25/03/2021 Nicola Harris

Challenging Imposter Syndrome.

Why is self-doubt holding us back?

For IWM, I choose to challenge imposter syndrome.

Many of us know the phrase, and the feeling all too well. The confidence zapping self-doubt of feeling like you aren’t as competent as others perceive you to be.

People who experience imposter syndrome are really good at hiding it. It is defined as an ‘internal experience of intense self-doubt that can affect people’s personal and professional lives as they feel inadequate’ and its characteristics commonly appear in successful women.

I like to consider myself a hard-working, determined and positive, high achieving female. However, when I was asked to challenge something for IWM, imposter syndrome was the first thing to spring to mind. Does this mean that I am a fraud? How can I perceive myself as a positive, high achiever if subconsciously I am introspectively doubting whether my high achievements are valid, or instead down to luck?

Yes, these were all thoughts that entered my head.

2020 brought massive changes to ‘normal’ life that no one expected thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic and working from home has now become the norm. Instead of heading into the office to work alongside our fellow colleagues, fuelling off the office energy, and being supported by colleagues who recognise hard-work and achievements, we’re commuting from our bedrooms to our kitchens and spending the day within our own space and our own thoughts to keep us entertained. For some of us, working from home is a welcome change. However, remote working can be a challenge and something which impacts confidence.

The highs and lows of lockdown have been plenty for everyone and lockdown has heightened an added pressure to stay busy causing stress, anxiety and burnout amongst a lot of individuals. These pressures are causing neurological negative behaviour where people are likely to become more sensitive to the tone of someone’s email, a phrase said in a meeting, or even a throwaway comment. All added stresses in a lockdown world where communication has become transactional with people becoming time poor.

For me, 2020 was about resilience. I’m not talking about developing myself into a superwoman because I am fully aware that there is already a‘superwoman phenomenon’ relating to high-achieving females who push harder and harder to take on more work, work longer hours and set to prove themselves whilst comparing themselves to colleagues, which is a harmful cover-up for imposter syndrome insecurities. Instead, I am talking about addressing head on, face to face, my own imposter syndrome triggers so that I can develop a set of coping mechanisms and a stronger inner self-belief to help me determine when I am breaking or blossoming. However, I realise that coping is not as good as thriving and I appreciate there is still a lot of internal work needed to tackle my imposter syndrome.

It is reassuring to know that I am not alone. Two thirds of women in the UK have experienced the burden of imposter syndrome, with a growing number of female entrepreneurs saying it can lead to burnout, increased unhappiness and anxiety. Factors like workplace inequality and the gender gap are often seen as prevalent concerns in professional females. 49% of female respondents in the ‘imposter syndrome research study’ (2019) said they had struggled with it daily, which reflecting on, two years later, in the midst of a global pandemic is a worryingly high percentage pre-lockdown. It’s also disconcerting to read that 51% of the women surveyed put their successes down to timing or team effort, rather than owning their abilities in their role. 37% of the female respondents had not asked for a pay rise that they knew they deserved, due to fear of being rejected. In this context, it’s relatable to understand how women can end up feeling more anxious and stressed if they are caught in a comparison trap when it comes to gender inequality in the workplace.

I recently listened to a podcast episode where imposter syndrome was the topic of discussion and the persona ‘sensitive striver’ was first introduced to me. A sensitive striver is defined as a person driven to succeed and gives their 100% to everything they do. This resonated with me and when I dug deeper into the research, I found out that sensitive striver’s are also seen as conscientious, thoughtful, empathetic and dedicated employees. In fact, four words that as an outsider I’d be proud to have next to my bio. This triggered a turning point in my own personal journey, as rather than dwelling on how imposter syndrome can take over, I decided that it’s time that I fully embraced my own imposter syndrome as a way to combat my fears. You might be thinking, but what does this mean?

Lockdown has allowed me the time and headspace to be more introspective, which in hindsight, I really welcome. It’s given me an opportunity to pause, reflect and be my own best friend, whilst saying a big hello to my own imposter syndrome, recognising that it is not permanent and there’s a lot of tried and tested recommendations to help combat it.

It’s also reminded me that rather than ‘coping’ and pushing through, gritting my teeth, and building resilience, to overcome triggers when flight or fight mode kicks in, I should begin to appreciate that feelings of self-doubt are normal, and at times unavoidable, and these triggers must not be allowed the time and energy to let negative thoughts dictate how I view myself as a professional. As in essence, I am depriving myself of the opportunity to celebrate life’s mini moments of self-achievement, which at the end of the day, should be championed. I mean, let’s face it, the small wins and sense of purpose are normally the key drivers in self-motivation to help us get out of bed in the morning. So, let’s celebrate them!

Females are recognised to be more likely to talk about the imposter syndrome cycle than men, and I recognise this is my opportunity as a proud ‘sensitive striving’ female to talk about it. I now challenge myself to take action. After all, imposter syndrome is something that is good at disguising itself in many facets, but there are many productive methods to reveal this disguise.

As a first mini-challenge I am learning to do a task well enough, rather than perfectly, and recognising the need to celebrate progress through impact rather than effort.

If you can relate to imposter syndrome, I challenge you, to join me, in this collective effort to directly address all of the negative inner voices in the world, so that we can start a journey to overcome it. Therefore, next time it decides to make a profound appearance, we have the words ready: “Welcome back, old friend. Now, let’s get to work.”