Have you ever sat in a roomful of people and thought ‘Why was I invited, what can I add to this?’ or had lingering feelings of doubt around your own capabilities even when people were saying otherwise. Have you thought that people will ‘finally catch on and realise you aren’t even good at this’ or sabotaged yourself to avoid being in a situation where others will ‘figure it all out’.
Well, you are like so many other women!
Many women experience what professor Pauline Clance and psychologist Suzanne Imes coined as the imposter syndrome (Bell, 1990). They studied high-achieving women and found that although many of these women were functioning and achieving at a high level they felt as though this was not due to their own capabilities, it was due to external factors. They have a disabling belief that they are imposters.
Imposter syndrome is where you are unable to internalise your achievements, even when evidence indicates this is the case. Ironically, this often occurs after a positive milestone; a promotion, a new business, acceptance into a scholarship programme of area of study, the invitation to an event or group or winning an award. They often downplay their success, dismiss their abilities and this leads one to feel as though they don’t really deserve to be where they are at, and that at some point everyone is going to figure out they are not actually capable of the space they occupy.
Although imposter syndrome occurs across the board, women have been found to suffer from it at a much higher rate. In her research, Bell (1990) found that men were more likely to attribute their success to their own capabilities, while women were more likely to attribute it to external factors. Bell (1990) commented that the socialised gender role expectations in society create conflicting messages to women about their achievements, which consequently make it difficult to internalise success. These social constructs suggest that women should be secretaries and nurses etc, and not in leadership positions. This can lead to women who are ‘breaking the mould’, to have feelings of not fitting where they should, they feel they are imposters simply because of their gender. The socialisation of gender also means many women hide their capabilities to avoid being targeted, to avoid jealousy and envy, to not appear ambitious or bossy or career focused etc.
If you find yourself feeling like a fraud and struggling to internalise your success here are a few things to help:
– Not setting excessively high standards. I am not talking about having goals and striving to achieve these. It is the excessively high standards, the chase for the myth of ‘perfect’, having to be the best at everything you do. It also means not setting these ridiculous standards for your children, employees, colleagues or loved ones. This often sets people, including yourself, up to fail which causes negative self-talk around your own capabilities. When you do achieve one of these items it becomes the exception and so it is difficult to internalise this.
– Stop with the comparison. I feel like I could put this bullet point in pretty much every blog I write, and with good reason. Comparison really is a killer. Comparing your own life and achievements to someone else is comparing roses to orchids, we all bloom in different seasons. If your baseline of success is based on what someone else has achieved, nothing will ever be good enough and someone will always ‘be better’ which leads to similar thought processes as having excessively high standards.
– Evaluate yourself. Really engage with yourself and evaluate you. What are your strengths, what are your capabilities, areas to improve on, blind-spots, areas for opportunity etc. Try and be specific with your evaluation; “I am good at presenting information to an audience in a way that is easy to understand. I am also an engaging presenter” rather than “Good presenter”. Ask other people what they think for the areas I have suggested too.
– Link your evaluation to examples. After you have done the in-depth self-evaluation, think of the times you have achieved something and use this evaluation to explain it e.g:
|Example||Evaluation points||New explanation|
|I was asked by my manager to present to the whole staff.
|I am good at presenting information to an audience in a way that is easy to understand.
I am also an engaging presenter.
I am reliable.
I have a strong work ethic.
I have strong research skills.
I am good at developing presentations.
I am able to think on the spot.
I can articulate answers well.
I am a good learner.
I am thorough.
(you get my drift!)
|My manager asked me to present to the whole staff because she knew I was competent, and had the capabilities to do so.|
– Be a good boss/friend etc. This means not micro-managing people. You are sending the message that you do not trust them or think they have the required capabilities by doing this. When they do succeed then, they will not take any internal credit as they will not feel they did it anyway. It means to give people the chance to show their capabilities, provide help and training where it is needed and let them achieve themselves. Be supportive and empower others in their success, think about how you acknowledge or praise others, does it allow them to internalise success or are you creating ‘imposters’ by saying they were lucky to be given the opportunity, were able to do so because of the structures in place, or without their team they would have struggled etc.
– Use specific affirmations. Use affirmations that highlight your capabilities “I am good at..” etc.
It really saddens me that so many of us women (I was definitely one), have these feelings of being an imposter. So, let’s change this! Own your capabilities, celebrate your success, walk with pride knowing all you have achieved, and it is ok to acknowledge external factors, but be sure to internalise it ladies, because you are awesome!
Mel H x
Bell, L. A. (1990). The gifted woman as imposter. Advanced Development Journal, 2, 55–64.