The Curse of Imposter Syndrome

There’s no demographic I know that holds themselves up to such high standards as mums, and women in general. For one reason or another we always seem to set ourselves the most ridiculous high bars of achievement. At home, at work, with our friends…. Everywhere.

This is something I’ve noticed increasingly in myself as I’ve grown older. Back at school I was highly mediocre in my effort levels – ‘rigorously competent’ as my friend Emma says. I was good because I was naturally talented but once I discovered boys and Topshop I didn’t push myself. Because why would you when the choice was between quadratic equations or daydreaming about skinny Baxters and Matt in the Upper Sixth? It was a no-brainer.

And so I did well – I didn’t excel like my hardworking friends but I did well. This level of achievement left me, if not my parents, totally content.

Fast forward 13 years (you’ve got to wonder why I’m still buying Topshop Baxters 13 years later?) and it’s a totally different kettle of fish.

Now, it has always been my ambition to write. After an anguished adolescence of diary keeping I started blogging at the age of 14, teaching myself HTML from a library book so I could build an online space and get my thoughts in front of an audience. I had huge dreams of being a fashion journalist, though if that dream had come true I’d literally only be writing about grey jersey jumpers and comfy gym gear. And those aforementioned Baxters.

My audience back then was small – only so many wanted to read about the electric glances I shared with Matt in the Upper Sixth – but it felt like the world. Blogging was my thing and I have kept up with it since, for 15 years, half my life. I started this blog over six years ago, the day I fell pregnant with Elfie and it’s since been a huge labour of love (and important therapeutic outlet).

But with little money to be made from online writing back in the day I fell into a Marketing career and always viewed writing as a passion, not a money maker. I love Marketing, I enjoy it, I’m good at it. Rigorously competent ;) Though I always harboured thoughts of “what if?”, dreams of finally sitting down and writing that book, touching people with my words.

And then one day out of the blue I had an email from an Editor at The Telegraph asking if I’d ever fancied being a writer (HAHAH HAD I EVER) and my world turned a little upside down.

I was so flustered by the email that I couldn’t respond for a month, and when she invited me in for a meeting I turned up a day early. Smooth operator, right?

She asked me to pitch some ideas for columns to her, which I did after frantically Googling “what is a pitch?”. And to my huge surprise she told me she liked one of these ideas, and could I turn in 800 words on Friday? And then more a few weeks after that? And then on a regular basis?

I sat down, made notes, and word-vomited onto my computer my 800 word piece on Single Parent Sex that went live on the Women’s section of The Telegraph’s website two weeks ago. And that’s when my dream started happening, the ball started rolling.

Buzzfeed asked me to write a piece on PND, which I did. Another national newspaper got in touch to ask me to pitch some relationship ideas to them (I’m still not entirely sure I am doing this whole pitch thing correctly?). My editor called me ‘our new columnist’ on her Twitter feed. LBC radio dedicated a whole show to the subject of Single Parent Sex following my Telegraph article. They name checked me, calling me a journalist for crying out loud. A JOURNALIST. That’s dream-come-true stuff right there.

Imposter Syndrome

This is when I started feeling like a fraud. An imposter. I totally lost confidence in my abilities and my dream.

Yeah, I loved to write on my little blog that my mum reads (she’s my best proofreader) but I wasn’t a journalist. A blogger perhaps, at best. I make typos, I write bad jokes, I share experiences. The ‘journalist’ label was for professionals, not me.

I started noticing that I’d minimize my achievements when people congratulated me. I’d say I was in the right place at the right time, not owning the fact that it has been my talent that’s brought me here. As my favourite Sheryl Sandberg would say, I wasn’t ‘Leaning In’.

This imposter syndrome – the fear that you don’t deserve your success, that you’ll be exposed – is something I see so much of among my friends and it leaves me asking myself where it’s come from. In my world of talented and hardworking women, why do we bring ourselves down so much? Why do we set ourselves such high targets and lambast ourselves when we wrongly feel that we fail? Why do we feel that we don’t deserve our successes?

