Turn off all social media. Social media, for all its good, also has a huge amount to answer for. The comparison culture is toxic and often enhances the feeling of imposter syndrome. As soon as I start to feel the feelings of imposter syndrome, I delete all my social media apps until I feel able to go back on when feeling stronger.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Esther Marshall.
Esther Marshall is a children’s author, entrepreneur, mental health activist and diversity and inclusion expert on a mission to improve mental health support along with diversity and representation for young children.
As Global Gender Diversity & Inclusion Lead at Unilever, Esther was shocked by the lack of diversity in children’s books when she had her son. So, during his night-feeds, she began writing the book she wished she could read to him. The Sophie Says series uplifts children and shows them they can achieve whatever they want, regardless of their background. It makes life’s most important lessons fun to learn. She was driven by the legacy of her sister, who took her own life just prior to the first lockdown, after a long battle with mental illness.
Esther has now left her high-flying corporate career to focus on fighting for equality and good mental health for children full time. She was invited to speak about her work to Meghan and Harry at Buckingham Palace with the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust, at the Commonwealth Day Service, and has won a number of awards — including the Government’s Point of Light Award and the JustGiving Influencer of the Year Award. Her books have been endorsed by celebs like Frankie Bridge and Emma Willis as well as multiple mum influencers.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
For 8 years I worked at Unilever — starting on the graduate program and working my way up the company in roles that fit to my purpose — making the world a better place. I ensured all roles that I had within my time there made a positive social impact. I worked in roles such as sustainability, innovation and diversity and inclusion ending up as the Global Lead for Gender Diversity at Unilever. However, 2 years ago something changed. I became a mum for the first time and I suddenly saw the world through my baby’s eyes and I wanted him to know that his mom could do just as much as his dad and that he would meet women in his personal and professional life who look different to his mum and he should respect them and learn from them.
There was one issue — In most of the stories I was reading to my son, there weren’t many strong female protagonists. I wanted my son to grow up understanding that both boys and girls can grow up to become anything they want, regardless of gender. I decided if I couldn’t find enough of the stories I wanted to read to my child, I’d better write one myself!” So Sophie Says I Can I Will was created and was the first book in the Sophie Says children’s book series. This tells the story of a young girl who is so excited about the possibilities of her future that she leaps out of bed to share all of her ideas with her parents. Written to inspire other young girls and boys about the direction their lives might take them whilst tackling stereotypes head-on by showcasing incredible women in a whole host of roles, Sophie Says I Can I Will is a powerful and uplifting story of empowerment. The aim — to allow boys and girls to achieve their dreams regardless of gender, race, religion or class.
My younger sister, a phenomenal artist said she would do the illustrations and I would do the writing and it would be our joint project together. For years she had suffered from her mental health. At the beginning of 2020, I tragically lost my younger sister when she ended her battle with mental illness. Sophie Says It’s Okay Not To Be Okay, the second book in the Sophie Says serieswas written as my way of healing, with the book poignantly dedicated to my sister. I so desperately want the next generation to understand the importance of looking after their mental health and speaking about their feelings. After launching this book in memory of my sister I kept thinking of the many times when I was sat in the middle of the mental health ward in hospital with my sister and she turned to me and said “Esther, why were we chosen to grow up with privilege and opportunities that many don’t ever get. Why do some children get dealt a different story?” Before I could answer she said, “it’s because I know that we will use that privilege for good and to make a positive difference to others”.
Since the day she passed, I haven’t been able to get those words out of my head. So, after what I can only describe as a positive life-changing experience at Unilever I am now starting my new chapter with Sophie Says to desperately try to keep my sister’s legacy alive and make a positive social impact for the next generation.
What’s the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or takeaways you learned from it?
I was 3 years into my career at the company I worked for and I was ready for a promotion. I applied for a new role which was a promotion. The line manager of that role interviewed me and said he wanted me for the role. My current boss at the time decided he didn’t think I was ready for the promotion so even though the actual line manager interviewed me and wanted to hire me, my current boss, at the time, made me have another interview with someone who was “independent” to test whether I was ready for the promotion. I learned that when you are a go-getter and work incredibly hard and have a passion for certain topics you have a drive that some people don’t understand and will be jealous of and will want to put you down and stunt that growth. They will put hurdles in your way. But what they don’t realize in doing that is that it makes you stronger and more determined to achieve. So, although at the time I was angry I now look back at it as an amazing learning experience that gave me, even more, drive to succeed than I had before and we all know what they say about women on a mission!
What do you think makes your work stand out, and why?
In everything, I do I am open, honest, and vulnerable. I wear my heart on my sleeve in sharing my personal story. Regardless of what anyone says I trust in the person I am and I don’t conform for anyone. I am me, take it or leave it. The attributes that people once told me were my weaknesses like caring too much and being told to just concentrate on my own work instead of trying to change the world for the better, or dreaming too big that people would tell me my head is in the clouds, I now use as what I like to call my superpowers. And I believe it’s because of these attributes that my work stands out as authentic, real and game-changing.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you are grateful towards, who helped get you to where you are?
I would love to say that women have championed me to achieve but unfortunately, that has not been the case. I have been on the receiving end of many women, much more my senior who have tried to put me down and squash my drive. Because of this, I am so passionate about mentoring other women to achieve. For me seeing someone else achieve is so wonderful that I can’t understand why others wouldn’t want to do it. So, for me, it has been two amazing men who have championed my entire career and who I owe where I have got to due to them. They are the EX-CEO of Unilever Paul Polman and The CEO of One Young World and You & Mr Jones David Jones. Both men have pushed me to think big and make a game-changing difference to the world in a positive way. Even though they are two of the busiest and important men in business they have always taken the time to speak to me, mentor me and open doors that I would otherwise have had to be knocking on for years.
