Im­poster Syn­drome: how to big your­self up at­work

“This might be a re­ally stupid idea but…” – you’ve heard that be­fore, haven’t you? You’ve prob­a­bly said it your­self too. Feel­ing un­der­qual­i­fied and not good enoughisac­rip­pling­phe­nomenon­many­wom­en­su­f­fer from. Here’s how to deal with your in­ter­nal im­poster

Emirates Woman - - Contents - WORDS: GE­ORGIE BRADLEY

A year ago, my cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­a­pist, in a req­ui­site move to­wards deeper dig­ging, asked me to ver­bally list my ca­reer his­tory. Flum­moxed at hav­ing to shine a Gestapo-like light on my­self, I re­duc­tively sped through my po­si­tions. Like they’re odds and sods. “It seems you’ve been very suc­cess­ful, you’ve had some re­ally big roles,” she en­thused. “Weeeeell,” I melodied, push­ing back on her com­pli­ment, “I’ve been lucky. I hope I can keep pulling it off.” I clod­dishly slapped the side of my arm­chair and mum­bled out some in­dis­cernible words as an au­dio cue for her to snap to another topic. “You might think you’re be­ing mod­est,” she said through taut lips, “but ac­tu­ally, you have Im­poster Syn­drome.”

The idea that my achieve­ments had only ma­te­ri­alised through a stroke of good luck or by de­fault (“it only came to me be­cause that per­son left the com­pany”) rather than qual­i­fi­ca­tion and tal­ent, is called Im­poster Syn­drome and it was first iden­ti­fied by psy­chol­o­gists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978.

I am in good com­pany. Be­cause ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Jour­nal of Be­havioural Science, 70 per cent of peo­ple will ex­pe­ri­ence symp­toms of the con­di­tion at some point in their lives.

Here’s a sce­nario you can all re­late to. You’re tap­ping away, get­ting on with your work, but some­thing is telling you that you aren’t com­pe­tent enough. Or rather, a lit­tle grem­lin sits on your shoul­der and chides at you ev­ery time you’ve been tasked with a job with lots of re­spon­si­bil­ity: “What are you even do­ing?” it nags. That stom­ach churn­ing feel­ing in­ten­si­fies to 100 when you see oth­ers seem­ingly per­form­ing well, com­ing up with ideas off the bat and hav­ing answers to every­thing. Your con­fi­dence ebbs dra­mat­i­cally. In­ter­est­ingly, women in par­tic­u­lar are known to be plagued by Im­poster Syn­drome.

Gen­dered begin­nings

Grow­ing up, we were sub­con­sciously tyran­nised by a rigid set of rules that were de­ter­mined by our sex. Girls have to be nice and pretty, boys have to be strong and smart. “Girls aren’t en­cour­aged to speak up,” says Ar­chana Bha­tia, a train­ing lead at Hop­scotch – a plat­form for em­pow­er­ing women in the work­place, “but when we do, we ques­tion whether we said it right or not. Girls are taught to be care­givers – that starts with sib­lings – where they have to sup­port oth­ers all the time. They have a back­ground role. In­ter­est­ingly, stud­ies have shown that up un­til the age of seven, girls and boys op­er­ate on an equal play­ing field of con­fi­dence. Af­ter that, when the so­cial­i­sa­tion starts to harden, there is a dis­tinct dif­fer­ence – girls put their hands up less in class and shy away from com­ing for­ward. Just look at a play­ground of chil­dren: the boys are risk­tak­ers and the girls are told to be care­ful. This has a last­ing im­pact,” Ar­chana adds. The more we hear that mes­sag­ing, the more ac­ces­si­ble that rep­re­sen­ta­tion be­comes. The in­ter­nalised be­lief that girls are brit­tle and shouldn’t make bold steps with­out con­stantly look­ing over their shoul­der,

is com­mon. So, when women do climb the cor­po­rate lad­der and land a ca­reer-defin­ing po­si­tion, they fear they don’t have the ca­pac­ity to do it (de­spite their proven track record that got them there in the first place) be­cause they’re used to feel­ing like a sup­port­ing act.

A Hewlett Packard in­ter­nal re­port found that men ap­ply for jobs if they ful­fil 60 per cent of the re­quire­ments, whereas women will only ap­ply if they can metic­u­lously tick off 100 per cent of them, in­di­cat­ing that women have a mis­taken per­cep­tion of their abil­ity.

Even though stud­ies prove that Im­poster Syn­drome is an en­grained part of the fe­male ex­pe­ri­ence in the work­place, it is not only lim­ited to womenor­fe­male­dom­i­nate­din­dus­trie­sei­ther.Men­too,can­be­crip­pledby asense­of­be­ing‘found­out’an­d­like­women,theyfeelthe­need­toa­mas­sas many skills as they can to qual­ify their stand­ing at work.

Psy­cho­log­i­cal safety

Our so­cial­i­sa­tion isn’t the only at­tribute to Im­poster Syn­drome; a toxic com­pany en­vi­ron­ment can wreak havoc on our men­tal well­be­ing. In or­der for us to feel con­fi­dent enough to take risks and trial ideas, we need to have psy­cho­log­i­cal safety at work to al­low us the free­dom to ex­plore our abil­i­ties, even if we fail.