For me, imposter syndrome is highly harmful to my work. When I feel like I’m not good enough I bury my head in the sand, retreat from the world and feel paralysed. I can’t sit down and tackle my email or write that blog post, I just procrastinate until it’s time to pick the kids up from school. And then the cycle of self-flagellation begins; I feel guilty for not living up to my highest standards, not making the most of my time or my dream. The more guilt I have, the less work I get done. And so it continues.

Imposter Syndrome: She believed she could so she did

This self-doubt is totally un-founded and is a cycle I need to find my way out of. For one it’s exhausting to live in my head when I’m feeling this way, and for another the feelings are completely unfounded. Deep down I know I’m good. I love to read what I write, and I love to write it. I can’t get better than that, right?

Interestingly, how often do you hear a man wondering if he’s good enough? Generally men are able to own their achievements, accept praise and feel confident in their abilities. So why do women find it so hard to do the same?

I’ve spent a long time wondering how we can escape these cycles of high expectations and low confidence. It comes down to a few things, in my opinion.

We need to say no to others more often. We need to not do things because we believe society expects it of us, but instead think about what’s right for ourselves. We need to be true and honest, working towards our passions. We need to say yes to our internal selves, knowing that we can make things happen. We need to believe.

Most importantly we need to talk. In this online world we see our peers excelling at their lives, completely flying in ways we never think we’ll be able to. That’s not real life – that’s just Instagram. Behind-the-scenes there are worries, confidence issues, messy bathrooms. We just don’t see it and we need to remember that. We aren’t the only ones struggling behind closed doors; we’re all brilliant in our unique ways and it’s important we talk about this more.

“She believed she could so she did”

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  1. Eleanor (TheBristolParent) wrote:

    I went through a huge stage at work of this. Sitting in boardrooms with the CEOs of listed companies listening to me tell them what to do about their PR strategies, and wondering when they would clock that I was a 25yr old in a Next two-piece suit who had Doritos and Silk Cut for breakfast. It doesn’t happen any more. It may be age, it may be a change in who’s approval I crave. But it’s normal and natural for someone as competent and successful as you to feel it, that I do know. Try to look at yourself from the perspective of someone who is seeing/reading you for the first time – it’ll maybe change your mind. Lots of love x

    Posted 12.9.15 Reply
    • alice wrote:

      Thanks Eleanor – I totally identify that it’s perhaps a change in whose approval one craves. I’ve gone from knowing everything about my game (marketing) to being the new girl (writing). I’ll get there ;) x

      Posted 12.9.15 Reply
  2. Danielle (Creative Cowell) wrote:

    I love this post, you are so right. I’m a Graphic Designer and I’ve always felt like this! I’m only in my second job since graduating, so at 23 maybe it is just an age thing? I do hope it goes away later on in life! But it sounds like you deserve to be where you are so enjoy it!!

    Dani x

    Posted 12.9.15 Reply
  3. Alison wrote:

    You know when you read a blog post and it makes you think “Yes! Yes! This!” ?!

    I think so many of us suffer from this – you’ve managed to crystallise a feeling so many of us have. And there’s no point in me telling you that you’re amazing and talented and should just believe in yourself because you do know that and it doesn’t stop you from feeling like it’s all a massive mistake and someone is going to find you out soon. (It’s not and they won’t)

    Oh and I’m fairly sure you’re pitching just right. (It’s basically: here is my idea) xxx

    Posted 12.9.15 Reply
    • alice wrote:

      Thank you Alison! I love the warmth I’ve felt since talking and writing about this – the sisterhood really is an amazing thing isn’t it? Even if we’re not physically sitting in a circle and holding hands, female friends big each other up like no-one else in our lives can.
      And YES! I’m pitching properly. Excellent news ;) x

      Posted 12.9.15 Reply
  4. Gemma Howarth wrote:

    Alice, you are a fab writer – we all know it, now it’s time for you to know it xxxx

    I was very poorly last Christmas and could only be awake for ten mins or so when the painkillers were at their height, being ill doesn’t stop you being bored so during each of those ten minutes that I was ok I would read a post o two from your archives. As an ex English Teacher, an ex proof reader and an avid reader I can hand on heart say you are a GREAT writer. There are obviously other great writers but I think your real skill is being able to be so on point and at the same moment we are all at. I’m so pleased for you that you are getting the recognition that you deserve. Go for it, believe in yourself and most importantly enjoy it xxxx

