Undercurrent Masthead
imposter

I’m not as good as you think I am

Emma Grey

When I was discharged from hospital with my first baby, there was a chunk of me that felt out of place in my own life.  Was I really a mother?   An actual mother?   Like my mother?

I found it hard to believe – even as the c-section scar ached under the seat belt during that precarious first drive home. There was a baby asleep in the back seat and apparently we were her parents!  I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were just playing ‘house’.

I remember getting a promotion once and thinking, ‘Do these people know what they’re doing?  This is a mistake!  I’m not up for this and they’ll soon realise it.’  The higher the performance ratings, the more amazed I was to have ‘scraped through’ again.

Same story for some of the marks I received at uni.  Surely they meant to award a ‘credit’.   They don’t realise how much work I haven’t done!  These words?  Thrown on the page in a desperate flurry.  Smoke and mirrors, hiding the obvious: I have a superficial grasp on the subject matter.

Sometimes, when I travel for business, I think how comical it is that I should be clattering through the airport in a business suit and heels – PowerPoint presentation on the memory stick in my bag – checking emails and coordinating after-school pick-ups like a grown-up.

Our two-year-old often clambers up at the desk, bashes the keyboard and exclaims proudly that he’s ‘Working!’ Occasionally, I feel the same way – that what I’m passing off as ‘work’ is really an elaborate game involving a website and masterclasses, published articles and clients… the trappings of the professional world, which is more typically inhabited by people who don’t feel like a fake in the Qantas Club.

‘Imposter Syndrome’, if taken seriously on board, can sabotage your success.  It’s that feeling of being a fraud.  That private concern that, any minute now, you’ll be exposed as less capable than those around you.  Less capable than you appear.  Not good enough.

Dr Valerie Young, in her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive In Spite of It describes how the phenomenon can hold us back:

The thing about ‘impostors’, she writes, ‘is they have unsustainably high standards for everything they do. The thinking here is, If I don’t know everything, then I know nothing. If it’s not absolutely perfect, it’s woefully deficient. If I’m not operating at the top of my game 24/7, then I’m incompetent.’

I’ve read the paragraph above about five times now, trying to convince myself that I’m not that bad.  I have healthy self-esteem most of the time.  I’m a good mum with a developing career…

Of course the second I wrote that statement down, it was attacked by, ‘Yeah, but…’  Cue the litany of evidence stacked against it: the times I’ve fallen, the mistakes I’ve made, the things I’ve said to the children that might scar them for life, the one or two pieces of negative feedback that buck the trend.

Neuroscientist and former TED speaker, Bradley Voytek, said that ‘Imposter syndrome appears to be fairly rampant among academics and other “smart” people. At some point during your career, possibly more than once, you will look at your peers and think to yourself, “I’m not as good as they are; I am not cut out for this…”

Woohoo!  It’s an afflication of the smart!  Good news for those of us who suffer (which is pretty much everyone I’ve asked).

A belief exists that this form of self-doubt evolved from an outdated survival mechanism, left over from a time when we needed to be permanently on guard.  Second-guessing our competence makes us work harder and encourages us to avoid risk and stay safe.

Working harder and avoiding risk, though, can feed that hungry, self-destructive cycle of perfectionism that stunts progress in a world where it’s often more effective to do less, take risks and fast-track progress.

Next time a crisis of confidence strikes:

  • Acknowledge that it’s not just you.  Most people feel this way at one time or another and it’s considered a trait of the ‘bright and conscientious’.
  • Remember that Imposter Syndrome is an outdated evolutionary quirk – call it the ‘appendix’ of the mind.  It is very likely that you are understating your own accomplishments and inflating those of your peers while you underemphasise their failures and overstate your own.  The result is not an accurate reflection of reality.
  • Gather and focus on the evidence that, contrary to your inner doubt, you have a solid contribution to make.  Dwell on your successes, achievements, positive personality traits and the ability to rise above setbacks.   Start saving positive feedback and emails into a folder that you can browse through for a confidence boost.
  • Embrace your mistakes.  Regard them as a natural part of progress, without which you’d be standing still.
  • Refuse to allow this trick of the mind to slow you down, stop you from taking risks or keep you small.

 

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Emma Grey

Emma Grey is the Canberra-based author of ‘Wits’ End Before Breakfast! Confessions of a Working Mum’ and ‘Unrequited: Girl Meets Boy Band’. She’s director of the life-balance consultancy, WorkLifeBliss and co-founder of a fresh approach to time-management, My 15 Minutes. She lives just over the ACT border with her two teen daughters and young son. More about the Author

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