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The problem with Imposter Syndrome

At its core imposter syndrome is really just another symptom of inequity and bias

I was unfamiliar with the concept of imposter syndrome until a few years ago, when a friend mentioned it over dinner. As she explained, I found myself getting a bit irritated with the whole thing but couldn’t really put my finger on why. Instead of exploring this further I listened, we talked through the workplace problem that had prompted the conversation in the first place and had another gin.

I heard the term many more times over the subsequent years, came to understand more about its meaning and began to view self-doubt more as a spectrum. A degree of healthy apprehension before a new challenge is normal and probably no bad thing; it keeps us curious and striving to learn. Imposter syndrome however is a pattern of behaviour where individuals doubt their abilities and accomplishments; they have a persistent fear of being exposed a fraud. When presented with objective evidence of success, this is chalked up to ‘luck’ or ‘right place, right time’ rather than merit. It also particularly affects high-achieving people in intellectually demanding jobs (sound familiar?).

I found myself slipping into this way of thinking

In short, imposter syndrome is a pattern of behaviour which is self-destructive. Becoming entrenched in this way of thinking prevents making steps to improve areas that actually require development. It holds people back from pursuing goals due to feelings of inadequacy. So many of the people we speak to talk about the power of saying ‘yes’ and being open to opportunities. It is far more difficult, or impossible, to adopt this mindset if you consistently feel like you don’t deserve it.

The reason I am writing this post now is because recently, I found myself slipping into this way of thinking. I initially thought I was just having a confidence wobble. I spend a good chunk of my time at the moment emailing people in the hope they might be willing to speak to a stranger, trying to get the balance between politeness and desire to write in all caps PLEASE SPEAK TO ME AND BE MY FRIEND. The success rate is probably around 20%; I have a new sympathy for people who cold-call for a living (except when they call me, of course). It can be a little soul destroying and it seemed natural to find this challenging. However, I found more and more that when someone did agree to speak with me, I was hearing about all these varied, interesting and impactful careers and yet they were calling me brave for leaving medicine, for trying something new. And I deflected these comments, laughed awkwardly and I think once even grimaced when one person thanked me for what we are doing. I didn’t feel like I had earned or deserved their words. I had begun to feel like an imposter.

I had begun to feel like an imposter

I managed to snap myself out of it when I saw these feelings reflected back at me by a potential case study. This person is in a high-powered, hard-earned leadership position but was reluctant to tell me their story because they felt it was ‘not that inspirational’ and ‘had largely been achieved due to luck’. I received similar responses in the weeks that followed. Incredible people saying ’I don’t know why you would want to talk to me’. I realised that if I was going to be able to persuade them to speak with me, convince them that they are more than good enough, I needed to have confidence that we were doing the right thing.

And yet. Even though I understood what imposter syndrome was and had even experienced it myself, the whole thing still kind of pissed me off. It wasn’t until I read this article in the Harvard Business Review that I worked out why. Much of what I had read previously had focused on individual characteristics that preclude and predict imposter syndrome, almost as though experiencing it was due to a degree of personal failure. What was getting to me was that I could tell from what I was reading and observing that women and minority groups are disproportionately affected. This is not to say that men do not experience imposter syndrome, I certainly have had conversations with some that do. However, there is a disparity. Certainly, every single person who has expressed reticence about talking to us has been a woman. Truly kickass women who I would be honoured to speak to.

Women and minority groups are disproportionately affected

The article helped me to see that, while there is always room for personal development, at its core imposter syndrome is really just another symptom of inequity and bias. I will never forget the day a manager (also female) told me I should ‘probably rein it in and be less assertive’ when working on a quality improvement project. I had dared to question the status quo, perfectly politely and via the right channels I might add. In the same week, a male colleague threw his toys out of the pram (pretty much literally) in a meeting about the same project. The manager watched him storm off with a slightly misty-eyed look ‘oh, it is just what he’s like’. It is any wonder we sometimes feel like we don’t belong?!

As with all of these Behind the Scenes entries, the intention here is not to provide solutions. I (shockingly) don’t have the answers to how we eliminate systemic sexism and racism. But this has helped change my mindset and started us thinking about how we can create and promote a culture that is truly inclusive, supportive and positive. And that one size does not fit all when it comes to mentorship and support. Finally, if you have any doubts about getting in touch with us, please don’t – you belong here!

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