Feeling underqualified and not good enough is a crippling phenomenon many women suffer from. Here’s how to deal with your internal imposter
A year ago, my cognitive behavioural therapist, in a requisite move towards deeper digging, asked me to verbally list my career history. Flummoxed at having to shine a Gestapo-like light on myself, I reductively sped through my positions. Like they’re odds and sods. “It seems you’ve been very successful, you’ve had some really big roles,” she enthused. “Weeeeell,” I melodied, pushing back on her compliment, “I’ve been lucky. I hope I can keep pulling it off.” I cloddishly slapped the side of my armchair and mumbled out some indiscernible words as an audio cue for her to snap to another topic. “You might think you’re being modest,” she said through taut lips, “but actually, you have Imposter Syndrome.”
The idea that my achievements had only materialised through a stroke of good luck or by default (“it only came to me because that person left the company”) rather than qualification and talent, is called Imposter Syndrome and it was first identified by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978.
I am in good company. Because according to the International Journal of Behavioural Science, 70 per cent of people will experience symptoms of the condition at some point in their lives.
Here’s a scenario you can all relate to. You’re tapping away, getting on with your work, but something is telling you that you aren’t competent enough. Or rather, a little gremlin sits on your shoulder and chides at you every time you’ve been tasked with a job with lots of responsibility: “What are you even doing?” it nags. That stomach churning feeling intensifies to 100 when you see others seemingly performing well, coming up with ideas off the bat and having answers to everything. Your confidence ebbs dramatically. Interestingly, women in particular are known to be plagued by Imposter Syndrome.
Growing up, we were subconsciously tyrannised by a rigid set of rules that were determined by our sex. Girls have to be nice and pretty, boys have to be strong and smart. “Girls aren’t encouraged to speak up,” says Archana Bhatia, a training lead at Hopscotch – a platform for empowering women in the workplace, “but when we do, we question whether we said it right or not. Girls are taught to be caregivers – that starts with siblings – where they have to support others all the time. They have a background role. Interestingly, studies have shown that up until the age of seven, girls and boys operate on an equal playing field of confidence. After that, when the socialisation starts to harden, there is a distinct difference – girls put their hands up less in class and shy away from coming forward. Just look at a playground of children: the boys are risk-takers and the girls are told to be careful. This has a lasting impact,” Archana adds. The more we hear that messaging, the more accessible that representation becomes. The internalised belief that girls are brittle and shouldn’t make bold steps without constantly looking over their shoulder, is common. So, when women do climb the corporate ladder and land a career-defining position, they fear they don’t have the capacity to do it (despite their proven track record that got them there in the first place) because they’re used to feeling like a supporting act.
A Hewlett Packard internal report found that men apply for jobs if they fulfil 60 per cent of the requirements, whereas women will only apply if they can meticulously tick off 100 per cent of them, indicating that women have a mistaken perception of their ability.
Even though studies prove that Imposter Syndrome is an engrained part of the female experience in the workplace, it is not only limited to women or female dominated industries either. Men too, can be crippled by a sense of being ‘found out’ and like women, they feel the need to amass as many skills as they can to qualify their standing at work.
Our socialisation isn’t the only attribute to Imposter Syndrome; a toxic company environment can wreak havoc on our mental wellbeing. In order for us to feel confident enough to take risks and trial ideas, we need to have psychological safety at work to allow us the freedom to explore our abilities, even if we fail.
“A safe work environment has to be implemented from the top,” for it to trickle down and create a positive space that benefits everyone, says Archana. Many of us dread to ask for more flexibility – somehow it makes us seem non-commited. But having the freedom to exercise your autonomy at work is a key tenet to workplace happiness. However, many companies still operate on the archaic premise that if you’re not sat at your desk (read: chained to your desk from 8am-6pm), you’re not doing a good job.
One woman I spoke to about her experience of Imposter Syndrome told me that the constant passive aggressive tutting and head shaking in her old job made her feel very anxious. “My manager would leave at 6pm everyday and her colleagues looked down on her for it, questioning her dedication to her career, suggesting that she was a bad example of a professional. But she had impeccable time management – she put her head down and powered through the day. This put me on edge too,” she says. Years later, having run the gamut of jobs at poorly managed companies with despotic executives who “never gave supportive or encouraging comments” and told her “that I needed to work even harder to deserve my salary”, she is now the founder of a successful company and believes in herself. “I would never let my team feel like they are inadequate, replaceable or that they don’t matter.” But imposter symptoms still linger on in her at times, “I still get pangs of panic that I am not doing enough, not ahead of the times or that I am missing a trick.”
Additionally, Imposter Syndrome is prevalent in women who have taken a career hiatus after having children, leaving them feeling out of touch and intellectually insecure. The lack of flexibility puts women returning to work in a compromising position to make big sacrifices. “This is why there are so many female entreprenuers in the UAE,” says Archana, “which is great because they are highly driven and motivated, but it’s their only option to have the right kind of balance on their own terms.”
