Imposter Syndrome – how Jane Austen tamed the Tiger - Women's Agenda

Imposter Syndrome – how Jane Austen tamed the Tiger

For our birthday this year, my twin sister bought me, from a London museum, a hardcover volume of literary quotes. It arrived when I was in my home office, pushing up against a work thing that felt like Olympic weight lifting – I was feeling waaaay out of my league.

It wasn’t pretty, there in my office, as I sat hatchet-faced, thoughts playing around my head: “I’m not good enough,” “I really need to work out,” and “I’m about to be exposed for the fraud I am”. All the random and nasty internal chatter that goes with the territory of stretching out of your comfort zone.

It turns out that my birthday book from London was extracts from letters between Cassandra Austen and her younger sister, the famous Jane. Among other things, I learned that Jane sometimes felt inadequate in the company of other writers. Trips to London to meet her publisher scared the bejeezus out of her.

So whenever you feel inadequate on the job, remember that you’re not alone. Even Jane Austen struggled at work.

So what are we dealing with here? Imposter Syndrome. Defined as a habit of negative self-belief that persists in the face of evidence to the contrary. 

Women suffering from imposter syndrome (I never met one who doesn’t) struggle with confidence at work. They report that they feel out of their depth, that they are less likely to volunteer for tough work assignments because they don’t feel ready or capable – even when they are in fact better qualified than their colleagues. Many worthy women (and that’s all of us) operate under a cloud of paralysing and repetitious thoughts about not being good enough and not belonging. We hustle through our work lives convinced we’re on the edge of being thrown out of our jobs, any day now, for rank incompetence.

What to do? Imposter syndrome is much easier to take on if you have some kind of framework for understanding how it works, and how you can grow through it.

I’m sympathetic to the idea that imposter syndrome is socialized into girls from the earliest phase of childhood. If you follow this logic, women wind up with a confidence deficit (and feel like frauds in the cut and thrust of work) because girls and boys are parented differently. For instance, parents are more protective of the physical safety of girls than boys. So women are taught to take fewer risks in general – which can have consequences at work.

Generations of gobbled-up female talent. What a waste.

My own sense of what’s going on here is that imposter syndrome is a by-product of the competitive culture of work. All of us are under pressure to zhoozh up our resumes, to put on a face that’s dazzling and only occasionally fully authentic, to hide our weakness (sometimes for good reason), to fake our competence until we make it – particularly when we’re at the pointy edge of dealing with an unfamiliar task, job or colleague. Many of us experience corporate culture as kind of, well, phony.

Befriending the imposter beast is a life and work skill for everybody. As Jane Austen’s letters to her sister show, however, women have a cultural advantage over men in taming the Imposter monster and finding their way back from its unwashed lair. Women have much greater permission to be vulnerable. And the truest thing about Imposter Syndrome (“I’m unworthy”) is that it’s wholly fake. So it deflates like old balloons the minute you speak it out into the air in the presence of a trusted listener.

Feel like a fraud? Then say so. Say it out loud on the page, like Jane Austen did in her letters to Cassandra, or into the ear of someone who you trust. This is not a time to bond with the office backstabber. Letting yourself have and feel your feelings is the fastest way to let go of them: pushing hard stuff away actually makes it stick to you with the persistence of Velcro and black ink.

As with all vulnerable confessions, limit your audience to people who really wish you well.  Say it. “I feel like a fraud.” Own those mindless undermining thoughts, instead of pushing them down to where they’ll do most damage while you look the other way.  The assumptions driving your sense of feeling inadequate at work are like raindrops on a tin roof: in your head, they sound like bullets and hurt like hell – but they’re completely defenceless when the sun (your awareness) comes out.

One: know it for the fraud it is.

Two: get it out of your head and heart by telling a trusted listener.

Three: disregard it completely as a matter of routine. You are in the good and brave company of anyone who wants a bigger life. You will fight this monster many times, and the bigger the challenge, the louder it will roar. So wade in, and get to know the beast.  

As for me? I confessed to a trusted listener (my twin sister) that I felt inadequate, pretty sure that she would say “Oh love, me too.” And she did. I confessed to being scared witless about my project – and the feelings began to dissolve like ice on a spring afternoon as the words came out of my mouth.

That project I had been so scared of? A miracle. It shrank to do-able proportions as fast as you could say “Imposter, be gone”. 

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