Do you feel like a fraud?
I remember the surge of panic and clammy palms as if it was yesterday. I was sitting at the head of the conference table with my new team of 35 sat around it with their notepads at the ready. Bright young things looked at me intently, waiting for me to lead them into a content strategy discussion.
No words came out of my mouth. I reached for my water bottle and took a swig as my mind raced with negativity. ‘What are you doing? Who do you think you are? You can’t do this’.
If these were the words of an unsupportive partner or friend, you’d ditch them immediately. But this was my own negative self-talk doing a dance of doubt and making me feel claustrophobic, trapped inside my own head.
I took a big sip, clasped my hands together and let the words start to fall out, hoping they strung themselves together and made sentences of sense. It wasn’t the first time, or the last, that I’ve been struck with an overwhelming surge of self-doubt in my career. As a writer, you are never trained on how to manage a team, so after a promotion, the first time you lead it’s unfamiliar, awkward, and, well, honestly, it’s hard.
As you rise up the ladder, practice does make it easier; though I wouldn’t go so far as to say it ‘makes perfect’. Even years into leading high-flying teams on huge national brands around the globe, I had moments where my self-talk made me stumble while I was presenting or chairing a meeting. It’s almost as if you step outside your own body for a few seconds, hear yourself talking, and your inner doubter pops up to jeer at you.
Psychologists call it ‘impostor syndrome’. ‘Impostors’ tend to set impossibly high standards for themselves in everything they do and as a result feel inept most of the time, regardless of their successes and achievements. It’s such a prevalent psychological phenomenon, internationally renowned speaker and expert Dr Valerie Young penned an entire book on the subject, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive In Spite Of It.
In the book, Young recalls struggling with feelings of self-doubt throughout graduate school that ultimately lead her to fail to celebrate her own accomplishments. A self-described “recovering impostor”, Young proposes young, high-achieving women are most likely to be afflicted by feelings of fraudulence, due to a kind of genetic inability to accurately rate their own worth.
Seemingly tenacious Tina Fey once said, “The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.”
The wave of egomania never reached me – maybe some other successful person hogged it.
No matter how many promotions I tucked under my belt, I often had moments where I believed I wasn’t worthy. Walking up to collect an award I once almost tripped over a microphone chord. I then fixated on negative self-chatter and was so cross with myself that I didn’t enjoy my ‘moment’. Deep down I didn’t feel I deserved to be winning it. Someone fitting would have managed to put one foot in front of the other, I told myself.
It’s important to know when those feelings come (because they probably will), you’re not the only one. The world is full of ‘impostors’. They walk (and sometimes stumble) into corporate boardrooms, onto film sets, TV stations and world stages every day.
You must push ahead. Force your way through it and the moments do pass. When I walked into my office in New York on my first day my impostor syndrome was raging. I thought to myself, ‘You’ve really done it now! As if you can do this.’ But I did.
Don’t let fear hold you back. Take a risk, step outside your comfort zone and get used to feeling uncomfortable until your zone gets bigger. When opportunity knocks, open the door. One of my favourite quotes is from entrepreneur and Virgin mogul Richard Branson, “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later.”
Because that’s the thing; there is no one more capable than you. The only person who thinks you’re an ‘imposter’ is that person you see in the mirror. And if you saw her through the same eyes as everyone else, you’d think she was pretty damn brilliant.