When I was asked to write this guest column, honestly, my first thought was: “Why me?”
This feeling only got stronger when I heard award-winning journalists Michele Landsberg and Sally Armstrong had also written this column. As I began my “Thanks but no thanks” email reply, I thought of others who would do a better job.
For me, this behaviour isn’t unusual: I consistently undervalue my qualifications and second-guess my skills. Here’s another example. I recently co-facilitated a six-week media workshop for young Muslim women called Outburst! (it’s funded by the Canadian Women’s Foundation). As I approached the workshop location, with every step all I could think of was the person I thought was better qualified to lead it. And during the Calgary flood, my senior producer asked me to fly there to cover the emergency for the Current. Inside, I panicked, thinking of all the other producers who were more qualified to go. In the end, I gulped and said: “Sure.”
There’s a name for all of this: The Impostor Syndrome. According to research, most sufferers are young, female and from diverse socio-economic and racial backgrounds. If you agree with either of the following statements, you might be one of them: “It’s hard for me to accept compliments or praise about my intelligence or accomplishments.” “When people praise me for something I’ve accomplished, I’m afraid I won’t be able to live up to their expectations of me in the future.”
People with Imposter Syndrome feel they’re a fraud, likely to one day be “found out” as not as skilled as they pretend to be. They are extra-critical of themselves but very forgiving when others slip up. They think their successes are due to chance, luck, or fate—not because they worked hard and deserve to be where they are. I’ve felt all of those things, and depending on the day, still feel it.
The costs of the Imposter Syndrome are high.
We already know women are underrepresented in boardrooms and leadership positions. We also make up a painfully low percentage of columnists in Canadian papers. When we feel like an imposter, we’re much less likely to ask for a raise or a promotion. We can get left behind—or maybe we’re leaving ourselves behind. While women definitely still face systemic barriers in their careers, chronic self-doubt can definitely lead to self-sabotage.
So what’s an “imposter” to do? Here’s what I’m trying.
I am beyond lucky to work with some of the best female journalists in this country—including Carol Off and Anna Maria Tremonti, both with CBC Radio. (They don’t appear to have a single imposter-like bone in their bodies.) Sometimes, they hold me up higher than I hold myself. I am working on accepting their praise without tempering it with some kind of criticism on what I could’ve done better. I’m learning to just say: “Thank you.” When people you respect give you positive feedback, believe them. It helps to keep a record of successes and positive feedback, especially for those days when your self-doubt is especially high. You can also share your “imposter” feelings with someone you trust.
At the end of the Outburst! workshop, I looked into the eyes of the young women who’d attended and saw their respect and admiration. While I had been blown away and inspired by their ideas, curiosity and hard work, some of them admitted they felt they just hadn’t done as good a job as they could.
This is the real imposter: the voice that tells you you’re not good enough.
I’m learning to tell mine to shut up.
This post was originally published in the Spring 2014 edition of SHE magazine.