I remember seeing a stream of responses to the question: ‘What do you think holds you back as a leader?’ One comment after another was about lack of confidence: ‘Feeling not good enough, not right, not confident, not smart, not clever, not skilled enough, nor experienced enough, too nurturing, too shy, endless self-doubt….’ ‘Battling to live up to my internal standard of how I should be – kind, considerate, decent, doing the right thing … I constantly question my ability and downplay my role’
‘The seesaw – sometimes I feel I am great, other times I feel I am hopeless’
‘The smallest thing rattles me and gets me spiraling into feeling I am hopeless’ ‘Imposter syndrome – feel like if they found out what I am really like or able to do, then I would be in trouble.’
These are all responses from very competent, intelligent, good women. Yet these women are so vulnerable, so anxious.
Did we get it wrong? I was watching David Attenborough’s One Planet and it struck me how incredibly alert to danger all animals are. No doubt the higher in the hierarchy you are, the more you can afford to relax as there are fewer predators. But even the top elephant is constantly alert, marking his territory, aware that the day will come when he is no longer topnotch.
Why should we be any different? We are mammals and hormonally very similar to our animal mates. So is it our natural disposition to be living with an undercurrent of anxiety rather than being calm and at ease? If we are lucky enough to have had a good primary carer who soothed us when we needed it, and to have had no major trauma in our life, then we have a good foundation to manage our anxiety – but that might be as good as it gets. Is the anxiety actually always there lingering just beneath the surface?
I think ‘yes’ but we adopt various coping strategies early on to mask it: we try to control our world; we judge others to affirm ourselves in being ‘right’; we work hard to get power, money and status so that we will be safe; we distract ourselves, live in disconnect, or we avoid responsibility that would mean more exposure to rejections, failure and anxiety.
Yet, scratch a little and beneath the surface we can see that perhaps our coping mechanisms don’t really deal adequately with the ongoing anxiety. According to The Journal of Behavoural Science, it is estimated that globally 70% of people acknowledge experiencing a persistent feeling of not being as good as others think they are.
Personally, I have felt the Imposter Syndrome in relation to all the careers in my life, my appearance when I modelled, in mediating, in coaching, in facilitating mindfulness and leadership. In relation to my qualifications and experience, there are always people with more experience and higher qualifications. I remember becoming a mediator and doing my first work thinking: ‘They don’t know that it is just me, they think I am a professional, but it just me dressed up as a professional, sitting in the chair, looking the part’. Doing mindfulness easily means that I either feel too Buddhist and not enough corporate, or too corporate and not enough Buddhist. Over time my experience has grown and so has my sense of ‘this is how I do it’ while at the same time, through working with others, my ideas of supreme abilities has eroded away. However without management the imposter experience just pops up somewhere else, parenting, leading, relationships etc.
It is always astonishing to see the look on the faces of women when they realise that all the other women in the room, all the women whom they see as competent, as amazing, also experience Imposter Syndrome. The feelings are usually mixed -sadness, empathy, surprise and relief.
In the sharing, we normalise and we connect, bridging our sense of separate and ‘not right’. This is why after just one session of sharing and learning how others feel we see big shifts. Comments emerge like: ‘Realising you are not alone in your thinking is empowering. It made me feel not alone, less different. It gave me a feeling that I can now give myself room to grow, that it’s ok to feel these things because I am not alone. Also that it is ok too to give the good things I am capable of oxygen to lift and grow.’
Sharing about the imposter syndrome, while providing techniques and tools to pierce it, is empowering women and many men and it is essential for the agile and healthy workplace of 2019.