Owning success – Disowning impostor syndrome

What is it with most women and self-belief? Why do we underestimate ourselves and others’ perception of us? And why do we underplay our own success?

While most men practice ‘fake it till you make it’ – in situations where they do not know the intricacies of a job, and in cases where they do – flaunt their abilities and achievement, we have trouble owning our hard-earned successes.

This inability of owning our achievements and faking it till we make it, has a name: Impostor Syndrome.

The term “impostor syndrome” was coined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes – both women, of course – who noticed that successful women sometimes expressed fears that their achievements were down to luck.

They described the phenomenon as “a feeling of phoniness in women who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement. These women also live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds. Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor syndrome persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

‘I’ versus ‘We’

About ten years ago, I interviewed for a role that would’ve been a step up in my career. When asked about achievements in my current role, I used the word ‘we’ instead of ‘I’, and was then questioned in some detail about it. “Who the ‘we’ were, and what then was my own role in the success?”

I truly believed that all achievements were the result of teamwork – I led the team and produced many ideas, which were discussed, added to, fine-tuned and then implemented by the team, which included me. I was uncomfortable taking sole credit, even in an interview setting.

I was passed over for the role and a man with scant industry experience was selected. The feedback I received was that I did not succeed as my self-belief was not evident. The other applicant, on the other hand, had talked about a ‘mystery shopping’ exercise that he had conducted with the customer services team (a function that was only one part of a much larger marketing and communications team) and claimed that, based on this assessment, he would make changes that would bring in immediate positive results. All this, I assume, was delivered with the right amount of self-belief.

“I still sometimes feel like a fraud. It doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously.”

— Michelle Obama, former USA First Lady

Self-belief – a loaded word and a quality that is assessed by a display of macho bravado, something that women, just by being women, lack. We tend to question our own value and position in a workplace, and even once we get to a position of influence, the questioning carries on.

A 2014 study showed that men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them. A sizeable percentage of women in that study said, “I didn’t think they would hire me since I didn’t meet the qualifications and I didn’t want to put myself out there if I was likely to fail.”

“I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”

— Maya Angelou, Pulitzer-prize nominee

Ambition for him and her

I think impostor syndrome results from both culture and circumstance. A child is brought up in and exposed to leadership models exhibiting qualities of ambition with a strong male focus.

Ambition is still a word that is applied differently in male and female contexts; an ambitious man is focused solely and intensely on professional success, and though an ambitious woman is as well, she is – or should be, according to commonly held societal standards – also focused on other things along the way.

While the end goal may be the same, the route often differs and because our world, even today, has a much larger proportion of male leaders, that’s the template we subconsciously compare our success with. And because the journeys are different, we tell ourselves that we haven’t really succeeded, or that our success is in some way lesser or that we have not ‘earned’ that success.

Simply put, we do not internalise our success and achievements. We credit them to teamwork, luck, an opportunity, instead of owning them blatantly, loudly and proudly.

What we have instead internalised is years of being treated like a girl or rather the accepted stereotype of a ‘girl’. If you spoke your mind, you were loud. If you stood up for yourself, you were bossy. You could be ambitious as long as your ambition did not affect your role as a nurturer. You could be a winner as long as you did not show off your win.

Add to the mix the more advanced female emotional quotient, and a general work culture that’s still heavily tilted towards the male pattern of professional growth, and you have a successful accomplished woman who’s uncomfortable with owning her success and accomplishments.

“I felt like there had been some mistake, that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company, and that every time I opened my mouth I would have to prove that I wasn’t just a dumb actress.”

— Natalie Portman, Harvard University graduate and an Oscar and Golden Globe award winner

Data tells a different story

It seems however that women, despite their impostor-syndrome are incredible assets in their own right. Various studies highlight the benefits of having women – exhibiting “female” leadership qualities.

A 2019 Credit Suisse Research Institute (CSRI) report stated that having more women in decision-making roles boosts companies’ performance on the stock market. And, a study by management consultancy McKinsey, found companies with the most gender-diverse executive teams are 21% more likely to outperform on profitability.

Further to this, in a recent survey of 21,980 firms from 91 countries, The Peterson Institute for International Economics found that employing women at C-Suite level significantly increased net margins. Consistent data tells us that female leadership improves organisational risk-taking because women are “more cautious and less prone to overconfidence”.

Go on, take a bow!

So, how do you go about owning your success and disowning impostor syndrome? Here are some ideas to get you started:

STOP QUESTIONING YOUR WORTH

Focus on the value you and your work bring at individual and corporate levels. Know your strengths, appreciate them and also appreciate that they may be different to the generally defined strengths of a traditional leadership role. However, it does not mean that they are any less effective or efficient. They’ll get you to your goal via a different and perhaps more interesting and fulfilling route.

BE COMFORTABLE WITH ACCEPTING COMPLIMENTS

Fight the impulse of brushing off a compliment with ‘oh, that was nothing’ or ‘I just got lucky’. Own your hard work and accept the compliment with a thank you and a smile. It will take time to unlearn years of sustained behaviour of underplaying your achievements and basically yourself, but you’ll get there. And with time you will start believing the compliments too.

STAY FOCUSED ON THE END GOAL AND STOP THINKING ABOUT WHAT OTHERS THINK

That’s the quickest way of beating self-doubt, focus on your purpose and your goal. Don’t stop to consider what others are thinking of you because actually everyone is likely dealing with their own issues and insecurities and not thinking about how you may be an ‘impostor’. Staying focused and taking strategic action will keep you on track and any self-doubt will disappear as you inch closer to your goal.

MAKE DECISIONS AND STICK BY THEM. YOU ARE EVENTUALLY A RESULT OF YOUR OWN CHOICES

Explore all opportunities that come your way. Don’t say no to things that you think you are not ready for, that’s your self-doubt in action, again. Everything is worth exploring, without underestimating your fit with the project at the onset. Your default circumstances may not be of your choosing but what comes next and after will be a result of your decisions, not your circumstances.

BE AUTHENTIC

To yourself, to your strengths and weaknesses. Self-awareness is key but it’s also an ongoing process. Find and refine your true self and the values that define you and that you live by. Once you do that, your impostor syndrome will simply fade away. Be authentic with others and never sacrifice your core values. Being anybody but yourself is simply unsustainable.

KEEP TRACK OF YOUR SUCCESSES (AND FAILURES)

Maintain a journal of your achievements, both big and small. Look through them when you feel self-doubt creeping in to remind yourself of how far you’ve come. Also remember your failures and the lessons they taught you. Own your success with humility but not with self-doubt.

You aren’t alone there, sister!

Many accomplished women have talked about suffering from Impostor Syndrome, so you are in good company there. Take comfort in the fact that no matter how much self-doubt you are feeling, other women around you – including many women you may admire – are struggling just as much.

Some stellar examples:

Pulitzer-prize nominee Maya Angelou said, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”

In 2015, a Harvard University graduate and an Oscar and Golden Globe award winner, actress Natalie Portman started her speech at a Harvard event with this: “Today I feel much like I did when I came to Harvard Yard as a freshman in 1999,” she told the students who had gathered to listen to her. “I felt like there had been some mistake, that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company, and that every time I opened my mouth I would have to prove that I wasn’t just a dumb actress.”

And former USA First Lady an accomplished woman in her own right, Michelle Obama, has famously talked about her impostor syndrome: “I still sometimes feel like a fraud. It doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously.”