We would like to explore Impostor Syndrome. How would you define Impostor Syndrome? What do people with Imposter Syndrome feel?
I define imposter syndrome as that all-encompassing feeling that comes over me at least once a month where I convince myself I’m not good enough and shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing, that I don’t deserve the success I have had and that I should just pack it all in and stop.
People with imposter syndrome feel this impending doom where they get this thought into their head that they can’t do what they are doing and they aren’t qualified to do it. This thought then spirals into a feeling of self-doubt and lack of self-worth and therefore sometimes end up self-sabotaging themselves and never seeing it through to achieve their full potential.
What are the downsides of Impostor Syndrome? How can it limit people?
Once the thoughts that imposter syndrome bring get into someone’s head it can seriously affect them. It can stop them from believing in in themselves and achieving their full potential. It can limit people as however good their idea or their drive is it will put a stop to that and will mean the things they may have dreamed of achieving won’t ever get to be achieved because of this fear that imposter syndrome brings. It is this fear that is the most limiting. The fear of failure or exposing any weaknesses are two feelings that get into people’s minds when experiencing imposter syndrome and ultimately cause people to seriously limit themselves.
How can the experience of Impostor Syndrome impact how we treat others?
I always say be kind, you never know what’s going on in someone’s mind. In fact, it’s the last line in the Sophie Says It’s Okay Not To Be Okay book as I feel so strongly that both children and adults need to hear this message, learn this message and believe this message. When someone is going through imposter syndrome, they may not act like themselves, they may seem down or on edge. Be kind, always — you never know what’s going on in someone’s mind!
Do you have a personal experience with Impostor Syndrome? Are there any stories you can share? If yes, how did you manage to overcome your Imposter Syndrome?
Yes, big time! Especially since leaving my corporate job. At the corporate I had multiple people giving me feedback regularly and I felt good at my job. But now I am running my own business and trying to make a difference in the world I only really have myself to get feedback from and I am my own worst critic. I constantly think I’m not good enough to do what I’m doing. Starting something myself and from scratch has seriously increased my feelings of imposter syndrome. For anyone who has their own business, they know that the good days are great but the bad days are worse than any day you ever had in a job at a company. However, I say to myself, weekly at this point, exactly what I said above about being kind. I remember after I was luckily enough to go to Buckingham palace and speak to Harry and Meghan about the Sophie Says books and my sister’s legacy that the press went wild. It was overwhelming but amazing. It was then the next day that the rumours that we were going to go into lockdown started and therefore my news story wasn’t front and centre anymore. So many interview opportunities that had come from that meeting were canceled and I remember thinking, what am I doing? This is a sign that I should just stop. But I dug deep and looked at the wall on which I have one of my favourite quotes by Abraham Maslow: “In any given moment you have two choices: step forward into growth or step backward into safety”. And however much imposter syndrome is getting to me I promised myself I will always choose growth.
In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone who is experiencing Impostor Syndrome can take to move forward despite feeling like an “Impostor”? Please share an example for each.
- As soon as you start to feel imposter syndrome feeling or thoughts setting in I suggest stepping away from whatever you are doing and take a break. Shut down your laptop and do something that will switch off your brain. Be that watching something on TV that has nothing to do with your work or a walk or some form of exercise. I love a good walk with a podcast and I just let my mind wander.
- Turn off all social media. Social media, for all its good, also has a huge amount to answer for. The comparison culture is toxic and often enhances the feeling of imposter syndrome. As soon as I start to feel the feelings of imposter syndrome, I delete all my social media apps until I feel able to go back on when feeling stronger.
- Once I feel a little bit stronger, I write a list. I start with one action a day I need to get done. It is usually something small so I know I can achieve it, then the second day is two actions and usually by the third day I have built my confidence back that I can achieve and this helps. This is different for people. Some people may find the one action a day too much and that is totally understandable. For people who feel that I suggest taking a full day to time to yourself not thinking about work but just doing things that make you feel calm and start from there.
- I have a little book that is always with me and every day I write down what I have achieved that day. That is both in work but also in personal life. These range from “held my son all day (he is 2 and a half) as he had an infection” to “managed to book massive PR article” or “sales of x amount today” or “raised awareness of mental illness on number 1 radio interview”. Then what I do when imposter syndrome sets in is take at least an hour a day to look back over that book and see all the things I have achieved and it helps build me back up. This book is literally like my bible! It comes everywhere with me!
- Once you are feeling stronger and you have taken the steps above and built yourself back up to a point then I would say now is the time to try and spend some time with your close family and friends who will always have your back. Its important that you build yourself back up first as this is vital in order to push away the imposter syndrome but once you have you can then get some well-deserved validation by spending an evening with close family or friends. I have my imposter squad and they know as soon as I reach out that I’m having that feeling of imposter syndrome and need them to come and have my back. It is a very select few but they are my true squad!
If you could inspire one movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would it be?
Wow, what a question! Personally, for me, I dream about how amazing would the world be if everyone could speak openly about how they were feeling if everyone truly knew it’s okay not to be okay. If no one was judged for saying they were having a difficult day and if everyone truly felt that they could share their feelings with no repercussions. I dream of a day when this could be a reality as it would be a game-changer for society.
Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?
Well at the moment I would like to be able to have any meal at all with anyone as in the UK we haven’t been allowed to have anyone into the house for over a year. So, at this point, I would take anyone but if we weren’t in a global pandemic, it would without a doubt have to be my sister who I lost last year at the all too early age of 28. I would want to sit with her and talk about her dreams and mine and just look into her amazing and caring blue eyes just one more time.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!