“A safe work en­vi­ron­ment has to be im­ple­mented from the top,” for it to trickle down and cre­ate a pos­i­tive space that ben­e­fits ev­ery­one, says Ar­chana. Many of us dread to ask for more flex­i­bil­ity – some­how it makes us seem non-com­mited. But hav­ing the free­dom to ex­er­cise your au­ton­omy at work is a key tenet to work­place hap­pi­ness. How­ever, many com­pa­nies still op­er­ate on the ar­chaic premise that if you’re not sat at your desk (read: chained to your desk from 8am-6pm), you’re not do­ing a good job.

One wo­man I spoke to about her ex­pe­ri­ence of Im­poster Syn­drome told me that the con­stant pas­sive ag­gres­sive tut­ting and head shak­ing in her old job made her feel very anx­ious. “My man­ager would leave at 6pm ev­ery­day and her col­leagues looked down on her for it, ques­tion­ing her ded­i­ca­tion to her ca­reer, sug­gest­ing that she was a bad ex­am­ple of a pro­fes­sional. But she had im­pec­ca­ble time man­age­ment – she put her head down and pow­ered through the day. This put me on edge too,” she says. Years later, hav­ing run the gamut of jobs at poorly man­aged com­pa­nies with despotic ex­ec­u­tives who “never gave sup­port­ive or en­cour­ag­ing com­ments” and told her “that I needed to work even harder tode­serve­mysalary”,sheis­nowthe­foundero­fa­suc­cess­ful­com­pa­nyand be­lievesin­her­self.“Iwould­n­ev­er­let­myteam­feel­likethe­yareinad­e­quate, re­place­able or that they don’t mat­ter.” But im­poster symp­toms still linger on in her at times, “I still get pangs of panic that I am not do­ing enough, not ahead of the times or that I am miss­ing a trick.”

Ad­di­tion­ally, Im­poster Syn­drome is preva­lent in women who have taken a ca­reer hia­tus af­ter hav­ing chil­dren, leav­ing them feel­ing out of touch and in­tel­lec­tu­ally in­se­cure. The lack of flex­i­bil­ity puts women re­turn­ing­towork­i­na­com­pro­mis­ing­po­si­tion­tomake­bigsac­ri­fices.“This iswhythere­ar­e­so­manyfe­maleen­treprenuersintheUAE,”saysAr­chana, “which is great be­cause they are highly driven and mo­ti­vated, but it’s their only op­tion to have the right kind of bal­ance on their own terms.”

Omaira Fa­rooq Al Olama, founder of ALF Ad­min­is­tra­tion, a com­pany de­dicted to the de­vel­op­ment and ad­vance­ment of Emi­rati and young­ex­patsinthe­work­place,is­working­ona‘re­turn­towork’pro­gramme along­side the Min­istry of Labour and the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion. “It will al­low women the chance to take a few years off to stay with their fam­i­lies while their com­pa­nies prom­ise to give back their old job with train­ing and de­vel­op­ment cour­ses to keep them up to date.”

On the flip side of the em­ploye­ment spec­trum, Omaira adds that in the UAE young grad­u­ates take jobs that are far too se­nior for their en­try level skills. “They are placed with peo­ple who have years of ex­pe­ri­ence and are told to per­form at that level. This is im­pos­si­ble. Ide­ally, they should be trained by the ex­ist­ing em­ployee. But the prob­lem is, the ex­pe­ri­enced em­ployee doesn’t have the time to babysit and they fear their job will be taken away from them.” Counter to what you’d think, Im­poster Syn­drome doesn’t af­fect per­for­mance. “Ac­tu­ally, I have found that it has the op­po­site ef­fect. Peo­ple try even harder, they con­tinue to ex­cel to prove they are not im­posters,” says Ar­chana. “Women al­ready have to prove they are equal to their male coun­ter­parts so they claim they can do any job just to get the po­si­tion and then don’t ask for help so that they don’t look like a fraud,” adds Omaira.

In terms of ev­ery­day be­havioural ten­den­cies, “you of­ten find women in par­tic­u­lar look for more af­fir­ma­tion, or a ‘pat on the back’ at work. Say­ing ‘this might be a stupid ques­tion but…’ is a way of get­ting the other per­son to re­spond with ‘no, that’s not a stupid ques­tion,’” says Ar­chana. “We need to learn to sell our­selves bet­ter and be more as­sertive.”

Let it show, let it show

I can see the col­lec­tive eye-roll now – no one likes a show off! How of­ten do you clam­mer in a sheen of sweat when some­one praises you (but se­cretely lather in that adu­la­tion)? Re­mem­ber that re­ac­tion to what my ther­a­pist said about my achieve­ments? We de­flect with self­dep­re­ca­tion be­cause it’s easy and puts us on neu­tral ter­ri­tory with those around us – sans ar­ro­gance.

