Business management

Six successful women on how they overcame imposter syndrome

The niggling feeling that you don’t deserve your success is a phenomenon more frequently experienced by women.

According to a recent survey of 3,000 adults in the UK, two thirds of women have felt imposter syndrome at work in the past 12 months, especially when they were criticised or had to ask for help.

A certain degree of insecurity might be inevitable, but chronic self-doubt cannot only have a negative impact on our own careers but also on our colleagues and employers. So, what are the positive coping strategies and mechanisms that you can use to overcome this feeling?

Stop being perfect

The first solution is stop demanding perfection from yourself. Catherine Morgan, a podcaster, financial coach and founder of financial adviser The Money Panel, says she concentrates on the unique value she can offer people.

“A few days before I gave a speech last year, I wanted to call in sick and cancel as I didn’t feel like an expert,” she says. “I had to tell myself that it’s not about being perfect or being an expert – just about giving value to other people. After my talk, which was about my emotional relationship with money and my child being ill, people came up to me afterwards and said they could relate. The story resonated with them, it had nothing to do with being perfect.”

Dropping the mask of perfectionism can also mean playing up to your strengths and admitting your weaknesses. Fiona Macdonald, an architect at LDN Architects, says she was once told by a colleague that to be treated as the ‘project architect’ – the person leading the job – you have to act like it, but own up when you can’t answer a question. She adds that she’s often the only female in the room or on-site.

“It’s important as an architect to always be aware of the limits of your knowledge,” she says. “I have often been open about not knowing something, only to find that others more experienced than me didn’t actually know either. I think that there’s a fine balance between being assertive and having the confidence to be open about what you don’t know.”

Protect your mental health

For Anna Codrea-Rado, a journalist and campaigner for fair pay for freelancers, imposter syndrome is part of a bigger conversation about self-doubt and well-being. She adds that it can be particularly hard for those who are self-employed.

“When you’re in a good place in general this [imposter syndrome] feels more manageable – when you’re exercising, eating properly, getting enough sleep and you have a support network of other freelance writers.”

Codrea-Rado has a group of “work wives” – female writers that she sends WhatsApp voice notes to most days, and she organises networking events.

“It creates an environment where you feel more resilient, and your defences are up so you can take what life throws at you,” she says.

Look at the facts

While imposter syndrome is often about emotions, Sonya Barlow, delivery manager at data consultancy Mudano and founder of Like Minded Females network, advises us to look at the hard evidence of our achievements.

Always be aware of the limits of your knowledge. There’s a fine balance between being assertive and having the confidence to be open about what you don’t know

Fiona Macdonald
Architect at LDN Architects

“Just today I was looking at everyone around me in the office and thinking they’re smarter than I am,” she says. “I was chatting to a male colleague and he reminded me that I’ve gone through four interviews to get into my new role and the team have given me good feedback. He was reminding me of the evidence and facts, rather than being emotional.”

Looking at the data also helped Barlow when she negotiated her salary. “I went back with data points and asked for more money,” she says. “And I got it.”

Focus on the positives

Despite the drawbacks, imposter syndrome is not always a negative thing. Philippa Gee, managing director of Philippa Gee Wealth Management, says she feels imposter syndrome because she and her team are “so fortunate to have built our business in our own way and not based on someone else’s approach”.

“We put clients first and as a result have a nine-month waiting list. I think it’s healthy to see how lucky you are, and the result of all the hard work you’ve put in, rather than taking the position for granted,” she says.

One challenge Gee regularly encounters is sexism, especially from male financial advisers on social media. Although the industry is less male-dominated than when she started 28 years ago, the rise of social media, she says, has “fuelled the divide”.

“My coping mechanisms are good humour and hard work. I’m fully occupied with running the business, with my husband and raising a family, so try to simply ignore the background ‘noise’,” she says. “Learning not to respond on social media was a major step forward for me and I just wish I had learnt that earlier on.”

If all the above coping strategies fail, Sam Carlisle, director of Cause Communications, a consultancy for communications, advocacy and fundraising, and a columnist for Woman magazine, advises people to embrace a sense of priorities. When her daughter was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder aged two and told she might not live past three, Carlisle realised that what other people thought of her was “utterly unimportant”.

“I had experienced the worst thing that could happen to a mother, so critics could bring it on,” she says. “Ironically, that allowed me to tell colleagues exactly what I thought without fear of consequence. That Teflon coating made me more confident and advanced my career. My daughter is now 17.”

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