“What’s talent but the ability to get away with something?” – Tennessee Williams
‘I have written 11 books, but each time I think, “Uh-oh […] I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out,”’ so said Maya Angelou, who published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows, as well as receiving dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees. Yet, despite her myriad successes, she never thought she was capable.
Self-doubt is symptomatic of the successful, particularly women. 70% of people have experienced feelings of being a fraud at work – that someone will eventually ‘find them out’ for secretly not being up to the job – and this sentiment is so common that is has a name: Imposter Syndrome. The Syndrome is particularly common in women, such that they are less likely to than men to apply for jobs unless they meet all of the criteria listed, while 40% of female young professionals say they feel intimidated by those senior to their position at work.
Self-deprecation can be so powerful that one study found that many female academics actually ‘downshift’ – switching from their path towards a high-status position, to one less ambitious. This trend is almost twice as common in women compared to their male counterparts. And, of course, being plagued with a lack of self-belief can have a detrimental effect on mental health. Nearly half of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and execs have experienced mental health issues, while up to 30% of employed women report mental health problems compared to 4% of men of the same age. Women with job authority exhibit more mental health problems than women without it, whereas the opposite is true for men. With mental health in the workplace being the theme of this month’s World Mental Health Day, it seems high time that this epidemic be addressed.
For many who struggle with perfectionism, feeling content with one’s work or progress is in fact too close to complacency – they feel they will lose their ambition if they don’t strive to do better. Women in particular struggle with the feeling of fraudulence because they are more likely to internalise failure, mistakes and criticism than men.
Yet, there is no reason why women should feel this way: many studies, for example, show that investments by female hedge-fund managers actually outperform those run by male managers. In fact, a research psychologist recently showed that it is only lack of confidence that affects women’s ability to perform. In a study he conducted, it was solely because women belittled their abilities that they underperformed – not even attempting to answer the questions posed to them in a test. But when they did answer these questions, their competence matched the men’s. And both sexes performed even better when told they were doing well. Confidence is the incubator of success – and women need more of it to come out of their shell.
Permitting fears of inadequacy to rule over us only makes inadequacy a reality. Yet conquering nagging self-doubt is not an easy process. It takes time and effort to cultivate the self-belief that we all deserve. To do so, tackling perfectionism is key: no one can ever be ‘perfect’, so it is important to accept that mistakes can be made and stop internalising what you see as ‘failure’. Creating faultless work is impossible – everything could always be that little bit better – so, while wanting to improve is healthy for self-development, it is also healthy to celebrate and recognise your own achievements.
Finding a supportive mentor can help. If you can speak to another professional person, whether they work in your industry or not, you have a good sounding board to express your fears. Doing so can also reveal how the successes you achieve at work – too often dismissed as ‘luck’ – are in fact the result of your own talents and perseverance.
Cultivating the bravery to overcome fears of inadequacy allows for more success than you may have thought yourself capable of achieving. Though even Maya Angelou herself was guilty of self-doubt, she was certainly right on how to conquer it. ‘Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.’
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