Yesterday, I issued the first of a week of blog posts about imposter syndrome. Here’s the plan for the series:
- Monday – The theory behind it – what it is and how it manifests itself
- Tuesday – Where it comes from and how mine started
- Wednesday – How it affects me as an author
- Thursday – Coping strategies
- Friday – Recognising it in others and helping them
You can go back to read Monday’s post here.
Warning: Today’s post is longer than yesterday’s and also more personal.
Why does imposter syndrome happen?
The concept – originally called ‘imposter phenomenon’ – was first identified by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in 1978. At the time, it was thought to apply to high-achieving women. It’s now recognised that it can affect anyone regardless of gender, work background, skill level or expertise. So basically any of us can experience it and most of us will.
In fact, according to Cuncic’s article (referenced yesterday), “it is estimated that 70% of people will experience at least one episode of this phenomenon in their lives”. Wow! Big percentage!
Have you ever started a new job and initially felt out of your depth because it’s all so new? I certainly have. It usually takes time to get up to speed, work out who’s who and what’s what. It’s natural to worry during this transition period that you’ll disappoint the person who recruited you and that you might have both made a big mistake. This is imposter syndrome. But you usually soon settle in and start contributing and those feelings go away.
I say usually because this is not the case for everyone. For some, this feeling of imposter syndrome sticks around for much longer, like a guest at a house party who’s just opened another can when all you want to do is crawl into bed and sleep.
Why do we feel like this? Why is this feeling of being an imposter so much longer and more intense for some?
Various things can trigger imposter syndrome ranging from how an individual was treated during their childhood to experiences years down the line as an adult in employment.
- Coming from a high-achieving family where expectations are very high
- Only being praised for high success and never for a good attempt
- Never being praised for succeeding or perhaps being ignored
- Only ever receiving criticism
- Having flaws pointed out when there has been success e.g. You got 99% on your test – what happened to the other 1%? You scored 3 goals but you would have scored 4 if you’d passed the ball properly. We won the client’s business but only after you sorted out those problems you’d caused
- A role change e.g. starting college, university, a new job, a promotion
- Being passed over for a promotion, training or other opportunities at work
- Being over-looked for bonuses and/or a pay rise at work
For me, I will put it straight out there that my imposter syndrome is nothing to do with my parents. I remember being encouraged to work hard, being praised when I did well and not being criticised when anything was a struggle. I feel the need to emphasise that because my mum will be reading this and I know she’ll worry. Mum – it’s absolutely nothing you or Dad did or didn’t do so please relax xx
Having said that, it did start for me in childhood and became worse when I entered the world of work…
How did my imposter syndrome start?
Right at the start of yesterday’s post, I said I suffer from imposter syndrome. It’s a term I started using loosely about six or seven years ago without a real understanding of what it meant and how badly I’d suffered from it in the past. At the time, I was an aspiring writer and had joined the Romantic Novelist’s Association (RNA). I attended a conference where I brushed shoulders with really famous authors. Eek! We’re talking authors whose books I’ve read and loved. Authors I idolised. And I had this overwhelming feeling that I had no right to be there, that I didn’t belong.
At this point, I must emphasise that this wasn’t any RNA members saying or doing anything to make me feel like this; this was all my issue. I never even approached any of them to introduce myself because, in my mind, why would they want to speak to me – a nobody – when I was so clearly out of my depth?
Thoughts raced through my mind preventing me from saying “hello”:
Author A is soooo famous
Author B is a Sunday Times No 1 Bestseller
Author C has sold millions of books worldwide
I could never achieve that. Why am I even here?
I felt like I didn’t belong and never would and, for someone who is normally confident, I felt extremely inadequate and anxious in that social setting. It was ridiculous. I knew it was ridiculous but I couldn’t seem to change how I felt.
Yes, there were some very famous and successful authors there. But there were also mid-listers, authors with whom I was unfamiliar, authors who’d written a couple of books years ago and attended for the social aspect. Plus, there were large numbers of attendees who, like me, hoped one day to be published. I’d find myself watching the latter in astonishment as they chatted easily to published authors and wished I could do that. I wished I felt like I had a right to be there.
I thought it would be different a couple of years later when I braved the conference again, this time as a published author. It wasn’t. I still felt this sense of not belonging. Of being a failure.
This time a whole new set of thoughts ran through my mind:
I had a publishing deal but my publisher ceased trading so it’s nothing special, is it?
My books don’t sell well
My books don’t climb the charts
I don’t get #1 Best Seller tags on Amazon
I’ve never had a Kindle bonus for pages read
I’ve never been contacted by a reader to say they love my work
Again, this sense of not belonging was nothing anyone said or did but it was my own internalised feelings brought on by the dreaded imposter syndrome.
