In this month’s The Huddle column, The Handbook’s careers columnist and founder of Step Up Club Alice Olins offers up insightful advice on how to beat imposter syndrome, one small step at a time. From tackling the source to asking yourself the scary but important questions, here’s how to get started…
Here’s how to beat imposter syndrome
I am going to get authoritative for a moment: stop labelling yourself as someone who has Imposter Syndrome. Yup, I said it: no more Imposter Syndrome. The reason I’m using my position as your careers columnist to shout a little louder from my soap box today is that telling yourself – or worse, others – that you have Imposter Syndrome is a shortcut to nowhere.
Let me explain.
Actually, let me start by giving you some context. Imposter Syndrome is a term used to describe people who feel like they’re a fraud in their jobs; that they don’t deserve to be in their roles, and who wrestle with inadequacy and chronic self-doubt.
I have many issues with this description. Here they are in no particular order:
- When I said people, above, I really wanted to put ‘women’, because Imposter Syndrome is charged with gender bias. When have you ever heard a man be described as having Imposter Syndrome? Case closed.
- The term syndrome is a medical one that associated a set of symptoms with a diagnosis. Used with imposter, it is an inaccurate term that dramatises normal feelings and subsequently makes women feel worse about themselves. It rubber stamps, in the most negative sense possible, a whole range of emotions, behaviours and mental states that are complex and in many senses, fluid too.
- It is a lazy catchall that is another stick with which women learn to hit themselves with.
- The ‘syndrome’ points all its blame at the individual and none at the systems, structures and biases that most often create its essence in the first place.
The thing is, our emotions and how we view ourselves will always be complex and nuanced. Of course, there will be times when you doubt your abilities when you feel fraudulent and insecure – when your chatter gets too loud, and you struggle (we can cover how to manage this voice inside your head another time!)
Back to Imposter Syndrome, adding this into the mix only piles on extra pressure. It also pigeonholes you; Imposter Syndrome becomes a dark place that is very hard to escape from. Instead of defaulting here, ask yourself what is really going on.
Being self-aware and making time to stop and reflect on what’s going on, rather than just storming ahead and getting the job done, is always your first step when things feel like they’re going awry. So many women that I work with forget the power in thinking time. We somehow feel it isn’t working, or being productive. Let me, right now, give you permission to carve that time out; do it on your walk to work, do it while you’re walking the dog or going for a run.
Here are some questions to get you thinking:
- Am I struggling with self-belief because those around me aren’t as supportive as I’d hoped?
- Do I have a skills gap? Might it be time to request some extra training to help me cope with my evolving role?
- Have I let my boundaries slip? Am I heading towards a feeling of overwhelm?
Obviously, these are just a few prompts to start you off, there are many more questions you need to ask yourself to unpick the negative emotions you might be experiencing.
The point is, each time you reach this type of block in the road, don’t just reach for the easy (but ultimately limiting and diminishing) Imposter label, rather stop and consider the complexities beneath. Not only will this thinking time give you the space to understand why you are here, and how to take action to move up and out, but it will also help you see the nuance in the situation.
You are not the root cause of everything that you feel and experience. As women, we are still battling against endemic discrimination and inequity, which affect so much about how we view ourselves and the treatment we receive. The state you are in, when it isn’t the confident, positive one you’re hoping for, is usually a combination of so many factors. Remember not to absorb and attribute all of that to who you are; to how you’ve failed.
Imposter Syndrome, as a term, leaves no room for exploration; no light or shade, and no flex for situations or context. Yes, admit, share and own when things aren’t going your way. But don’t hide behind a clunky label that does more harm than good.