Imposter syndrome: Why we should embrace the camaraderie of feeling inadequate – Alex Watson

Imposter syndrome is a common emotion, but we can help each other believe in ourselves, writes Alex Watson.

Even former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has publicly admitted feeling unworthy (Picture: Matthew Horwood/Swansea University/PA Wire
Even former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has publicly admitted feeling unworthy (Picture: Matthew Horwood/Swansea University/PA Wire )

I hate giving blood. It’s not because I’m afraid of needles, or feel queasy at the sight of the red stuff. I’m not even a faint risk. But I am filled with dread every time the donor carer looking after me glances casually at my paperwork to check my name, and inevitably hones in on my occupation. “Oh, you’re a journalist!”

Before I can say anything, they’re already imagining me dodging landmines as I report live from a warzone, going undercover for years to expose drug traffickers, and doorstepping high-profile politicians. “You really need to look into Donald Trump more, you know,” one of them once told me conspiratorially, “There’s something fishy going on there.”

They think I’m exciting – I can see it in their eyes. “It’s more kind of lifestyle stuff I do, really…” I usually mumble. I try to let them down gently. They try not to look too disappointed. It’s always the same. Sometimes I don’t have the heart to tell them how unexciting I am. Look out for my cut-throat exposé on Trump any day now.

Don’t get me wrong, my job is fast-paced and varied, but I’m not Hunter S Thompson. Nonetheless, I studied journalism. I work in a busy newsroom every day. I help to produce articles that a lot of people read. You’re reading one of them right now. It’s a fact – I am a journalist. So why do I feel like a fraud?

Of course, feeling inadequate when it comes to work is actually very common, no matter what you do. Imposter syndrome is defined as “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills”.

Out in the wild, imposter syndrome is that scathing voice in your head, telling you that you’re not really good enough to be where you are in your career. It’s the reason you find yourself looking over one hypothetical shoulder, convinced you’re going to be outed as a charlatan at any moment. It’s exhausting and, if you’re a woman, you’re statistically more likely to be plagued by it.

A gender issue?

A whole host of powerful women, who appear to have it all together, have publicly admitted to feeling underqualified or unworthy of their positions – Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and (away from the White House) YouTube sensation Zoe Sugg to name a few. A study carried out in 2019 found that 54 per cent of female CEOs, chairs and non-executive directors still experience “frequent or high levels” of imposter syndrome, even from the top rung of the ladder. Come Sunday night, is Hillary Clinton lying wide-eyed in bed, anxious about justifying her existence in the office the next day? And, if she is, should I take comfort in that, or just give up now and admit defeat?

According to a powerful woman closer to home, that anxiety is actually good for us.

“I just think it is natural,” Nicola Sturgeon said in May last year, when asked about imposter syndrome during an interview with community station, Sunny Govan Radio.

“In some ways, I think women should work to overcome that, and be encouraged to overcome it, but there is a bit of humility as well that I don’t think we should ever lose completely.”

Later, Scotland’s First Minister tweeted, “It’s really important for young people – especially women – to know that even the most senior, apparently confident people have moments of self doubt. It’s not a reason not to follow your dreams. Be yourself and believe in yourself.”

85% feel inadequate or incompetent

Though it affects more women, imposter syndrome is universal. According to that aforementioned study, 24 per cent of incredibly influential men also feel unfit for their own, generally hard-earned jobs. A survey from August 2019 concluded that a massive 85 per cent of adults in industries all across the UK admit to feeling “inadequate or incompetent at work”. Nearly 70 per cent “don’t feel they deserve their current success”.

Speaking to The Times in May last year, Scottish actor David Tennant confessed that he worries constantly when it comes to his career – “about not being good enough, about being found out, about not being worthy”. That’s right, 48-year-old, Bafta and Emmy award-winning film and TV star, David Tennant, struggles with imposter syndrome on a daily basis.

If you overheard David Tennant putting himself down, you’d protest, wouldn’t you? You’d shake him by the shoulders and say, “Come on, David – you’re Hamlet. You’re Doctor Who, for goodness’ sake!” Your reaction would be similar for family and friends, and – perhaps most importantly of all – for colleagues.

I’m forever grateful for the workmates who shut down my self-doubt with a stern, “Don’t be daft – you’re doing great” on a regular basis. We are our own worst critics, and, if we can’t be kind to ourselves, maybe the way to fight back is to ferociously cheerlead for those around us.

Take away the power of imposter syndrome

After all, there is a certain camaraderie in imposter syndrome. Apart from that intimidatingly self-assured 15 per cent, we all falter sometimes. Young or old, male or female, there are days where everyone feels like they’re just making it up as they go along.

But, if we acknowledge those insecurities out loud at work – talk about them, and even laugh about them – we can probably take away their power. Don’t be so quick to brush off praise, if you’re guilty of doing that.

Look back at what you’ve already accomplished, instead of worrying about what you haven’t yet, and then push forward. Remind others to do the same, if you see them struggling.

The idea that nobody really entirely knows what they’re doing can be unsettling – but, when you realise we’re all in the same boat, isn’t it slightly liberating, too?