Now here’s a subject close to my heart. When I heard that what I had was an actual ‘syndrome’ I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I’ve always felt an imposter at virtually everything I’ve ever done and to have my feelings validated as an actual thing, well frankly I was disappointed. I had always thought that the majority of people have a robust and indestructible sense of their own value and hoped that one day I might attain that.
Here’s the definition: “Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. ”
Many people I know lack confidence in their abilities. When it comes to something like creative writing or painting there is no doubt a strong urge to compare yourself with others and find yourself wanting. I’m not convinced it is ‘common among people in ‘high-profile authority positions’ as the cartoon suggests. But if it does affect people in these situations then maybe I’ll always feel this way.
Everyone I know thinks I am a super-confident person. I guess it has something to do with the way I come across on first acquaintance. To some I may seem a little loud, a bit of a know-it-all, certainly not shy. But in truth I have fought shyness all my life. My dad died when I was 15 and I was forced to leave school and go out to work. I really wanted to study history and my teachers all supported me in this and begged my mother not to remove me from my grammar school. Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t persuaded, especially as she thought academia was for ‘blue stockings’ and men didn’t like those. Her idea was to get me married off at the first opportunity.
So with six months training in shorthand and typing, I ventured out into swinging sixties’ London and found a job working for what I thought was a pet food company in offices over Marks and Spencers in Oxford Street. I was so green; I hadn’t heard of Public Relations and my naivety soon became evident. Part of my job entailed answering the ‘BIB hotline’. I should explain that BIB stood for ‘Budgerigar Information Bureau’, an organisation devoted to helping budgie owners with a range of problems from feather plucking to French moult. Disseminating breeding information was also an important part of our raison d’être. The BIB ‘hotline’ was a dedicated phone line for people wanting advice about their budgie problems. (I have to confess here that I have always been bird phobic and cross the road when confronted by a pigeon, so not an ideal occupation for me.)
I had also omitted to tell my new employers that I was terrified of the telephone and so did everything I could to ignore that large red plastic instrument that sat in the middle of my desk. When, after several days of avoiding answering it, I finally was forced to pick up the receiver, the rather weedy voice on the other end said, “Hello… I wonder if you can help me. I have a skyblue cock.”
I was so shaken, my boss took me to the press room for a neat gin and explained that skyblue is the name of a particular budgie colour and a cock bird is, of course, a male.
So not a great start to my career and to explain why I believe I developed Imposter Syndrome you should know what happened next at the BIB (which was of course sponsored by a well-known bird seed manufacturer).
I reported to two women. One was the Press Officer and the other the Administration Officer. Within months of my joining the company, the Press Officer announced she had met the most wonderful woman and the next day they sailed off into the Caribbean sunset together. While the laborious process of interviewing and recruiting her replacement was undertaken by management, they in their wisdom thought it would be newsworthy to promote from within (on a temporary basis) the youngest press officer in the country. Me. It’s true that in those days there were no degrees and few qualifications for working in the public relations industry but I knew absolutely nothing about the PR business or budgerigars.
Nevertheless, I got on with the job with guidance (I did have a budgie expert to advise me) and I churned out press releases all day long. My managing director would frequently wheel me into the press room to show off her protégé to the great and the good assembled there. But it mattered little. Usually, by 11:30 a.m. on most weekdays, the majority of the staff and gathered clients or press were paralytic on the contents of the press room drinks cabinet so there was little I needed to do to impress. Nobody cared.
Several months after my promotion, our Admin Manager, a lovely down-to-earth but bored housewife in her thirties, announced that she was leaving. She wanted to be with her new-found love – a Czech baron who promptly whisked her off to Prague only months before the advent of the Prague Spring. Promotion number two occurred before my sixteenth birthday. I had no idea what I was doing and, in all honesty, I got so behind with the BIB correspondence, I dumped most of it in a drawer and hoped it would disappear like my two former bosses. It didn’t.
So I learned early to fake it until I could make it. I guess it’s not altogether surprising that I got used to feeling like an imposter.
All through my early working life, I felt deeply the lack of qualifications, despite gaining priceless experience in public relations, advertising and publishing. I decided to do something about it after marrying and having children, taking A Levels while my kids were in nursery. I became a freelance proof reader and that paid for my retraining as a psychological therapist. I spent eight years studying for a BSc in Psychology via the Open University and gained many qualifications for a new career in counselling and therapy. I eventually worked in various GP surgeries and organisations in the West Country as a counsellor/therapist. Despite having more qualifications and experience than some of my colleagues, I still felt inadequate and anxiously waited for someone to expose me.
A move to the Midlands for my husband’s job and being unable to find similar work there necessitated another career shift. I returned to my first love – history. I gained a Diploma in Local History at Oxford and at my tutor’s suggestion went on to study for my Masters degree. When I graduated from the University of Birmingham I was more qualified than I could ever have dreamed. But I still felt like an imposter.
Having studied psychology and learning all about myself through my therapy training, I understand how and why I am plagued with Imposter Syndrome. I don’t think it will ever leave me, no matter what I do. But I have learned to live with it and, I suppose, that’s what people in high-profile positions who also suffer with it have done. Yet if I could have a fiver for the number of people who tell me how confident I am, I would be a very rich imposter indeed.