I feel like a fraud. I’ve never verbalized this before because I actually believed it. I was ashamed. Every time I got promoted, every time I achieved something I should have been hugely proud of, every time I got picked for a sporting team, high grades at school, chosen as a school prefect, I thought I’d gotten lucky. I had all sorts of ideas in my head as to why I had succeeded. Usually something like ‘right place right time’, had friends in the right places, worked really hard and being rewarded for effort, said the right things in interviews… the list goes on. Did I ever achieve something and honestly think, “I have a talent in this area, I’m good at this and I deserve this success”? Nope. How ridiculous.
Why am I writing this now? Today I had an epiphany. I was listening to Sheryl Sandberg’s audiobook Lean In – a must read for any woman with leadership/ career aspirations - she quoted a speech from a highly acclaimed doctor entitled “Feeling Like a Fraud.” She went on to explain that many people, particularly women, feel unworthy of recognition for their accomplishments. They feel undeserving and almost guilty as if maybe a mistake has been made. She says that even people who are experts in their field have this niggling feeling that “it’s only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are – imposters with limited skills or abilities.” Oh.My.Goodness. I almost had to pull over in my car so that I could nod my head more vigorously.
I never knew that this was a thing. I honestly thought that it was just me, that I actually was unworthy of my accomplishments and that I really was a fraud. Now I see it. Sheryl Sandberg refers to it as “The imposter syndrome”. As women, many of us tend to undervalue our selves, plagued by self doubt and fear. But we don’t only do it to ourselves! All day I’ve been looking back through my own life to try and get to the root of this. Why do I not feel worthy of my achievements? What has happened?
The first memory that pops in to my mind is from when I was just thirteen years old. I was chosen for the State Basketball team; I had already been telling myself that it was because ‘not a lot of people actually tried out for it’. Then I got home and someone said to me, “that’s great, you’re just like your grandfather, you’re successful at sport because you are so determined and you work really hard. You’re brother is more like your father – naturally talented”. Wow. I jump ahead a few years to year eleven when I was the first female ever at our school to be awarded the Science and Technology award. Before I had the chance to celebrate I was told that it was because I was the only female doing so many science and technology subjects. These two examples jump out at me without even trying so I know they’re not the only ones during my school years, no wonder this is travelling with me throughout life. I also am very sure that these underlying messages are being sent to many young women out there and we are just not aware that we’re doing it.
I jump forward now to my career. My first promotion came in the second year of my first real job out of University. I can remember telling myself that I got it because I’d asked the right people the right questions, ignoring the fact that I’d always worked to a high standard, never said no to helping out in any way, the first to put my hand up for the jobs no one else wanted to do, and had graduated Uni with a 6.0 GPA. I was promoted twice again from there, my most recent and highest achievement is the big one that sticks out in my mind.
I can remember getting the phone call that I was the successful applicant. It was the weekend. I was over the moon, I had worked hard on my application and I ran outside to celebrate with Dan. Then the dread set in. I didn’t want to tell anyone from work, I thought they would think “Who is she to storm in and take on this management role at such a young age? Who is she to tell anyone how things should be done?“ I thought they’d see me as the fraud that I saw myself. And unfortunately… that’s just what happened. I was told by people close to me that I was very young to be in such a role, and a female too… was I really ready? I was approached by a colleague on the first day my promotion was announced who said, “Congratulations, don’t worry about what everyone is saying – they’re just surprised”. I didn’t know anyone was saying anything at that point. But I of course wasn’t shocked by this, it was what I had told myself was going to happen. I could go on and on about this but I won’t because it’s not about me. The point of this is, studies have shown that when women are more successful they become less likeable. As a result we often play down our own successes, not openly celebrating because we are so afraid of this unspoken phenomenon. We are told so frequently that our successes are due to external factors, rather than our own skills and talents, and we tell ourselves the same thing. So much so that we end up believing it!
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I can only be responsible for my own actions. So what am I going to do with this epiphany? Well firstly I’m going to share my story (as difficult as it is to put out there) because there may just be someone else out there nodding along right now, feeling emotional about all of the accomplishments that should have been celebrated with confidence. Maybe they will be able to move forward from this now and recognise this thought process in themselves. I’m going to start celebrating others for their talents, pointing out their unique skills and the reasons that I can see as to why they are exactly where they deserve to be. Particularly with my children! And I’m going to ask that you please do the same. Lets put our energy in to lifting each other up, especially fellow women! There are enough barriers holding us back from success– lets not create any more. Finally and importantly, I’m going to recognise these thoughts as they arrive and I’m going to remind myself that I am not a fraud, I deserve my achievements as much as anyone else does and I will celebrate them openly, loudly and with full belief in myself.