Women and Imposter Syndrome

by Amy Daws

It can creep up unsuspected like a distant ache in your gut, like dread in the face of an insurmountable obstacle, or like the paralysis of doing everything except the one thing you know you were meant to do.

Imposter Syndrome. That sense that you are not up to the task, that they promoted the wrong person and will soon discover their error.  Or, if you are self-employed, the struggle to put a dollar amount on your time and convince potential clients you are worth it.  The pain of “marketing” one’s services while inhabiting the same body that was once a child: the one who skinned her knees, and who cried when she couldn’t break open the piñata at her own birthday party.  Now, she is a Human Resources Director, a Family Therapist, a Department Manager.  And you know that girl is still in there somewhere.

In addition to seeing our own past or present weaknesses, many of us fear seeming disingenuous offering our services to people within our network with whom we have collaborated in the past.  We do not want a friend or former colleague to feel used, or like we are selling to them.  To flip our mindset to see that we offer something that will benefit them far beyond the dollar cost, we need to realize the value of what we bring.  This is easily done intellectually, but to bring that knowledge to the heart often requires time in conversation with a neutral party who is trained to help you change the underlying beliefs that feed the mindset.

While Imposter Syndrome is not unique to women, we seem to experience it more.  In London, England when I was first promoted to HR Director, I called my mom stateside to tell her the news.  Her first comment was, “Do you think you can do it?”  I was bilingual, well-educated, experienced, and living in my third European country of residence.  But her question threw me off balance for a split-second as I wondered how to answer.

When I relayed this story over the years to other female friends, they identified with the feeling and shared similar tales of their own.  In some cases, our beloved mothers unwittingly transferred their self-doubt onto us.  Many of us did not realize this had happened until our 30s or 40s, when we got a renewed energy for stepping into our bigness.

One of the barriers to self-actualizing in this way is concealing our vulnerabilities.  Sometimes when we try to explore how we might step outside our comfort zone or reach for the stars, we mention it to the wrong person, who shoots us down in the blink of an eye.  They speak out of their own narrow view of self, lumbering you with their own set of perceived limitations, their own shoulds, musts, and can’ts.  The result is that we clam up, unable to state out loud the thing that holds us back.  Yet, saying it out loud and looking it full in the face may be the key to disarming it.

Another dynamic that may leave women bewildered is that many (not all of course) are big enough people to see and praise others’ giftedness.  We are confident enough to see our own strengths and those of our colleagues, and to see the value of collaborating.  This ability is one of the hallmarks of an excellent, mature leader.  However, in an ego-driven or male-dominated work environment, the person who does this may be left doubting herself as she celebrates others’ expertise and no one returns the favor.  In fact, as she applauds her male colleagues’ gifts, everyone else is doing the same, and hers may remain unseen.  This reinforces her nagging suspicion that she is an imposter and unworthy of her position.

My response to this is not, as you might expect, for women to band together and support each other, giving each other a leg up whenever possible.  This is no bad thing, but I would suggest instead that male and female leaders actively work together to dissolve the unconscious divide between men and women; that we seek the person underneath the gender.  This is becoming particularly important in an age when socially, and especially amongst millennials and Generation Y, gender roles and even gender itself has become a blurred line or a point somewhere on a spectrum rather than the traditional cut and dried definitions of male and female.

To find courage to navigate leading in a changing world, a coach who helps you see new possibilities and open your eyes to perspectives you would not have found alone can be an enormous asset.  Some coaches function as advisers, mentors, or consultants.  I believe to get beyond Imposter Syndrome and make the kind of self-discoveries that will help you improve your mindset and make good decisions, you need a non-judgmental thought partner who asks questions that help you see what lies beneath the issue for you so you can design your own actions.  My advice would always be limited by the fact that I am not you.  That is why I help you better understand what you know about yourself and the situation, to enable you to design your own action steps.  The actions you design yourself are far more motivating to you because they are authentically yours.

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