GRACE'S MUSINGS: Imposter Syndrome

Do you ever feel like a fraud? That you’re in the wrong job, that you’re not as smart as people think – and that sooner or later, you’ll be found out? What you’re experiencing is imposter syndrome, and I see it in women more often than you’d believe possible.

The weird thing is, it’s always the high achievers –­ in fact, that’s the group among whom it was first documented in the late 1970s. And in the panels I’ve spoken on recently, celebrating the resilience, creativity and success of female entrepreneurs, it’s come up again and again.

Consider Baroness Helena Morrissey. She’s a member of the House of Lords. She’s worked in financial services for more than 30 years and campaigns for women’s fiscal equality. She founded the 30% Club to increase representation of women on UK corporate boards. And she has nine children.

And yet, she has said, “I know the feeling well. I felt the very definition of an imposter when promoted to chief executive aged 35, with no business management experience. One minute I was a successful fund manager, the next I was in charge of a business employing hundreds and managing £20 billion of other people’s money.”

On the one hand, it’s no surprise to me that even someone as accomplished as she is could doubt themselves. But it also makes me furious that the way society functions contributes to women feeling like frauds and phoneys, not worthy of a job title or status, and living in fear of being “found out”.

“It doesn’t matter how great our actual achievements are,” Morrissey told The Telegraph, “the self-doubt can be crippling to the point where feelings of inadequacy become self-fulfilling. Imposter syndrome causes us to downplay good results, obsess over our mistakes and work extra-long hours to prove ourselves – risking burnout and a low-esteem spiral.”

When I spoke to MPowder CEO Rebekah Brown for Studio10, she told me that the hardest challenge she’d ever had to face was “working through excruciating imposter syndrome to build the MPowder community”. That community – supporting women around menopause – has brought comfort and inspiration to so many. And yet Brown has felt “unworthy”. Why is it that, when we step out of our comfort zone, we stop believing in ourselves?

The broadcaster Anita Rani, who presents Woman’s Hour on Radio 4, tells a similar story. “When I first started, I had serious imposter syndrome and my nerves were always jangling.” But Good Morning Britain’s Susanna Reid says ageing has made her more confident – ­now she’s happy in her skin, she no longer suffers that lack of self-belief.

“Women, especially in television, are embracing ageing gracefully, which means we’re not fighting it. We’re accepting it, welcoming it and enjoying it,” she has said. “People often talk about imposter syndrome, but when you’ve got to your fifties, you know what you’re doing, and that gives you more confidence.”

So apart from embracing midlife to the full, how else can we deal with the way we feel, the belief that we don’t deserve what we’ve achieved or the esteem in which we’re held? If we do nothing, we stifle our potential for growth and meaning, talking ourselves out of new opportunities – at work, in relationships, and in our daily life.

We need to change our mindset about our abilities, rewrite the negative stories we tell ourselves, and acknowledge our expertise and accomplishments. We are enough. The fact that we’ve made it so far is proof of that.

Psychologists recommend a number of strategies for dealing with imposter syndrome. First, it can help to address distorted beliefs. Ask yourself how you might support a friend who minimised their accomplishments, and apply the same supportive language to yourself. Next, try sharing your feelings. It can open doors for others to share what they see in you, too. Let go of perfectionism. Celebrate your successes – don’t brush them off. And share your failures: discussing them in a group can help paint a more realistic picture of others’ struggles.

As you learn to work through imposter syndrome, it will interfere less with your wellbeing. But there’s another way round it, too. Journalist Lorraine Candy, author of the bestselling What’s Wrong with Me? From Unravelling to Reinvention: A Midlife Memoir, believes we do ourselves a disservice by letting imposter syndrome rear its head. She describes it as “a stone in the shoe of smart women”, because even if you don’t feel like an imposter, “you think you should because this daft phrase exists”.

She has the self-belief necessary to power through – and that’s something I admire. There’s a strong woman inside each and every one of us. We just need to give her the tools to thrive.

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