Away from other authors, I couldn’t even bring myself to admit that I was one. “What do you do?” someone might ask. Stock answer: “I work in HR.” Because there was the fear that, if I admitted I was an author, there’d be the dreaded question: “Would I have heard of you?” Er, no. I’m a nobody. Only my mum and a very small number of friends and family have ever bought and read my books.
Then this year, something strange, unexpected and perhaps a little bit scary happened. Actually, it was something quite amazing and wonderful and signalled all of my dreams coming true … but my reaction to it made me realise that I absolutely do suffer from imposter syndrome in the truest sense of what it means. It’s not just about me being in awe and a bit fan-girly when I’m surrounded my famous/successful authors. It runs so much deeper than that. I’m going to talk a lot more in tomorrow’s post about how imposter syndrome has affected me as an author but, first, I think it’s important to understand where it came from because that’s something I’ve only just realised myself in the past month or so.
In order to do that, the starting point is to look at the types of imposter syndrome I demonstrate.
Types of imposter syndrome
The theory suggests that there are five main types of imposter syndrome and I recognise three of these in myself so these are the ones I’m focusing on:
This individual believes their work can always be better and tends to focus on any flaws or mistakes instead of focusing on what they’ve done well.
Because of feelings of inadequacy, this individual feels they must push themselves to work as hard as possible. This could involve working long hours, taking on extra responsibilities, and/or going over and above what’s expected or needed.
This form of imposter syndrome is where the individual is always trying to learn more and doesn’t feel satisfied with the understanding they already have. They undervalue their expertise even though they may actually be highly skilled/knowledgeable. They may focus on what they don’t know/can’t do instead of what they do know/can do.
The perfectionist trait is where I suffer the most. It’s something I’ve been aware of all my life. At senior school, I always put in that bit extra effort with my homework because I felt like one of the invisible kids who didn’t excel but didn’t cause trouble and therefore flew under the teachers’ radar. ‘Quiet’ was a phrase that regularly appeared on my school reports.
I didn’t have a huge circle of friends and was bullied at school so I threw myself into studying figuring I might fail at being popular but I could aim for perfection in my grades. This, in turn, led to further bullying! Irony eh?
I joined a graduate scheme for a high street bank after university and felt invisible again. A clique formed among the majority of other graduate trainees and I was one of a handful of outsiders to this. It didn’t seem to bother the others as they had partners but I was single at the time and it definitely bothered me. It gave rise to all sorts of feelings of inadequacy: They don’t want to spend time with me. I’m obviously boring. I’m no fun. I’ve got nothing of value to add to the group.
My feelings of inadequacy triggered the superhero mode. I threw myself into my job, working hard, working long hours, being enthusiastic about my work, sharing ideas and was rewarded with … my first of many experiences of bullying in the workplace.
While on the graduate scheme, one manager gave me a project that was set up for failure then reprimanded me for limited progress. Another repeatedly allocated me very little work then would suddenly have something urgent I had to do on a Friday afternoon. I’d have to work late to complete it when she knew I went away at weekends to see my then-boyfriend who lived a couple of hours away.
It was a few years later that I discovered independently from colleagues on each of those teams that both managers had been vocal about how they resented me for being on a fast-track programme to management, didn’t like that I was enthusiastic and confident in voicing ideas when I was so new to work and should know nothing, and therefore they wanted to take me down a peg or two. Who does that?
Graduates completing the scheme were appointed into permanent positions at grade M5 or M4 (M for management, 4 being higher). An opportunity arose that was perfect for my skills (training design and delivery) but it was a higher grade of M3. I applied and, to my surprise and delight, I got the job. An M3 appointment was practically unheard of for those coming off the graduate scheme yet I’d secured it. Yay!
My joy was short-lived. One of my fellow graduate trainees – a clique leader – was on a training course with me and asked if the rumours were true about my appointment at M3. When I admitted they were, she looked me up and down with her lip curled and said: “How on earth did you get an M3 position?’ I’m only 5’ 2” so I feel pretty small every day but, that day, I’d never felt so small and insignificant.
We’re talking 25 years ago and I still vividly remember how I felt. That’s how much it impacted on me. Still does.
And do you know what I said in response? I gave a classic imposter syndrome reaction and down-played my success: They couldn’t confirm whether the role would be Birmingham or London so not many people applied. I therefore got it by default.
