women who
struggle with confidence. Elizabeth Harrin, a corporate project manager
and author of the ebook Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: Ten Strategies to
Stop Feeling Like a Fraud at Work, estimates around a third of copies
are bought by men. But all the evidence suggests it’s women who are the
most likely to let it undermine their careers.
A survey of senior managers by the Institute of Leadership & Management last year found half the women admitted feeling self-doubt, against only 31 per cent of the men, and were more reticent about seeking promotion. Ironically, this suggests women may actually be less likely than men to get promoted out of their depth. So why do some of us continue to believe, in the teeth of all the evidence, that we’re not up to scratch
Imposter Syndrome was first identified by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes back in the Seventies. They argued that while men tend to put success down to their own innate brilliance, women put it down to something temporary, such as luck or unusually hard work.
When successful women are often portrayed as pushy and dislikeable, it’s easy to see why some might feel uncomfortable at the top. But what distinguishes ‘imposters’ is an unusually strong fear not of success, but of failure. Dr Valerie Young is the author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. She argues that while everyone makes mistakes, ‘imposters’ often feel excessively ashamed about doing so.
‘They have this very definite rule book in their heads that says “if I was really competent I wouldn’t make mistakes, I would know everything . . .” They could win a Nobel Peace Prize and still think they could have done better.’
A survey found half the women admitted feeling self-doubt, against only 31 per cent of the men
Dr Young argues people who rise from
humble backgrounds, and women working in very male-dominated
professions, are particularly at risk since they may feel they don’t
‘fit in’. That rings true for Liz Simpson a 42-year-old fundraising
consultant and mother of two. As the only pupil from her further
education college ever to get to Oxford University, she felt horribly
intimidated by confident public schoolboys. ‘I got to the stage where I
was too frightened to speak in tutorials,’ she says.
Although she went on to run a charity, Liz (not her real name) admits that in the past, self-doubt has stopped her applying for jobs. Actresses and other creative types are also vulnerable because they feel constantly judged in a very competitive world. (Meryl Streep once wailed ‘I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this’)
And in ordinary walks of life, it seems we’re most vulnerable to that fraudulent feeling when we get promoted or take on something new. After accountant Amy Taylor had her second child, she decided to start her own practice locally in Bedfordshire, gloomily anticipating that she might only get half a day’s work a week.
Three years later, Amy Taylor Accountancy has over 100 clients and five extra staff, but its 40-year-old boss still struggles to believe it’s all real: ‘At networking events, if there are other accountants there I do feel really quite scared as if they are going to look at me and think “Who’s she” .’ But while some women find juggling career and children makes them more anxious about being ‘good enough’ at both, for others motherhood can be a blessing in disguise.
Sunshine Jackson Underhill is a Bafta-nominated documentary editor who has worked on shows from Pop Idol to Jamie’s School Dinners. After putting her TV career on hold when her second daughter arrived, the 39-year-old now runs Hopscotch, an email newsletter for parents and she seems every inch the confident entrepreneur.
But she hasn’t always been that way. ‘I couldn’t shake that background feeling of “someone’s going to find out that I don’t know what I’m doing”,’ she says. ‘It took a decade of freelance work before I could turn down even the most rubbish job: I’d be thinking “the phone is never going to ring again”. . .’
However, having her daughters (now aged five and two) boosted her confidence. ‘You have a sort of steel in your belly, having given birth, nursed them through fevers — you know if you had to lift a ten-tonne truck off them, you could,’ she says. ‘So you feel you could do anything, suddenly.’
Swallowing hard and saying ‘yes’ to things that scare you can also be liberating. Esther McVey, the Conservative MP who has campaigned in Parliament on ways to boost female self-confidence, admits to an unusual Achilles’ heel for a politician — she doesn’t really like public speaking. But she has steeled herself to do it because she knows it’s necessary: ‘I think there is an element of, if it’s something you really want to do, just say yes and figure it out afterwards.’
And the more experience you build up, the more evidence you have to face down irrational fears. That might mean reminding yourself that you can’t always know everything, but you are smart enough to find out if necessary: or that the occasional minor error isn’t the end of the world.
If all else fails, it’s worth remembering that doubting yourself occasionally may actually be healthier than being so convinced of your own genius that you never listen to anyone else. ‘It’s something that can act as a spur, to drive you to do better,’ says Athene Donald. ‘Just so long, that is, as you don’t forget how well you’ve already done.’