    I may even ask for your autograph during my next Waitrose stalk ;-)

    Posted 12.9.15 Reply
  5. Mel Wiggins wrote:

    GO ON GIRL! So amazing to see your hard work pay off. Not just the hard work of actually writing and thumping out your ideas and thoughts in a really beautiful, humorous way – but the hard work it takes for writing to be a focus for you – your mental health prioritised, your family looked after, a home to run etc etc etc – you deserve it because you’re good at it and you’ve earned it. We have enough to deal with when other people struggle with our successes, don’t trip your own self up too. xo

    Posted 12.9.15 Reply
    • alice wrote:

      Thank you so much Mel! You’ve really made me think here – following a dream like writing hasn’t been just a one-way street, like “oh, I’ll do this now”. But working around mental health, family, the house, money… I forget how many other considerations come into play so no wonder it sometimes feels stressful and harried. Thank you xx

      Posted 12.9.15 Reply
  6. Kerry wrote:

    Brilliant post and I totally get where you’re coming from. I get like this with ‘success’ as well saying it’s just luck and what not! But we need to believe in ourselves a bit more :)

    Posted 12.9.15 Reply
    • alice wrote:

      Thanks Kerry – I think the best idea is to make a support group where we all get together and tell each other how fantastic and talented we all are. Then we might start believing more!

      Posted 12.9.15 Reply
  7. Chloe (Sorry About The Mess) wrote:

    Totally understand all of these feelings and the self doubt. PS. You are a writer, Alice!

    Posted 12.9.15 Reply
  8. Jess @ Along Came Cherry wrote:

    Totally relate to all of this!! Every time I get asked to work on a craft project for a client I feel like a total fraud, all I do is make crap out of crap so why would people want to pay me to do that?! I have a few days a month where I feel confident in my abilities but the rest of the time I don’t. Really want to break the habit. P.s You are an awesome writer! xx

    Posted 12.9.15 Reply
  9. Amy @ Mr and Mrs T Plus Three wrote:

    Hi Alice, I read this with du b a huge beam in my face. I can only imagine an email coming through from The Telegraph I think I’d actually wee my pants! Anyway, you’ve had these wonderful offers of work because you are a really fantastic writer and you ARE a journalist in my book. I totally get the imposter syndrome it was quite hard for me to say what I did for a living ‘freelance writer’ because it’s something I’ve always wanted so desperately and when I kind of fell into it off the back of my blog I was like, hey I am a writer, people pay me to write and then I didn’t feel like a fraud anymore. You are completely fab and here’s to your ongoing success in 2016! X

    Posted 12.9.15 Reply
  10. Amy @ Mr and Mrs T Plus Three wrote:

    Ps above comment should say ‘huge beam’ not ‘d ub’ I may be a writer but I am totally dependent on Grammarly which doesn’t play nicely with my iPhone ;)

    Posted 12.9.15 Reply
  11. Lucy wrote:

    Oh gosh this really resonated with me – I don’t have my own human children but I think we women can break the taboo by chatting more about how we feel and being brave enough to be real. Thank you Alice! xo

    Posted 12.9.15 Reply
  12. Charlotte wrote:

    A lot of the time it is because people have fallen into these things via natural talent rather than being ‘taught’ in a conventional way. There feels to be a fine line between accepting we rock and feeling like we’re bragging and bejesus there is a lot of that around. I think your writing is fantastic and always keeps me interested! X

    Posted 12.9.15 Reply
  13. Maggie wrote:

    Sounds like all your hard work is paying off! Congrats!

    Posted 12.9.15 Reply
  14. Sarah Rooftops wrote:

    Oh, my goodness – congratulations!!!!! Yes, all the imposter syndrome stuff is very familiar to me and you write about it well but enough with us focusing on you feeling like an imposter – I want to celebrate the fact that you’re not. Well done!

    Posted 12.9.15 Reply