From Front-Bench Politicians To CEOs, Here’s What Happened When We Asked Successful Women To Speak Honestly About Their Imposter Syndrome

In Mental Health Awareness Week, Grazia’s Where’s Your Head At? campaign is tackling impostor syndrome face-on...

Imposter Syndrome

by Rebecca Holman |

In October 2010, Luciana Berger, the newly appointed Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change, was giving her first address at the despatch box. Outwardly the then 29-year-old appeared calm and collected. What the public couldn’t see was that one of her legs was shaking uncontrollably behind the despatch box.

‘That was a very public moment,’ the Independent Group MP for Liverpool Wavertree tells Grazia. ‘All your colleagues are sitting behind you and you’re desperately trying to make an important contribution that will be recorded forever in Hansard.’

‘The shaky leg is something I’ve always had,’ she continues. ‘It happens when I’m in important situations, and is often linked to public speaking. As a student speaking at the NUS [National Union of Students] conference, I had a bruise from where my leg banged repeatedly against the lectern.’

The story might surprise you. After all, Luciana is currently one of the most high-profile female politicians in the UK. Surely she’s immune to the nerves, fears and self-doubt that plague the rest of us?

Or maybe not. Impostor Syndrome is nothing new – it was first recognised in the 1970s, and a study last year estimated that two thirds of British women suffer from it in the workplace. Last month the term was added to dictionary.com – proof that it has permeated our collective consciousness.

But that is very different to truly understanding the effect the stress of waiting to be ‘found out’ is having on our mental health. Impostor syndrome has been repeatedly linked to mental health issues, with a 2011 study in the Journal Of Behavioural Science reporting that clinical symptoms include anxiety, depression and low levels of self-confidence.

As part of Where’s Your Head At? (our campaign for better mental health provisions in the workplace), we’ve asked high-profile women to share moments in their lives where the gap between how they appeared to us, and how they were feeling, couldn’t have been greater. The more we talk about that inner voice, the more we neutralise it – and can focus on areas in which we’re doing well.

For Michelle Kennedy, founder and CEO of Peanut, the social networking app for parents, that voice became overwhelming when Peanut received a broadly positive write-up in the New York Times a few months after its launch. ‘It was amazing to have a piece in there. But to balance it they had a psychologist saying that women were spending too much time on their phones. It took me days to share the article on Instagram because I was feeling so bereft and couldn’t sleep because I was so upset. I wish I could relive it and enjoy the moment.’

When we’re ignoring all the good stuff we’re doing, we obsess over every mistake we’ve ever made, working long hours fixating on tiny details to try and compensate for our perceived failures. It’s exhausting, and explains why impostor syndrome has been linked to mental health issues. So why aren’t we talking about it more?

Watch: Michelle Kennedy talking about her imposter syndrome

‘If everybody who had impostor syndrome put their hand up, we’d be the majority, and could start making systems that are responsive and kind and curious about people’, says Sophie Walker, former leader of the Women’s Equality Party, who cites running for London Mayor in 2016 as a key moment where she had to battle the problem. ‘I really struggled. I spent years trying to fix myself, putting up a front at work and then being exhausted when I got home, from pretending I had a thick skin. Actually I’ve got a thin skin, and I think the world needs more people who empathise.’

‘Impostor syndrome leads to burnout,’ says Alex Depledge, founder of resi.co.uk, who got to this point in her twenties. ‘I’d come home and unpick things I’d done wrong that day, fretting about what I’d said, or the way I’d acted – it was a huge cause of anxiety.’

Social media doesn’t help – according to Instagram (#amworking #inspired), everyone else is doing amazing, creative, fulfilling work that pays for their amazing lifestyle. But we never get to see the late- night tears or nail-biting self-doubt.

‘Popular culture is awash with visuals of confidence and success,’ says Katherine Ormerod, author of Social Media Is Ruining Your Life. ‘A first day at work picture, with new shoes and a big smile, completely belies the fact that you were up until 3am, your stomach churning with nerves. A lot of us would post that picture, but not many people would talk about the nerves.’

Last year, before the release of her book, Katherine re-posted a series of photos to Instagram that ticked off all the social media markers of success: great job, great outfit, great pose, great location. In the captions she talked about what had really been going on at the time each photo was originally posted: whether it was looming redundancy or relationship break-up. It had such a big response that Katherine found herself on breakfast TV the next day.

‘People are talking about the authentic experience more and more,’ she admits, ‘but we’re still in a place where we’re trying to show that we’re in control. I think if you see all your friends looking really happy, it can be dislocating, and you can start to think, “Why can’t I rise to the challenge?”’

Impostor syndrome may have some benefits – the women we spoke to felt it stopped them getting complacent or arrogant. Luciana feels that it makes her and many of her female colleagues in Parliament more diligent: ‘We prepare, we put in more time and energy, we don’t just pitch up.’ But what’s the pay-o ff? With 70 million work days lost each year to mental health issues – and women in their thirties and forties among the groups most at risk of burnout– we’ve got to find a new way of working. The first step is to talk about our fears, be open about the inner voice that tells us we’re not good enough, and remind each other that we deserve a place at the table.

To support our campaign to protect mental health in the workplace, visit wheresyourheadat.org.

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