WHO DO WE THINK WE ARE? How to banish self-doubt and conquer ‘imposter syndrome’
The novelist Elizabeth Day on ‘imposter syndrome’ and how to silence the discouraging voices in our heads
When I was 29, I started to write something that later became my first novel. It began as the voice of a single character, sitting next to her husband who was in a coma. I would sit in cafés, nursing a single Americano, and write without any clear notion of where I was going with it. The thing that I remember most clearly about this time is the sense of utter fraudulence. I didn’t have a book deal in place and I was writing into a vacuum, taking a gamble that someone, somewhere, might be interested. It seemed grotesquely arrogant.
Although I had spent several years earning my living as a journalist, I found I was questioning my ability to string a functioning sentence together. My inner critic had taken up residence in a corner of my brain – I had the voice of a real-life literary critic in my head while I was writing. Every time I typed out a paragraph, I would imagine this person deriding my clichéd turn of phrase or my lack of poetic finesse. At every turn, I could hear her voice and picture her horror. One day, I heard her say distinctly: ‘Just who do you think you are?’
Eventually, the novel was published, and I continued to live in fear that this critic would review it. She didn’t; a few months later, I won an award for debut novelists. I’ve written three more novels since then but, to this day, I feel awkward saying I’m an author. I’m constantly anxious someone is going to call me out for
not being good enough. If I’m really honest, I feel like an imposter.
I’m not alone. Imposter syndrome has been plaguing us since time immemorial. It’s an issue that predominantly affects women, for countless reasons. In a world defined by centuries of institutionalised sexism, we’re more likely to question our place in society and our achievements in that context. A survey conducted this year found that 40 per cent of millennial females (aged between 18 and 34) felt like imposters, compared with 22 per cent of male respondents. And quota systems, although well-meaning, can lead some women in business to question whether they are there on their own merits, or as a result of enlightened positive discrimination.
Even the most able can suffer. Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg has admitted ‘there are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud’; the writer Maya Angelou once said that every time she wrote a book, ‘I think, “Uh-oh, they’re going to find [me] out now.”’ Jodie Foster has confessed she thought someone was going to take away her Oscar because she didn’t deserve it, and Emma Watson, Renée Zellweger and Kate Winslet have all expressed similar sentiments. Earlier this year, the Foreign Office’s first ever special envoy for gender equality Joanna Roper said she had a conversation with the American diplomat Madeleine Albright in which they both shared their own experiences of imposter syndrome.
It might seem bizarre that such highachieving women could ever feel anything other than successful, but perfectionism – that decidedly female trait – can be our enemy. When Hewlett-Packard conducted a review of personnel records a few years ago, it concluded that its female employees applied for a promotion only when they believed they met every one of the qualifications listed for the job; men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet six out of 10. Women in the workplace continue to question whether they are qualified to do a job, even when they are already doing it.
When I met Gillian Anderson recently, the actress and activist recalled a particular scene she was required to film as Special Agent Scully in her breakout role for The X-Files. ‘I was a female FBI agent standing in a roomful of male FBI agents,’ says Anderson, the co-author of a new book about female empowerment, We: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere. ‘And I remember hearing my squeaky voice and thinking, “Who do I think I am?”’
Ultimately, says Anderson, it’s about ‘admitting you are where you are. It’s not about whether I’m good enough, I’m just sharing my experience. And if another woman is seeing that [scene], that can change how they see themselves, and this can be powerful.’
That, I think, is the key to overcoming one’s own imposter syndrome. Realising that the women you look up to might be struggling too is the first step in our liberation. The columnist Oliver Burkeman cautions against ‘comparing your insides with other people’s outsides’. That is to say: we are aware of our internal lack of confidence, but we fail to see beyond the patina of success projected by others. In fact, their self-doubt might be just as deep-seated as our own.
What can be done on a practical level? The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art has developed the Rada in Business initiative, which applies acting techniques to the workplace. One of its former clients is the Sotheby’s auctioneer Helena Newman. Last year, employing the tactics taught to her by Rada, she was the first woman to front an evening sale since 1990, and grossed a record $63.4 million for Picasso’s Femme Assise, the most expensive Cubist painting ever sold at auction and the highest price of the year. ‘We focused on a holistic approach: breathing, mental preparation and technique,’ says Newman. ‘I think the better prepared you are, the easier it is to be relaxed and respond to the audience.’
The other skill I’ve found useful is to act like someone you admire. It can be a woman or a man, but an outward projection of strength can help to flex those underworked muscles of self-belief. In my third novel Paradise City, I created a rich, bombastic male businessman called Howard Pink who never thought to question his place in the world.
In my own life, I would find myself asking ‘What would Howard do?’ any time I felt anxious about a work problem or unsure of how to pitch an idea. It worked. I made myself speak up more. I ditched all those mitigating words I had come to rely on in emails (‘just’, ‘might’, ‘sorry, but…’) and slowly, I began to feel calmer about inhabiting my own success.
It didn’t make me arrogant or stupid or deluded. It made me strong. And even if there are still moments when my inner critic accuses me of being a fraud, I find it easier to silence her now. Besides, she probably has her own problems, right?
For details of Bazaar At Work’s upcoming event with Rada, see page 54.
Even the most able can suffer. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has admitted ‘there are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud’
Clockwise from bottom left: Kate Winslet. Emma Watson. Jodie Foster. Gillian Anderson. Elizabeth Day