Pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain: My experience of Imposter Syndrome

In a lot of the interviews on this blog, the women I have spoken to have mentioned imposter syndrome.

Rosie Bennett, Julia Wilson, Hannah Atkinson and Rosie Campbell have all either identified themselves as suffering from it on occasions or recognised that it is an issue, particularly (but not exclusively) for women working in tech.

For those of you not familiar with the phrase, imposter syndrome is (in complicated terms) the inability to internalise accomplishments and the constant fear of being “found out”. To the layperson, it’s that feeling that you don’t deserve either to be doing the job/task/project you are doing or the recognition you are receiving. It’s that feeling of being a fraud.

The phrase was coined in the 1970s by psychologists Dr Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. Together they published a paper called The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women in 1978, in which they state

“women are more likely either to project the cause of success outward to an external cause (luck) or to a temporary internal quality (effort) that they do not equate with inherent ability”.

I was recently talking to a friend who has started working in marketing, mainly writing blog posts. He seemed amazed at what he was allowed to write about, feeling that he was not expert enough to be talking about these things. But he does his research. He has a strong, likeable writing style and as a result his posts are interesting and informative. That didn’t seem to change his mind, saying that he felt like the Wizard of Oz, hiding behind the curtain of relative anonymity telling everyone he was great and powerful and knew everything there is to know about what he was writing about. This wonderful clip from the film demonstrates exactly that.

To me, that’s a really interesting concept; that the internet, and the relative anonymity it can provide to writers and coders and anyone else for that matter. It links to that question of whether or not the internet is good for women. To a certain extent it puts everybody’s voices on the same level. Yes, some, rightly or wrongly, acquire more gravitas than others, but the ability to put yourself out there and state proudly “I am great and powerful and this is something I know about” provides everyone, the wise and the not-so-wise with their very own green curtain.

jane_eyre_title_pageAs a woman, to me this is equal parts liberating and debilitating. In the same way that Charlotte Bronte wrote as Currer Bell and Mary Anne Evans as George Elliot, online everyone has their own handle, their own pseudonym, their own persona. Although the fact that these women had to write under male names is absurd, it’s also clearly a very powerful tool.

The real problem comes when this curtain changes from a cloak to a security blanket that moves with us into real life. That desire to hide behind anonymity is one thing online, but offline it is something else entirely. It makes us doubt our successes, attributing them, as Clance and Imes say, to luck and effort rather than ability. But beyond that it can be isolating and result in high levels of stress and anxiety. Yes, it can be giddy; that feeling that you are getting away with something. But it can also be a massive negative weight on your shoulders that stops you from being able to claim “I am great and powerful” because you simply no longer believe it.

Before I started working in tech, and for a long time when I first started, I felt like this. It was especially apparent to me as I felt as though I was constantly learning. It seemed like there was always something I didn’t know, or something that someone else knew and maybe I should too, even if that person was the CTO.

Learning about imposter syndrome has helped me to recognise that feeling and understand that learning is actually an important part of any job. I love to learn and, actually, one of my favourite things about my current job is that I learn so much while I’m doing it. So saying, like my friend does, that he doesn’t deserve to write about something because he didn’t know anything about it when he sat down to write about it is ridiculous.

The point is that you take the time to learn so that you can be more like Dorothy than the wizard. Stop proclaiming, “I know all of these things” and hoping that no one will draw back your curtain, and instead say, “This is what I know. Can you help me?”

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