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Even Strong Women Suffer From Imposter Syndrome

It’s a strange paradox that many super-confident women leaders are simultaneously filled with feelings of doubt as they lead.

I used to be under the impression that only a few women suffer from imposter syndrome. As I interviewed women I admired, I was surprised to discover that a large majority of them experience it. Recently I chanced upon a quote widely attributed to the Nobel laureate and civil rights activist Maya Angelou (she is my heroine; whenever I need inspiration, I return to her famous poem “Phenomenal Woman”). Here is a cleverly articulated feeling of being an imposter: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find me out now.’” Whenever Angelou spoke publicly, she exuded such confidence; you would never think she suffered from imposter syndrome, but she did.

Several other women have pointed out that imposter syndrome is not an exclusively female problem. Indeed, for many years, imposter syndrome was thought to affect only women. Now we know that high-achieving individuals of either gender can experience imposter syndrome, also called fraud syndrome, when they cannot internalize their accomplishments and fear being exposed as a fraud. I have first-hand experience with this misunderstanding about who is affected. One time, when I was out to dinner with my team, a man mentioned that he experiences imposter syndrome. Another man on the team was quick to ask, “But isn’t that a syndrome only women have?” Up to that point, I too had believed that only women were affected.

I can’t speak to why some women lack self-confidence, but when I look at myself, I also appear confident, but I lack self-confidence because I set a high bar for myself that I can never reach. In short, I am never satisfied; I feel I have big gaps in my knowledge because I just can’t keep up. Most times, I am my own worst enemy, critical and hard on myself. My parents were never critical of me. They never liked my direct communication because I challenged them a lot, but I think deep down, they appreciated that in me.

Looking back, I think my confidence took a hit when I was in school. I was extremely confident in my abilities—to the point where I was cocky. I had too many teachers, until high school, who disliked my attitude and constantly suppressed me, especially when it came to sports. That may possibly have hurt my self-assurance. And of course, I have had some bosses in the workforce who also chipped away at my confidence. The majority of them were great, but the few bad bosses had a deep impact on me. It is important to have a good boss. If you don’t, you should leave.

Imposter syndrome can be seen as good for you because it indicates that you are getting out of your comfort zone, growing personally and professionally. Yes, sometimes that might be scary. People feel imposter syndrome when they are thrust into new responsibility, or have to walk through uncharted territory. Each time I start a new role, I go through an “imposter period” because I have to learn about new people, new processes, and a new product—and that all feels daunting.

I think it is important to discuss this topic. Women who are working with technology or moving into leadership should understand that these sorts of feelings are natural as we take on big challenges. But we shouldn’t let these feelings get in our way of setting big goals for ourselves.

How do we overcome this? By tackling it head on, becoming disciplined, and learning more about the area we are insecure about. Little by little, that uncomfortable feeling melts away—until another new challenge crops up. Imposter syndrome is a way of life. Every time you feel it, tell yourself it’s there for a reason, pushing your limits and hinting that there’s something new to conquer. Isn’t that exciting? So, embrace that feeling of being a fraud, because when you do, that means that greatness is just around the corner. 

This extract, adapted from Nevertheless, She Persisted: True Stories Of Women Leaders In Tech by Pratima Rao Gluckman, is ©2018 and reproduced with permission from the author. www.pratimagluckman.com

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