What might you, Maya Angelou and Michelle Obama all have in common? Self-doubt perhaps? Otherwise known as ‘impostor syndrome’ or ‘intruder syndrome’, it affects women, no matter how accomplished or well-qualified they are, far more than it does men. On book tours for her bestseller ‘Becoming’, Michelle Obama exposed this frailty when admitting to feeling like an imposter most of the time. Similarly, the acclaimed novelist Maya Angelou admitted: "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.'
If YOU also feel self-doubt creeping in occasionally (or even regularly!),keep reading for my imposter syndrome treatment.
I promise YOU. ARE. NOT. ALONE.
In the 25 years focusing on the psychology of professional women, I’ve developed 3 three ways to use your ‘fear of being found out’ to your advantage, to help you overcome imposter syndrome.
1. THINK OF IT AS A GIFT
Clearly, this is the ill-fitting gift you didn’t want, the one in the terrible colour where you’d like to say to the giver: ‘‘Really, you shouldn’t have!”
But impostor syndrome can still be a gift - if you act on it. That feeling motivates you to improve, and encourages you to be empathetic. In fact, recent research has highlighted that competence and confidence are actually inversely correlated. That is, the more confident you become, the less you improve your competence. Scary stuff considering the types of people most organisations promote. So, my first tip is to write down 5 things, you got better at because of your imposter syndrome. Once you get five, you’ll probably find there’s loads more skills you’ve developed that now feel easy, but only came because you focused on getting better at that skill.
And remember, if Michelle Obama, with her career accolades and amazing arms, can admit to feeling like an imposter ‘most of the time’, while touring with her bestseller ‘Becoming’, then it stands to reason imposter syndrome probably affects most of us.
2. ACCEPT IT’S NOT GOING AWAY
I’ve never met a professional woman who had NO self-doubt. The goal is not to overcome it, it’s simply to work around it. At a workshop I ran for professional females, one of the delegates, a woman with a sciences PhD admitted quietly to the larger group that after her last promotion, she often felt like a fraud. I asked the group who else felt that way at times. Every single hand was raised—much to her relief when she cried out: ‘I thought I was the only one!’
Successful working women have moments, even days of self-doubt … but they still know they can make the most of any situation. So my next tip is to write down the name of someone who’s admitted they’re not always confident, but based on how well they come across - you never would have guessed. Remember, we never know how someone feels - we can only guess based on how someone acts.
3. OWN YOUR ‘IMPOSSIBLE’ WINS
I grew up struggling with maths that defined the way I talked about myself for a long time. So when deciding on how to collect the data for my PhD, I put my big girl pants on, and specifically chose statistical modelling. I knew it would be hard, but I needed to shed my fear of maths or I would always fear it and define myself as ‘Suzanne: She’s a big talker, but don’t ask her a maths question’. As I now begin the daunting task of writing my third book, again, it’s hard but I remind myself: ‘I’ve done this before - and at least this time I’ve already been through the learning curve!’ We often diminish struggles we’ve managed to handle simply because they’re in the ‘rear-view mirror’ of life.
My final tip is to own those wins by writing down a list of what’s in the rear-view mirror of your life that looked impossible before you did it?
If you found this useful, you might want to check out my YouTube channel dedicated to helping professional women get the careers they deserve.
Suzanne Doyle-Morris, Author, Speaker & Gender Balance Expert for 25+ years.
Hear what I told BBC Radio about what to do about the worsening gender pay gap data