Imposter syndrome: a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. 'Imposters' suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence. (Harvard Business Review)
At the age of 22, I joined my father’s successful consultancy business. I was propelled into a world where I had access to important people just because I was my father’s daughter. I felt guilty misleading people into thinking I was someone I wasn’t with a knowledge I didn’t have. I didn’t only feel like an imposter, I was convinced I was one. Imposter syndrome helped in some respects, but it also held me back. By overcoming it, I have learned to become more empowered and in control. I also became much better at my job.
I started working for my dad
When I was 22 years old my father suggested I work for him. He had an agriculture consultancy firm that specialised in selling market intelligence in the sugar and biofuels industries. That’s about how much I knew about the family business.
I’d grown up listening to my parents talk about their business (my mother was the CFO) but they never actively encouraged any of us children to participate. In truth, I didn’t understand what the business was really about.
At the time, I was living in New Delhi, India, with my then boyfriend - now husband. I was working very hard in a job I didn’t like. When I was growing up, working with my parents had never crossed my mind. But given my current circumstances, a good job, a decent salary and a company that would sponsor an employment visa allowing me to stay in India seemed like a golden opportunity.
A king in the sugar world
Shortly after joining the family business, I discovered that in the tiny world of sugar and biofuels trading, my father was well known and well respected. Sugar is considered an essential commodity in many countries, including India. This meant that the market intelligence produced by the company was used by government agencies as well as major trading houses.
In the sugar world, everyone seemed to know my dad.
Imposter syndrome kicked in
As part of my new job as an analyst, I was expected to produce qualitative market intelligence. On the one hand, I knew that I was in a unique position to help create useful and impactful analysis. Unlike many of my newly starting colleagues who struggled to collect data because market participants didn’t want to speak to them, I had access.
On the other hand, the people I was collecting information from also expected to gain intel from me. They hoped that, through my 22 year old self, they might gain some insight into my father’s three-decade worth of sugar trading experience.
I felt like a fraud. I didn’t have the knowledge people expected. I was in meetings where I couldn’t understand half of the things that were being talked about. I was too embarrassed to ask questions. I was terrified my incompetence would reflect badly on my father.
I felt very guilty. One for misleading people into believing I knew more than I did. Second, I felt guilty for my privilege. At industry events, I met other young people who were having a hard time being accepted. They were struggling to network. I had skipped so many steps. I didn’t deserve to be where I was.
My parents had built their company from scratch, or from sweat, blood and tears - whichever way you want to put it. I’d grown up with values of hard work and strong beliefs against nepotism and favouritism. Yet, here I was. I was falling short of my own values.
Developing a coping strategy
I needed to find a way to hide my inadequacy, to stop others from realising that I was a complete fraud. I needed to protect the imposter.
I did this in three ways.
First, I stayed as discreet as possible and tried to smile and nod at the right time during meetings. I’m pretty sure you’ve been there too!
The second strategy was to repeat sentences that didn’t mean much to me at the time but that everyone seemed to agree on. One that saved me a few times when I was asked my opinion was to say “Well, it all depends on what China does next.” No one ever seemed to know what China would do next and I got away with it. (By the way, this one still works today, over a decade later)
Another one that helped was to say “It seems to be fair value” every time someone asked me what I thought of the current world sugar prices. Once or twice, however, the market participant I was speaking with would ask “What do you mean fair value?” or “How can you say it’s fair value?” When this happened, and since I didn’t know the answer to either question, I’d skipped to my third strategy. This one was more problematic.
When I really felt out of my depth - which was most of the time in the early years - I redirected professional conversations towards personal topics. When someone asked me my opinion on China’s trade policy or the import arbitrage into Eastern Africa I’d find a way to switch to what I considered “safe” topics. I would ask non-work related questions about family, hobbies, etc.
This strategy allowed me to get to know people on a more personal level. It helped me to make valuable friendships that I still enjoy today. But it also backfired.
A misunderstanding with a minister
About two years into my job, the company was organising a major conference in New Delhi with a minister as a chief guest. As the daughter of the conference organiser, several people suggested that I should be the one welcoming the minister and bringing him to the conference room.
On the way to the hotel lounge where the minister was waiting with his retinue, I kept telling myself I had no right to be here. My imposter syndrome was here in full force.
I chatted with the minister for about an hour until it was time to head to the conference hall. Just as I was thinking that I had done quite well despite my stress, the minister asked me: “How long have you been working for this hotel? Send my appreciation to your manager as it is all very well run.” I didn’t have time to answer. He was whisked off onto the stage.
Initially, I thought this was really funny. My imposter syndrome had done such a good job that he thought I was part of the hotel team. I couldn’t blame him. I hadn’t introduced myself and, as I usually did in situations where I felt out of depth, I stuck to “safe” topics about his family and personal life.
Government officials meet hundreds of people every day, I told myself. It didn’t matter whether he would remember me as hotel staff or the daughter of the event organiser.
On a deeper level, however, I realised that there was a problem.
Breaking down imposter syndrome
When you feel like an imposter, your actions are guided by a number of problematic thoughts. You’re constantly telling yourself that you shouldn’t be here. You believe that you’ve somehow fluked your way to this spot - usually by sheer luck - and that it’s only a matter of time until you’re found out.
You’re operating as if you were in constant “flight mode.” You’re like a prey walking in the jungle terrified that a lion may be lurking behind every bush.
People who feel like imposters experience permanent anxiety and stress. They are always watching themselves, scrutinising their every move to make sure they are never found out. This uses a tremendous amount of energy. It is exhausting.