But self-dep­re­ca­tion is a dam­ag­ing de­vice coated in charm. And, again, it’s gen­dered. Men don’t do it be­cause they feel they are in a nat­u­ral po­si­tion to re­ceive plau­dits for their hard work. Women de­flect their suc­cesses be­cause they don’t want to be ‘too much’, in­stead, bring­ing them­selves down to a 're­lat­able' and 'like­able' level.

“I have a masters de­gree, run a busi­ness and am a mother of three – and yet, when I get con­grat­u­lated, I qui­etly say ‘thank you’ in­stead of own­ing it. Maybe it’s the cul­ture I grew up in?” notes Omaira.

I too have of­ten cred­ited the fruits of my labour to a ‘fake it till you make it’ process of ‘wing­ing it’, but “when men are in a sim­i­lar po­si­tion they don’t even look at it as ‘fak­ing it’ – they see it as ‘we’re do­ing it, we’ve done it in the past’ and there­fore have the in­nate con­fi­dence to take on new chal­lenges with gusto,” ex­plains Ar­chana.

“When you in­tro­duce your­self, make sure that pe­ple know what you do, what you’ve done, where you’ve got­ten your qual­i­fi­ca­tion from ('oh you’re go­ing to Thai­land for your hol­i­day? I used to work for one of the largest au­dit­ing firms there').” Of course, no need to shout out your en­tire C.V. from the rooftops in the first three min­utes, but where the op­por­tu­nity opens up to ex­pose your tal­ents, do it. Those who are silent in their achieve­ments won’t reap the re­wards. Fact.

Ar­chana’s the­ory on job suc­cess is three­fold: 60 per cent is your ex­po­sure –mak­ing sure peo­ple know what you do, lend­ing cre­dence to your skills – 30 per cent is your brand­ing – that is the shadow you cast on oth­ers to gain a sub­stan­tial fol­low­ing (in other words, get your Sasha Fierce on) and then the last 10 per cent is how well you do your work – women tend to fo­cus solely on the lat­ter.

Col­lab­o­rate don’t com­pete

Un­for­tu­nate­ly­wom­en­ex­pe­ri­ence­mor­ein­ci­vil­ity­at­work–es­pe­ciallyby other women. A Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view ar­ti­cle from 2018 states that “low-in­ten­sity in­ci­vil­ity like snarky com­ments or rude in­ter­rup­tions or brusque emails may seem mi­nor but the costs can add up”.

Another wo­man I spoke to about wo­man-on-wo­man in­ci­vil­ity says: “I have these girls in my of­fice who al­ways make ev­ery­one feel in­ad­e­quate. I ac­tu­ally spoke to my direc­tor about it be­cause it got so bad. They were unan­i­mously warned in the of­fice monthly meet­ing. Since then, they’ve been nicer, but there are still bursts of meaness. They made me ques­tion if I was even a good per­son.”

Even the no­tion of a cat fight en­gen­ders the idea that women (not men) are bound to be go­ing at it. “Years ago when I was head of HR in a com­pany, one of my team mem­bers came up to me and said ‘oh my good­ness you missed a re­ally good cat fight just now’. I said ‘it was be­tween women right?’ ‘Yes, how did you know?’ he ques­tioned, be­sumed. ‘Well, you said cat fight,’” Ar­chana re­calls. Where women and com­pe­ti­tion are con­cerned, we are trained to mea­sure our suc­cess against each other.

A wo­man who is in­tim­i­dat­ingly sharp, con­fi­dent, beau­ti­ful and all-round ac­com­plished has the abil­ity make your stom­ach flip inside out. But in­stead of cow­er­ing away in hol­low re­sent­ment, be­friend her, a con­cept called Shine The­ory.

First coined by jour­nal­ist Ann Fried­man and busi­ness­woman Ami­na­tou Sow, Shine The­ory’s premise is sim­ple: “If I don’t shine, you don’t shine.” Sur­round­ing your­self with pow­er­ful women, or pow­er­ful peo­ple, you don’t look worse by com­par­i­son, you ac­tu­ally look bet­ter.

In an ar­ti­cle for The Cut, Ann says: “Ap­proach­ing and be­friend­ing women who I iden­tify as smart and pow­er­ful (some­times ac­tively pur­su­ing them, as with any other crush) has been a ma­jor rev­e­la­tion of my adult life. First, there’s the as­so­cia­tive prop­erty of awe­some­ness: peo­ple know you by the com­pany you keep. I like know­ing that my friend­sare­so­pro­fes­sion­ally­sup­port­ivethatwhen­theyge­tapro­mo­tion, it’s like a boost for my ré­sumé, too.”

Of course, it’s all well and good read­ing about ways to quash in­se­cu­ri­ties, but you need to ac­tu­ally com­mit to re­plac­ing your in­ner voice of doubt with con­fi­dence. That takes a con­sid­er­able amount of brain rewiring. But we also have to ac­cept our nat­u­ral state of vul­ner­a­bil­ity in the times that we are fal­li­ble – it’s what makes us real. But if you’re happy with what you’ve achieved and are com­fort­able with your­self, then you can start to kiss Im­poster Syn­drome, good­bye.

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