Omaira Farooq Al Olama, founder of ALF Administration, a company dedicted to the development and advancement of Emirati and young expats in the workplace, is working on a ‘return to work’ programme alongside the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Education. “It will allow women the chance to take a few years off to stay with their families while their companies promise to give back their old job with training and development courses to keep them up to date.”
On the flip side of the employement spectrum, Omaira adds that in the UAE young graduates take jobs that are far too senior for their entry level skills. “They are placed with people who have years of experience and are told to perform at that level. This is impossible. Ideally, they should be trained by the existing employee. But the problem is, the experienced employee doesn’t have the time to babysit and they fear their job will be taken away from them.” Counter to what you’d think, Imposter Syndrome doesn’t affect performance. “Actually, I have found that it has the opposite effect. People try even harder, they continue to excel to prove they are not imposters,” says Archana. “Women already have to prove they are equal to their male counterparts so they claim they can do any job just to get the position and then don’t ask for help so that they don’t look like a fraud,” adds Omaira.
In terms of everyday behavioural tendencies, “you often find women in particular look for more affirmation, or a ‘pat on the back’ at work. Saying ‘this might be a stupid question but…’ is a way of getting the other person to respond with ‘no, that’s not a stupid question,’” says Archana. “We need to learn to sell ourselves better and be more assertive.”
Let it show, let it show
I can see the collective eye-roll now – no one likes a show off! How often do you clammer in a sheen of sweat when someone praises you (but secretely lather in that adulation)? Remember that reaction to what my therapist said about my achievements? We deflect with self-deprecation because it’s easy and puts us on neutral territory with those around us – sans arrogance.
But self-deprecation is a damaging device coated in charm. And, again, it’s gendered. Men don’t do it because they feel they are in a natural position to receive plaudits for their hard work. Women deflect their successes because they don’t want to be ‘too much’, instead, bringing themselves down to a ‘relatable’ and ‘likeable’ level.
“I have a masters degree, run a business and am a mother of three – and yet, when I get congratulated, I quietly say ‘thank you’ instead of owning it. Maybe it’s the culture I grew up in?” notes Omaira.
I too have often credited the fruits of my labour to a ‘fake it till you make it’ process of ‘winging it’, but “when men are in a similar position they don’t even look at it as ‘faking it’ – they see it as ‘we’re doing it, we’ve done it in the past’ and therefore have the innate confidence to take on new challenges with gusto,” explains Archana.
“When you introduce yourself, make sure that peple know what you do, what you’ve done, where you’ve gotten your qualification from (‘oh you’re going to Thailand for your holiday? I used to work for one of the largest auditing firms there’).” Of course, no need to shout out your entire C.V. from the rooftops in the first three minutes, but where the opportunity opens up to expose your talents, do it. Those who are silent in their achievements won’t reap the rewards. Fact.
Archana’s theory on job success is threefold: 60 per cent is your exposure –making sure people know what you do, lending credence to your skills – 30 per cent is your branding – that is the shadow you cast on others to gain a substantial following (in other words, get your Sasha Fierce on) and then the last 10 per cent is how well you do your work – women tend to focus solely on the latter.
Collaborate don’t compete
Unfortunately women experience more incivility at work – especially by other women. A Harvard Business Review article from 2018 states that “low-intensity incivility like snarky comments or rude interruptions or brusque emails may seem minor but the costs can add up”.
Another woman I spoke to about woman-on-woman incivility says: “I have these girls in my office who always make everyone feel inadequate. I actually spoke to my director about it because it got so bad. They were unanimously warned in the office monthly meeting. Since then, they’ve been nicer, but there are still bursts of meaness. They made me question if I was even a good person.”
Even the notion of a cat fight engenders the idea that women (not men) are bound to be going at it. “Years ago when I was head of HR in a company, one of my team members came up to me and said ‘oh my goodness you missed a really good cat fight just now’. I said ‘it was between women right?’ ‘Yes, how did you know?’ he questioned, besumed. ‘Well, you said cat fight,’” Archana recalls. Where women and competition are concerned, we are trained to measure our success against each other.
A woman who is intimidatingly sharp, confident, beautiful and all-round accomplished has the ability make your stomach flip inside out. But instead of cowering away in hollow resentment, befriend her, a concept called Shine Theory.
First coined by journalist Ann Friedman and businesswoman Aminatou Sow, Shine Theory’s premise is simple: “If I don’t shine, you don’t shine.” Surrounding yourself with powerful women, or powerful people, you don’t look worse by comparison, you actually look better.
In an article for The Cut, Ann says: “Approaching and befriending women who I identify as smart and powerful (sometimes actively pursuing them, as with any other crush) has been a major revelation of my adult life. First, there’s the associative property of awesomeness: people know you by the company you keep. I like knowing that my friends are so professionally supportive that when they get a promotion, it’s like a boost for my résumé, too.”
Of course, it’s all well and good reading about ways to quash insecurities, but you need to actually commit to replacing your inner voice of doubt with confidence. That takes a considerable amount of brain rewiring. But we also have to accept our natural state of vulnerability in the times that we are fallible – it’s what makes us real. But if you’re happy with what you’ve achieved and are comfortable with yourself, then you can start to kiss Imposter Syndrome, goodbye.
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