Beena Nadeem speaks to Dr Sandi Mann, author of a new book on the Impostor Syndrome which leads many of us to denigrate our achievements both at work and at home.
You’d probably agree that cooking Instagram-ready meals from scratch, having children who can speak three languages by the age of two and running your own successful business (or two) is a little bit of a tall order when it comes to defining success.
But measuring and accepting our achievements is a real issue of concern to many successful women. For those of you juggling hectic lives: careers with children, running your businesses, getting a promotion – how often do you find yourself downplaying these very real achievements as a bit of luck? Instead of celebrating your hard work – say a new role in a tech company, you end up being convinced you shouldn’t be there… That any moment now, you’ll be found out.
If you’ve ever felt like this, then you’re not alone. According to the Journal of Behavioural Science, around 70% – a large of them majority women, suffer from what’s known as Impostor Syndrome.
In fact, it’s so pedestrian that it’s not really seen as a mental illness at all, but a common everyday feeling experienced most often by the people we may think would be least vulnerable – successful women. Self-confessed sufferers include the Duchess of Cambridge, Michelle Obama and the £230,000 a year TV-news presenter Mishal Husain who recently said on a Radio Four interview that she often felt ‘not cut out for this job’.
Tackling this issue for the first time in her new UK book, Why do I feel like an Imposter, psychologist and author Dr Sandi Mann says she’s seeing a swell of people coming to her clinic suffering from the effects: often anxiety and depression.
“I see lots of people coming in, including wealthy clients who have a pristine home, can afford help, expensive holidays and have picture-perfect lives, but they feel like fakes. No one is perfect, and the notion anyone is can affect our mental health. We need to be kinder to ourselves,” she tells workingmums.co.uk.
Impostor Syndrome is much more than low-self-confidence (though it leads to this) and it isn’t caused just by making comparisons with others. As Dr Mann points out, it’s perfectly healthy for us to see how we measure up to others. However, she does warn against social media.
“With social media, we’re seeing a really strong disconnect between reality and what others are showing us. We look at everyone else and think they’re doing a great job when really they’re struggling too.”
She adds that people often use social media as a form of validation, often measuring themselves in likes and comments and leaving others struggling with their own situations.
Dr Mann’s book shows how it is high-achieving women – those we’d think were the most comfortable with their successes, who are most at risk. Others include lone workers and those women who have succeeded in careers where their gender is underrepresented. Not only this but when you’re a parent, there’s a whole other IS that creeps into the equation too, with mums being “bombarded with messages of perfect parenting and how to ensure our children are
constantly stimulated in brain, mind and soul”.
Despite all of this, there’s little hard evidence collected in the UK to show the spread of IS. However, one UK survey of tech workers did show that 50% of women, compared to 39% of men, showed frequent symptoms of IS. However, these workers are in a traditionally male field – something Dr Mann says confirms that those women in fields underrepresented by their gender are more susceptible to IS.
Dr Mann also points out that IS has been embraced by many who “see it as a partial explanation for women’s failure to achieve workplace parity with men in terms of status and pay”. Even today, she points out, a mere 12 % of UK women are paid more than £150,000.
Renee, 29, had her own business selling homemade jams and chutneys. She felt her business was regarded as a hobby and found it hard to convince people to take her seriously, despite having products in major stores.
The under-represented female:
Naomi works in the male-dominated world of computer gaming (and was two of 50 females on her course). Now a senior manager at a games development company, she always feels she’s not as good as her male colleagues and was probably only employed as the ‘token female’. She feels she has to prove to others in society that women can code, so works longer hours and harder to prove it, without ever feeling her work is good enough.
Half of the female managers surveyed by the Institute of Leadership and Management reported self-doubt in their job performance, compared to only a third of male managers.
Kelli, 38, works in an SME and feels she never really had any female role models in terms of leadership roles and so sees leadership as masculine. She struggles to see whether she’s doing things right – and doesn’t know whether she should be emulating the men around her or creating her own style. She says: “I feel like my own style is too feminine and not good enough, but if I try to copy the men that won’t be good enough either as it won’t be male enough.”
Add to the mix the maelstrom that is motherhood and it’s little surprise the Impostor Syndrome has become somewhat common for many working mums. After all, making meals from scratch while slaving over a hot laptop and combating all the pressure life throws at you for ensuring your child is nurtured in every way possible without letting work slip is far from easy, if at all consistently possible.
Dr Mann points out that parenting perfectionism is more of a thing now than when women began to enter the workforce in greater numbers following World War II. The parenting norms began to change, especially for mothers, where being a good parent went from being content to be ‘good enough’ to the more ‘intensive mothering’ ideal that is still the norm today. This newer ideal ensures children are cultivated intellectually and socially beyond anything previous generations could have ever conceived.
This is of little surprise, she says, when new parents are bombarded with messages from the media and advertising that they must stimulate their offspring if they want them to reach dizzy heights. If you Google ‘how to stimulate baby in the womb’, for instance, more than 300,000 pages appear.
Meanwhile, Dr Mann shows that, in a 2014 survey in London, some primary school children engaged in an average of 3.2 extra-curricular activities per week, with half of those children aged under 11 attending after-school classes every night.
The working mum:
Jessica is a successful HR manager. She planned her pregnancy to fit in with the best time to take a few months off work (the summer) and also waited until she was financially secure (30). But when her birth plan went awry and then she struggled to bond with her baby who had his own ideas about sleep and feeding, she became exhausted. Blaming herself for not being cut out for motherhood, she went back to work – an environment she felt in control of when her son was just 14 weeks old. This left Jessica wracked with guilt.
The truth is, says Dr Mann, we rarely know whether we’ve been ‘successful parents’, or not until our children become adults. If we don’t achieve perfection, or they don’t achieve highly enough, then people can often feel like failures.
Dr Mann’s suggestions on how to tackle IS are:
Acknowledge the problem
Recognise it for what it is: square up to the voice that tells you ‘they’ll find me out’.
Note every time you think you’re not good enough and then see if there’s any evidence to prove it.
Acknowledge that you don’t have to be perfect – and that such ideals are unobtainable – be kinder to yourself.
Stay away from social media or change your settings. Social media fuels this push for validation, especially for millennial parents who are accustomed to documenting every success and achievement.
Be a good role model. Dr Mann says: “As parents, we shouldn’t dismiss our successes as our children could come to model this behaviour. Instead, we can encourage positive reactions without being arrogant. Our children could then come to recognise success and not dismiss it.”