he day Sheryl Sandberg graduated from Harvard, her class was given a speech called ‘Feeling Like a Fraud’. This may seem a little distasteful considering this was the graduating body of the world’s best university. Yet, Sandberg, graduating with suma cum laude, nodded in agreement with the speaker, relating to the idea that at some point, she had “fooled” the admission staff into believing that she was good enough to study there. Now this gremlin of self-doubt has a name; Imposter Syndrome. Coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, the persistent feeling that you are a fraud hasn’t changed all that much in the last 40 years – except for the fact that highly successful women are more susceptible than ever.
The problem stems from the common gender divide we experience in childhood. According to Valarie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, the lessons of being bold and brazen boys get as children sets them on a path of continued confidence. Girls on the other hand, are taught to translate self-endorsement as an unattractive quality and a life-long battle with perfectionism ensues, resulting in 70% of women feeling like a fraud in their professional lives. In dodging the bullet of self-recognition, Young says, downplaying our achievements becomes an act of sabotage as we devalue our own work and subsequent self-worth which can have detrimental effects in the long run.
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Face the Dragon
Taking inspiration from Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step to solving a problem is admitting its existence. Although our moments of self-doubt can easily be mistaken as the natural inclination to be humble, the line between being down to earth and being critical is a fine one. A sufferer herself, Brett Murphy Hunt found that simply admitting she had a problem with something which was likely to also affect most of her peers was a weight off her shoulders. Safety in numbers is an old school of thought but it appeals to basic human instinct. We feel better knowing we are not alone so take the same reassurance; just like those bravely battling addiction, stick your hand in the air, tell the world your name and say “I feel like an imposter.”
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Focus on Value, Not Perfection
In the spirit of ‘letting go’ of the illusion, it’s important to also realise that the goal of perfection doesn’t exist. Margie Warrell writes that by wasting energy on stressing over how perfection has not been obtained, we automatically discredit the value of our efforts. Attempting to achieve perfection in order to be ‘worthy’ of your successes discredits all the work you’ve done to get to that point of evaluation. If you can't see the value of your efforts during the journey to success, you'll be less likely to appreciate or even recognise the worth of your achievement overall; contradictory as well as destructive.
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Own Your Successes
Women, more often than men, tend to attribute outside factors such as luck to their successes. Again, the root of the issue here is that women are taught not to flaunt their achievements, says psychologist Natasha Murashev, whilst a man “will feel like he deserved the same promotion through his own intelligence and hard work”. Alexandra Petri makes an outstanding point in translating some of humanity’s most memorable quotes into how a woman would 'say' them in a meeting. The once inspiring “I came. I saw. I conquered” becomes a depressing attempt at self-validation that still glorifies team-work over individual input; “I don’t want to toot my own horn here at all but I definitely have been to those places and was just honoured to be a part of it as our team did such a wonderful job of conquering them.” Women need to take ownership of their successes in the same way we take responsibility for failure.
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Recognise yourself in others
Fake-it-til-you-make it is a tactic for success for a reason. Lesley Kinzel of XOJane.com points out how we are all faking at some point in our careers but this shouldn’t be perceived as being fake, but rather a projection of the person we’re striving to be; “even the most confident and assured person you know has days when they feel like everything they touch is a disaster”. Remember that just because some of your team members may have mastered Oscar worthy performances in the office, does not mean that they do not have their moments of self doubt.
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Phone a Friend
Andrew Griffiths admitted to readers that the more his profile as an author grew, “the more I felt like an imposter who wasn't as good as other people”. The day he did tell a friend, who sat there with her jaw on the floor, he felt a huge amount of relief and was surprised by how many others will “often admit they are feeling the same way.”
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Another lesson Sandberg learned quickly; women don’t need to be universally liked to be successful and our excessive habit of apologising for fear of offending anyone and being overly polite is a contributing factor to imposter syndrome. Harriet Minter of the Guardian reiterates this in discussing women and leadership; “I almost have more time for leaders who are less likeable, because they’re being honest about their character”. In a fantastic twist, Oliver Burkeman also points out that in analysing the scope of imposter syndrome sufferers, “one of the frustrating ironies is that true frauds rarely seem to experience it”, making apologising for being yourself all the more counterproductive.
Become a Mentor
Interestingly, mentoring someone else is one of the easiest ways to overcome fraudulent feelings. Alex Liu argues that “by dealing with how you overcame your early obstacles, you can clearly see how your earlier insecurities – and thus your current ones – were overblown.” When we’re semi-responsible or in affiliation with someone, more often than not, we have a reflexive response to be confident and believe in what we are saying; or as Suits’ Harvey Spectre memorably says, “you’re a reflection of me and I absolutely care about me”. If it only takes 20 days for routine to become a habit, then the long-term nature of a mentorship will seal the deal in battling confidence.