“I don’t think I’m as good as people seem to think I am. I’m out of my depth. I’m not sure I can do this.”
“I feel like such a fraud. It’s only a matter of time before someone finds me out.”
“I’m just setting myself up to fail. I’ll forever be known as the one who just wasn’t quite good enough.”
“Everyone else seems so much more capable than me. They must all be thinking I’m the weakest link.”
How many times have you told yourself one or all of those things?
Growing up, I believed I could do anything and there was nothing I couldn’t achieve. I remember my gymnastics coach, Phil, telling me “Gabriella, there’s no such thing as “can’t”.” Granted, it was usually when I was hanging upside down from a high bar not entirely sure how I was going to get down in one piece, but still, I always just believed that I could achieve anything I put my mind to with a little bit of determination. Failure simply wasn’t an option.
So when did it all change? When did I start to question whether I was actually good enough?
I was lucky enough to have a childhood full of love, support and encouragement, and so the first time I faced rejection or ‘failure’ it was like a proper train crash moment. From the first time a boy broke my heart (I’m over him now) to getting rejected at the final stage for a graduate job (I got a great one in the end), I only had myself to pick myself back up again but actually didn’t know how. Failure was not a word I’d ever contemplated let alone experienced.
In all those years growing up where we’re empowered to believe we can be anything we want to be, there’s no-one telling us that sometimes we’ll fall and how to pick ourselves up again, dust off our shiny shoes and go forth with confidence. We don’t learn how to leave the moment in the moment, simply put it down to experience, learn from it and continue to look ahead without a second thought. We analyse. We exacerbate. We catastrophise.
In my career to date, I’ve had many of those ‘train crash moments’. And for some reason I started almost to collect them until such point that I lost some of that strong-willed steely determination I’d had when hanging upside down from the high bar, aged eight. Back then, I’d have probably fallen off the bar but got straight back up, bruised and battered, yet determined to prove to myself and everyone around me that I could do it.
So what’s the difference with my career?
“The Imposter Syndrome”, as it’s affectionately known, affects most successful women (and some men too!) at some point in their career. Some admit to it but most suffer in silence, not wanting to admit it for fear of being exposed as a ‘failure’, ‘weak’ or ‘not up to it’. I’ve battled with it for many years. My most vivid memory was deciding not to run for Students’ Union President when I graduated from university because I allowed the other candidate to convince we I wouldn’t be as good as him. Instead I ran for Vice President and, as much as I loved my term in office, always regretted doubting that I’d have been successfully elected as President and have done a great job.
Yes there are times when I probably am out of my depth but most of the time it’s all in my head. A wobble triggered by something relatively insignificant, catastrophised into something insurmountable that means I’ve decided I’m just not capable enough and it’s only a matter of time before I’m exposed for being the fraudster I’ve somehow convinced myself I am.
I’m increasingly surprised at the number of women – and men – at all levels who open up to me about how they feel it’s only a matter of time before they’re found out and are shocked to hear that I’m no different to them.
Yes there are days when I have a wobble. Yes there are days where I want to run away and hide because I suddenly feel exposed and vulnerable. But over the years I’ve found my own ways of coping when the voices in my head are telling me I’m not good enough and I can’t do it.
So, aside from just making sure I walk a little taller, painting my smile on and polishing my heels, what have I learnt?
1. Talk about it (or write about it!) – when I start to articulate how I feel out loud, I’m acknowledging the voices of doubt in my head. The more I formulate my thoughts, the more I realise I’m blowing things out of proportion. Only then can I logically rationalise what is and isn’t true about what I’m thinking and focus on working on the things that genuinely need to be fixed or controlled.
2. Use my network – when I know I’m out of my depth, rather than burying my head in the sand, worrying when someone is going to hunt me down, I find someone who does know what they’re doing (in or outside the business) and ask them to help me. Most people are flattered to be asked, can help me re-gain perspective and offer me some practical steps to empower me to move forward. Before I know it I’m back on track.
3. Ask for feedback – I ask people I trust (friends, family, colleagues) to write down what they value me for. I also file emails where people have praised me for a job well done. I keep the feedback and re-read it in times of self-doubt to remind myself of all the good qualities that I have, both personally and professionally. I also keep an up-to-date list of my achievements from over the years. It’s all too easy to only ever focus on all the things we think we’re not, so reading my feedback and achievements is a good way of building myself back up quickly when I have a wobble.
4. Stay true to myself – being the true you is important for getting the best out of yourself. Showing your vulnerable side is a strength and not something to hide from others; it shows that you’re real. People warm to people who are human. It’s also our responsibility to show other women to believe they can too by always remembering to be authentic but at the same time remembering to walk tall. We need to empower ourselves but empower them too.
And the biggest thing I’ve learnt? The most effective way of overcoming imposter syndrome is to simply recognise that it exists. And that it’s completely normal.
We have to remind ourselves to be secure in the knowledge that the success we’ve won is quite simply down to our hard work, determination and talent. We weren’t just in the right place at the right time or born under a lucky star.
So the next time that voice in your head tells you you’re not good enough, aren’t capable or aren’t the right person for the job, remind yourself to simply believe that you can. Because actually, deep down, you know you can.
And do you know what? I still believe I could get myself off that high bar in one piece, albeit maybe somewhat less gracefully than I did aged 8.