Growing up, I was familiar with the concept of imposter syndrome. But as far as I could tell, in this case, I didn’t only feel like an imposter, I was one.
We create situations we believe we deserve
In her book Emotional Agility, psychologist Susan David explains that our brain is always looking to make sense of the world around us. One of the ways it establishes a sense of coherence is by adjusting reality to our beliefs.
Research shows that, if you have a poor opinion of yourself, you’ll unconsciously choose to stay around people who share that opinion. Some studies even showed that people with low self esteem tend to quit their jobs when their earnings increase because they unconsciously believe they don’t deserve it.
On the other hand, studies show that people with high self esteem quit sooner jobs they feel don’t reflect their worth. As crazy as it may sound, it just means you’re often unconsciously acting in ways that reflect your belief system so that it feels coherent in your mind.
Every time my imposter syndrome kicked in, I behaved in a way that reinforced the belief that I didn’t deserve to be here. Instead of being my usual self: a solution seeker, a go getter and always keen to learn, I became another person altogether. My emotions and beliefs were stopping me from contributing to my team and doing my job properly.
I decided it was time for a change
The advantages of imposter syndrome
Research shows that imposter syndrome disproportionately affects perfectionists and women. People who suffer from it are usually terrified of failure - it would be just another proof that they’re not good enough. They are particularly critical of themselves and on the lookout for any weakness - real or imagined - that would confirm their inadequacy. As a result, they usually work harder. They are also better prepared.
While it was true that I was where I was thanks to my family, it was also true that I have always been a hard worker. I graduated from university with first class honours and I’ve always had a great work ethic. In fact, one of the things my father told me when suggesting that I work for him was “you’re such a hard worker, I’d rather you work hard for me than for a company that doesn’t appreciate you.”
It was also true that I had been so panicked about my lack of knowledge that I dived into work, learning faster and more intensely than most. I felt my father’s reputation depended on my ability to pick up as much knowledge as I could. I asked the few people I felt safe with a billion questions on the market, on crops and government policies. In meetings, I noted down everything I couldn’t understand to make sure I was better prepared the next time.
The event with the minister coincided with a time when I started understanding the market. I was finally starting to feel like I was on top of things. Deep down I knew I could do better. But I was trapped in my imposter syndrome and the protective habits I had created. Instead of contributing and discussing the market, I couldn’t help but revert to non-work related topics. Besides, by then, many people were used to talking to me about these other safe topics. I was stuck in a pattern.
How I turned the tables around
I started paying close attention to the moments when imposter syndrome took over. I learned to recognise it by the thoughts that come with it: “You don’t know enough to contribute on this topic” “They’ll think you’re really stupid if you say that,” “It’s safer to stay quiet.” I also learned to spot imposter syndrome by the feelings of anxiety and guilt that came with it.
I rewired my thought process. I spoke with friends about it, as well as people I admired. They all said that they, too, sometimes doubted themselves. I realised it was okay not to know everything. It was okay to fail.
I taught myself to be more objective about my abilities and skills and more realistic with my expectations. Learning about trading and markets was not easy but it was not impossible. Like everything new, it would take time and practice. It would take trial and error. I had the right attitude, the right work ethic and I wanted it to happen. I needed to trust the process. I needed to trust myself.
I put my energy into the present and the future, not the past. Yes, I’d benefited from a lot of help along the way. Yes, I’d benefited from a major short cut by landing where I was. But what mattered more was what I did with it, what I did now.
I told myself that it was okay (inevitable) to fail, that it was okay to doubt myself and that it was okay to ask for help.
Imposter syndrome didn’t go away, it never has. But I learned how to deal with it.
Even today, I experience imposter syndrome with Stuff Talks - a business I built from scratch without any “ins”.
The difference is that today I recognise imposter syndrome. I learned how to harness the advantages - working hard and being well prepared - and free myself from the fear of failure.
8 ways to find out if you have imposter syndrome
Today, many women (and some men) go to work every day with an underlying fear that they are not good enough. They believe that they don’t deserve to be where they are.
Are you one of them?
Here is a list of symptoms triggered by imposter syndrome:
You’re constantly doubting yourself
You’re unable to realistically assess your competence and skills
You usually attribute your success to factors that don’t depend on you
You under-play your performance
You’re constantly worried that you won’t live up to expectations
Others consider you as an overachiever but you don’t see it
You can even sometimes sabotage your own success (read my minister’s story above!)
You set yourself super challenging goals and really beat yourself up when you fall short - which, in your opinion, is most of the time
If you recognise yourself in one or more of the above, there’s a high chance you have imposter syndrome.
Feeling like an imposter probably helped you, indirectly, by constantly pushing your limits. But today, what is it costing you?
In the long run, this is what usually happens with imposter syndrome:
You’re much more stressed
You develop stress related issues, such as lack of sleep or health problems
Over time, you become less productive at work because of that stress
You give too much and never ask, including not asking to be paid adequately or for well deserved holidays
Work becomes a source of anxiety and stress, instead of a place where you can feel fulfilled
As a result, your career doesn’t progress as well as it should
You can overcome imposter syndrome
Imposter syndrome may be common, but it is far from inevitable. The earlier you spot it the better you can work to overcome it.
In my 6-month one-on-one coaching program, I help ambitious women like you to use their emotions so they can show up as their best self and feel great about themselves. I work with career driven women to give them the tools they need to be able to stay on top of their emotions - including the ones triggered by imposter syndrome. The idea is that you become your own ally, instead of an enemy.
Check out my program to see if it’s something that can help you advance your career and build the life you want to build.
You can book a discovery session (free) to see whether the program is the right fit for you.*
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