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You’re too young, an imposter and nobody likes you

The life of a young leader

I used to regularly hear these words and so much worse. Who would say such terrible things, you ask? Me! I used to tell myself these things all the time. As an ambitious 20 something, a bit of a rebel and very confident, I quickly climbed the career ladder. I landed the role of my dreams running a department, which was effectively an organisation within an organisation. All of my team members were older than me, my budget was bigger than I’d ever imagined and we were undergoing a massive change project. On the outside, I was hitting my goals, had great relationships and was making a consistently positive impact. However on the inside, I was plagued by self doubt, convinced everyone would find out that I was actually terrible at my job. There was absolutely no basis to my fears but they were very real to me.

Have you ever felt that your achievements are down to nothing more than good luck?

Are you scared of being exposed as incompetent, inadequate, under-skilled or under-qualified?

If you answered yes to either of these questions, you may be experiencing imposter syndrome, a ‘psychological phenomenon’. Symptoms can include self doubt, harsh self criticism, expectations of self perfection and a fear of being exposed as a fraud, who really isn’t cut out for the job. The good news is, imposter syndrome is very common and apparently affects high achieving women more than any other group. It can also be worse if you belong to an under-represented group. In my case, I was a young, mixed race woman, from a ‘bad’ background, who had left school with no qualifications (never mind my first class masters degree).

I still struggle with imposter syndrome from time to time but being aware of it helps me to keep it in check. I have done lots of things to help myself and I would recommend the following: 

Acknowledge your achievements

Imposter syndrome can make it difficult to view ourselves and our accomplishments positively and objectively. Take a step back and make a list of your key achievements. Don’t analyse or pick them apart, simply make a list. Reflect on the things you have achieved and the work you put in to make them possible. What are you proud of? What have you overcome? What positive feedback have you received? Be thankful for how far you have come. Start capturing your accomplishments, as and when they happen, so that you can refer to them when in need of a boost. Ask supportive colleagues for feedback too and view anything critical as an opportunity to grow and develop, not as an excuse to be hard on yourself. 

Listen to your thoughts

The things we tell ourselves become our reality. If you have a negative voice inside your head telling you, “you’re too young”, “you’re an imposter”, “nobody likes you”, “you’re not good enough” and so on, you will internalise these thoughts and everything you achieve will be seen through these lenses. By listening to your thoughts, you can start to turn anything negative into a positive affirmation. A simple exercise you can do is to sit in silence, take some deep breaths and observe the thoughts that come into your head. How would you describe your internal voice – is it critical? Loving? Judgemental? Forgiving? Are you compassionate towards yourself? Would you say the things you say to yourself to anyone else? It is normal to have negative thoughts but if they are overwhelmingly negative (and even if they’re not), challenge yourself to only have positive, kind, loving thoughts towards yourself for a week, and see what a difference this makes.

Find a mentor

You may or may not have a supportive line manager but your ability to open up will depend on many factors including; the quality of your relationship, the organisational culture and their personality or management style. A mentor who is not part of your management or even your department, can help you in a multitude of ways. As well as normalising how you feel, they can look objectively at your accomplishments with you, advise and guide you in any areas that are particularly challenging and give you an outlet for some of what you are experiencing. Their job is to be non-judgemental and they should treat what you share as being confidential. Having a mentor helped me immensely, restoring my confidence and helping me to see things so much more objectively. 

Just remember, you are not alone and having these feelings could in fact be an indication of just how well you are doing!

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