As the champagne glasses clink around you, you know you should be happy. You should be ecstatic, in fact – on top of the world. This is what you’ve been working towards for your whole career. But you’re not happy at all. You’re hanging on to your fake smile for dear life and praying for the whole thing to be over. You feel panicky, guilty. Because it’s all a terrible mistake. You’re an enormous fraud… and you know it won’t be long before you’re found out.
There is no rhyme or reason to your paranoia, but still it persists. Whenever you are complimented on or rewarded for your achievements, you pinch yourself, flooded with a nagging doubt as to how authentic your talent really is. Impostor syndrome is a confusing, embarrassing and sadly very common psychological phenomenon which mainly affects women. Sufferers are filled with intense fear that their ‘accomplishments’ are anything but and rather a result of luck or other people’s errors of judgement.
Impostor syndrome has dogged me for much of my life, from the moment I first got full marks on a primary school spelling test. Right now, as a newbie freelancer – a genuinely nail-biting experience if ever I had one – I’m particularly susceptible to it. Those first baby steps towards establishing myself haven’t been easy at all. When a high profile publication wanted to publish my work recently, I checked twice to make sure the email address was actually an official, real one and not one set up by a friend with a dodgy sense of humour. Standing in front of a class teaching life drawing, I often panic that the students think I am just winging it and that I don’t have any of the artistic experience and qualifications I actually possess. When my website was nominated for a prestigious award a little while ago, I genuinely wondered if perhaps they’d mistaken it for a different publication with a similar name – even though another publication had already previously won that award under my editorship! If my successes are making me feel this anxious and uncertain, you can imagine what all the rejected pitches make me feel like. Sound familiar at all? The chances are, for a lot of you, it will. But you might not have ever talked about it…
Jane, 35, landed a role as manager in a shop where she’d been working as an assistant for just six months. The promotion came out of the blue and Jane felt that a number of more suitable candidates had been passed over in favour of her. “I was by no means the most accomplished worker there, not at all,” Jane relates. “In fact I was constantly worried I would lose my job as an assistant because I just wasn’t suited to retail work, so it was quite a shock to find myself catapulted to a management position. I went home that night in tears and my husband just couldn’t understand why. He kept telling me we should go out and celebrate but I just wanted to stay in and not talk about it all.” After a few months in her new role, dogged by what she considered a catalogue of slip-ups, Jane handed her notice in. Fortunately, her bosses convinced her to stay on in the job – but it took some persuasion.
Hati, 43, a singer-songwriter, was booked to support a local band who she really admired. “I kept reading and re-reading the email and just feeling a bit sick,” she said. “I was convinced there had been some kind of error and that they would eventually drop me a line and explain the mix-up and I could go back to normal.” Even on the night of the gig, she was still waiting to be dropped off the bill. “I really felt I shouldn’t be there – I kept apologising between songs,” she recalls. “Everyone was clapping and whooping but I felt buy liquid tamoxifen like a rabbit in the headlights on that stage. I was just waiting for someone to come up and drag me off.”
Even the stars aren’t immune. Kate Winslet once said: “I’d wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and think, I can’t do this; I’m a fraud.” Nobel laureate Maya Angelou confesses: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”
Of course it’s true that sometimes we do bite off more than we can chew. Not every situation where we’re unsure of our abilities is symptomatic of self-delusion. But thething is, if we’re messing up, people normally tell us. Especially in a situation where prestige or money is involved.
Being a woman definitely doesn’t seem to help at all when it comes to avoiding impostor syndrome. Many studies – such as this one conducted by YouGov– have shown that women are statistically less likely to ask for pay rises, apply for promotions or go for jobs for which they don’t fulfil every single person specification criteria. Things are improving but sadly we still live in a world where men earn on average 20% more than women – and confidence rather than talent seems to be the issue. Two American sociologists, Jessica Collett and Jade Avelis, conducted high profile research last year into how impostor syndrome manifests in female academics, directly asking them why they weren’t in such “successful” positions as their male contemporaries despite holding similar qualifications/being seemingly held in similarly high esteem in academic circles. Their study of 460 women doctoral students revealed that it wasn’t a desire to make time to start a family or other commitments that lead most women to accept posts which were beneath them – rather it was an overwhelming belief that they had somehow “slipped through the net” and found themselves perceived as higher in the pecking order than they really should be. Their male contemporaries, on the whole, didn’t display anything like such a high incidence of insecurity or under-pitching of their abilities.
So, what do do? Well, talking through the problem doesn’t necessarily mean arriving at your boss’s desk on Monday screaming “Am I good enough?? Why did you hire me?? Is it all a dream??” What it does mean is at least confiding in a good friend or two. Writing this piece, I was amazed at the response when I put a call out for impostor syndrome anecdotes. There were some genuinely high-achieving folk I spoke to who reported feeling panicky if they were asked to do something new at work. Some incredibly talented creatives who felt all their work was crap and everyone was just being nice about it to spare their feelings. People I just did not expect to be feeling this way. Women I’d considered to be absolutely on top of every aspect of their lives.
Impostor syndrome is everywhere, it really is, but it’s just not easy to admit to something so irrational. And of course, ironically enough, the very nature of impostor syndrome is that it can make you worry that talking about it might well be the first step to being “found out”! But talk you must! You may find that, as well as honestly sharing experiences with friends, printing out emails where you’ve been congratulated or pinning awards to your bedroom walls will help. That constant concrete reminder that you can and did do something great can be invaluable.
It’s OK to wake up thinking “What the hell am I doing?” It’s OK to freak out about not being perfect. It’s OK to need a little chat and some reassurance before we do something scary and important.You’re not alone with those niggling negative thoughts.