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

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents -

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

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