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The heavy toll of imposter syndrome

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Michelle Obama calls it “stigma in my own head”.

It’s otherwise known as imposter syndrome—that feeling that you’re a fraud, pretending to be someone who knows what they’re doing. A fraud who’s at constant risk of being found out.

It’s hard to believe that one of the world’s most accomplished and admired women could ever doubt her own abilities, but she says it’s something that’s dogged her life and work.

She’s not alone. A recent UK survey found that more than two-thirds of women suffer from workplace imposter syndrome, compared to just over half of men.

I know how they feel. For years I suffered from the secret fear that people would discover I couldn’t write. Considering it was my job to write speeches and media releases, the consequences would be dire. The fact that my salary kept showing up in my bank account, proof that my employer believed in my writing skills, didn’t convince me.

Why are so many people, particularly women, crippled by chronic self-doubt, even in the face of evidence that they’re skilled and competent? Imposter syndrome exacts a heavy toll, as its victims talk themselves out of applying for better jobs, or more complex, challenging or lucrative projects.

According to a BBC report, women and other marginalised groups are vulnerable for a reason. Girls grow up drenched in negative stereotypes; from an early age, they’re made to understand that they’re too emotional to be good leaders, and too dumb to understand complex subjects like maths and science. They also get the message loud and clear that women are valued for beauty above everything.

Lack of representation in the workplace is another problem. If you don’t see people like you at work, especially at senior levels, it’s hard to believe you really belong.

Fortunately, there is a growing body of research on how to deal with imposter syndrome. One insight is that people who suffer from it to be creative, high achievers. A second is that they tend to beat themselves up in specific ways. Gill Corkindale, writing in the Harvard Business Review, identified these as intense self-pressure coupled with negative self-talk, and a tendency to downplay achievements. Common thoughts include: “I must not fail”; “I feel like a fake”; “it’s all down to luck”; “success is no big deal”.

The way to defeat imposter syndrome is surprisingly simple: push back against the negative internal monologue. The New York Times suggests writing a list of all the ways you’re qualified for the task in front of you. In other words, actively look for evidence that you’re the right person for the job. Another simple exercise is to say your own name aloud. “Research has found that the simple act of taking a positive affirmation (such as “I’m awesome”) and adding your name to it (“Jessica is awesome”) can have a powerful effect on how you perceive yourself,” says the article. Mentally rehearsing how you’re going to confront a nerve-wracking situation can also be helpful; walk yourself through the meeting, job interview or presentation before you actually do it.

My own way of dealing with imposter syndrome was to become an actual imposter. I used to pretend I was one of my colleagues, a man I thought was smarter than me. Whenever I wrote something, I heard his voice in my head, imagining how he would write it.

At the time I wondered if it was an unhealthy thing to do, but not only did it work—I was often praised for my writing skills—but I also later discovered that this technique is taught to writers as a way to get them through writers’ block.

There’s also Michelle Obama’s approach: “Hard work. Whenever I doubted myself, I just told myself, let me put my down and do the work—and I would let my work speak for itself.”

And when you’ve finally overcome imposter’s syndrome? Open the door to other women and people from marginalised backgrounds. Because the more that we see everyday people succeeding, the more we all succeed.

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