Impostor Syndrome: Why Are We So Talent Shy?

This article was originally posted on MouthyMoney.co.uk on 3rd September. It is reposted (with some slight expansion) with the permission of the website.

It’s very ‘British’ to play down your talents and experiences. We call it modesty. We call it self-deprecation. We say it’s what differentiates us from our American brothers and sisters (who tend to be happy promoting their skills). We trip over ourselves to avoid being seen as arrogant or big-headed. But is our modesty costing us money in the long run?

I do a lot of work with women’s groups within my company. One subject that has come up quite a lot, and that I find quite interesting is the idea of ‘impostor syndrome’ – the idea that someone dismisses their own talents for fear of being exposed as a fraud. I’m simplifying it slightly, but I think that a lot of people, particularly in the UK, suffer from this to a certain degree. It’s the professional equivalent of someone saying ‘I like your top’ and your response being ‘oh this old thing? I’ve had it years. It was really cheap.’

(I should say at this point, I’m no expert in any of this – this is just my own experience. If you’re interested to read further, there’s some great literature online and in Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In)

The reason why it comes up in a lot of the women’s groups I work with is because many of the psychologists and sociologists who’ve looked in to impostor syndrome have noted that it tends to affect high achieving women – they feel like they are perhaps not good enough to do the work even if their previous track record suggests otherwise. As with any issue that tends to get attached to a gender, it is dangerous to suggest that impostor syndrome as a female-only issue. It’s not. Anyone is capable of saying they can’t do something, given the right (or indeed, wrong) circumstances.

So how could this be costing you money? I don’t mean that you’re out spending money on self help books (you might be) or suits with mega 80s shoulder pads (again, you might be…) but you might not be earning the money you should be if you’re not promoting yourself as the star product that you are. I’m not saying you should be like an Apprentice contestant or anything, but your modesty could mean that you’re getting overlooked, when you just might be the right person for the job.

I recently applied to a mentoring programme to be a mentee – I wanted to get some support to develop and possibly get some sort of promotion in the future. I was chatting to a girl who is slightly younger than me and said I’d applied. ‘Cool!’ she said ‘I’d love to be mentored by you.’ I had honestly never thought that I was someone who could mentor someone else, even though I’ve been running a communications team myself and stepping up to managerial duties. Even though this particular role was voluntary, I realised that there were loads of jobs and promotions I could have applied for in the past because I simply didn’t think I was good enough. And if I had gone for the jobs, surely this self doubt would come across in my cover letter or in interviews. Could my own impostor syndrome have stalled me professionally?

I took a step back and realised other things I was doing that appeared to be symptoms of impostor syndrome – I was shocked. When people complimented me on something I’d written (a technical manual or newsletter article for example) my standard response was ‘it was nothing really.’ It wasn’t nothing. Writing’s a skill. I should take credit where it’s due. I now try to say ‘thank you, I appreciate that’ or something similar – it’s polite but it recognises the effort I put in. I frequently belittle my drama degree (me: it’s not worth the paper it’s written on) but without it, I probably wouldn’t have the confidence to deliver training every day, or host webcasts to hundreds of people across Europe. I was talking to my partner and I realised that even when we first met I was surprised when he would text or Skype me without prompting (him: because I liked you and wanted to talk to you, silly) but I was shocked that anyone liked me enough to make the effort. I even had impostor syndrome in my relationship!

I urge you, if you’re feeling stuck, or like you’re not good enough, take a look and see if your inner Brit is causing you to feel like an impostor in your own life. It’s not arrogant to say ‘thank you’ to a compliment; it’s not rude to look at a good job and say ‘I’d be great at that. I deserve that’; and it’s certainly not wrong to remember how awesome you are. Do it right now!

If you want to project a more confident self image, I highly recommend Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on Power Posing. It’s well worth a watch!

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