Yes, the thing about location was true but my new manager had specifically told me that I’d been the best person for the job and she would never have appointed me if she didn’t think that. She’d also said that she’d been advised by the graduate manager that she could offer me a M4 grade which was more usual but she personally felt that my skills and experiences justified the M3 appointment. I knew that. Yet I didn’t share it. Because I didn’t feel I had the right to have that grade because of how the bullying managers had made me feel. I couldn’t find the words to declare proudly that I had the skills and capability because they had made me doubt it.
The bullying continued throughout my working life. I had some amazing managers for whom I’m eternally grateful – including the manager who gave me that first management position – but it’s the bullies who escalated my imposter syndrome. I’d learned the hard way that a confident young manager caused resentment so I embraced my inner perfectionist, superhero and expert by working long hours, lapping up all the knowledge I could to become an expert in my role and hopefully provide justification for any future progression. I hoped that my high-quality, perfectionist work would speak for itself and I wouldn’t need to shout about any achievements.
This plan back-fired.
I’ve always worked in Human Resources and my roles have typically been unique specialist ones. At a result, I had lots of manager changes both at the bank and in other roles because the business couldn’t quite decide where my specialism should sit on the structure chart. It was worst at the bank with a new manager roughly every 6-12 months. Every single one of those managers passed me over for the annual bonus.
I remember sitting in the office of one manager who’d never bothered to get to know anything about me or my role. He said, “I think I’ve allocated you a small bonus but I can’t remember how much.” He’d printed out a spreadsheet for everyone in the team. My maiden surname was Williams so I was at the bottom of the alphabetical list. I watched him scroll down with a piece of paper, revealing amounts ranging from £500 up to a whopping £5k. Then he got to mine. £0. “Oh yes, that’s right,” he said. “You’ve not been on my team for long and I don’t really know you so I haven’t allocated anything this year.” He didn’t even have the emotional intelligence to sound apologetic or to appear embarrassed that he’d just shown me everyone else’s bonus and I was the only one with nothing. The ONLY one. Would the person with £5k really have noticed much difference if they’d received £4.5k instead and I’d got £500? I smiled politely, thanked him (why????), returned to my office and sobbed my heart out. It wasn’t about the money although, as a skint graduate up to my eyeballs in debt, it would have come in very useful. Instead, it was the principle. I couldn’t seem to win. Show confidence and be vocal with ideas and I got bullied. Get on with my job quietly and I got ignored.
It became a recurring theme for the rest of my career. The bullies made me feel so inadequate that, the couple of times I did get promoted, I kept waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder: We’ve made a mistake. We meant to appoint someone else. You’re not good enough and never will be. And when I got over-looked for other bonuses or promotions or was the only person on a team to be made redundant, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy: See! I wasn’t good enough and they knew it which is why this happened.
I mentioned in yesterday’s post that imposter syndrome isn’t about lack of self-confidence or self-esteem but is instead about self-doubt. I’m actually a really confident person in most situations. With a background in recruitment and training, I’m used to speaking in public and I love it. Gives me such a buzz. As for self-esteem, I’m very conscious about my weight but it doesn’t affect my self-esteem most of the time. My food demons also go back to being bullied but that’s a separate issue and nothing to do with imposter syndrome so I won’t talk about it now. So I don’t have a lack of self-confidence and I don’t have low self-esteem. But I frequently crumble with self-doubt because of my imposter syndrome. Damn you imposter syndrome!
Throughout my time in HR, I worked my socks off, being the perfectionist, superhero and expert. I achieved some awards, I exceeded objectives, I had amazing feedback from customers and, as stated earlier, I did have some fabulous managers who made me feel valued. I knew I was good at my job because of the effort I put into it and because of those who were kind. Yet I never felt good enough. I never felt like I deserved a management position. I kept waiting for it to be taken away from me and, when I was made redundant several times, that felt like my punishment for trying to be more than I really was. Despite all the successes and the many occasions where I had positive feedback, the voices that spoke the loudest came from the manager who seemed to get a kick out of making me cry (something he did on more occasions than I care to remember), the manager who laughed at me and asked me why I cared so much about my job, the HR Director who rolled his eyes at me and didn’t even try to hide how bored he was when I asked for his advice, the manager who passed off my work as her own then put me forward for redundancy, the two managers who bullied me on the graduate scheme, the one who showed me my zero bonus…
Those voices have stayed with me for over two decades. Those voices have carried over into my writing career. Those voices have given me imposter syndrome.
This year, my amazing publishers, Boldwood Books, have done things for my career as an author that have been beyond my wildest dreams. But that damn imposter syndrome has been there throughout every success like a fly buzzing around my ear, stopping me from enjoying every amazing moment.
Tomorrow, I’ll talk about what that looks like…