“Today I feel much like I did when I came to Harvard Yard as a freshman in 1999,” said Natalie Portman in her Harvard Commencement Speech this week. A Harvard grad herself she said, “I felt like there had been some mistake, that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company, and that every time I opened my mouth I would have to prove that I wasn’t just a dumb actress.”
Of course, no one (apart, perhaps, from serial narcissists) is immune to self-doubt and the fear of failure that fuels it. Not even the some of the worlds most acclaimed actors – Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster, Don Cheadle among them. Likewise both men and women can suffer from what psychologists have dubbed the Impostor Syndrome, the phenomenon whereby we fear being uncovered as a fraud and unworthy of our success. However, it’s something women I’ve encountered struggle with more often and more openly (just as we do with self-confidence.)
The reason? We women have refined self-criticism to an art form. We doubt ourselves more than men, back ourselves less and are more inclined to attribute our successes to luck or external support (or being a famous actress in Portman’s case) over talent, brains and grit. All of which makes us feel less deserving of success and more anxious as we await everyone to wizen up to the fact that we aren’t as smart or talented or deserving or experienced or (fill in the blank) as they’d thought.
I’ve felt that way myself many times, most often when I’m about to do something where I risk exposure. Like giving a speech. “This is it,” cries the noisy little gremlin in my head. “The charade’s over. They’re about to see you aren’t so clever after all.” Of course I’ve learnt to speak up anyway. Heck, if I let my fear run the show, I’d still be living with my parents.
“At the core of Impostor Syndrome lies a deep fear of our own worthiness.”
At the core of Impostor Syndrome lies a deep fear of our own worthiness. To counter it many women set the bar “super-woman” high. So high that it’s near impossible to get over, even with a cape (Portman enrolled herself in neurobiology and advanced Hebrew literature.) Which is why, conquering Impostor Syndrome requires accepting that we don’t have to attain perfection or Da Vinci like mastery to be worthy of admiration, promotion, power, or for that matter, anything we really want in life. I’m not talking about lowering the bar and settling for mediocrity. Rather about resetting it to a realistic (i.e. human) level that doesn’t leave us on the merry-go-round of forever striving, never arriving, and constantly feeling like we’re not measuring up.
We women have plenty of room to move when it comes to being kinder to ourselves – faster to forgive our failings, slower to deprecate ourselves, more accepting of compliments. I mean, just imagine if you celebrated your triumphs half as often as you beat yourself up when you drop one of the many balls you juggle each day? And imagine instead of focusing on everything you haven’t done, you stopped long enough to acknowledge all that you have ? It would help you to see that you deserve every bit of the recognition, praise and success you have…and then some!
Likewise, most women I know (myself ball-dropping self included) are all too practiced at comparing our weaknesses with others’ strengths. All of which only fuels any nagging sense of inadequacy and incompetence. We say to ourselves, “If only I had the creative flair of Zoe,” or “If only I was as organized as Jane.” All the while Zoe and Jane are thinking, “If only I was as (insert your strength) as you!”
The only thing comparing your insides with others outsides achieves is to leave you feeling “less than” in some way. But while others may appear to be swanning graciously through their days, chances are they are working just as hard to hold it all – work, kids, love, life – together as you. Perhaps not in just the same way as you, but in their own way, with their own set of pressures, problems and inner gremlins.
As I wrote in my latest book Brave: 50 Everyday Acts of Courage To Thrive in Work, Love & Life, in the end the only way to conquer our fear of being unworthy is to step right through the heart of it and risk outright exposure. While it’s instinctual to avoid the risk that may bring, playing it safe runs the greater risk of never knowing just how capable, deserving and “more than” worthy you truly are. Avoiding the possibility of being found out will never make you more secure. Only less so.
That’s not to say you will always succeed. But even when you do fall short, you will accomplish infinitely more than you would have otherwise. In the process, you will develop new strengths, refine talents and come to realize that the only impostor you’ve ever had to worry about is that fearful voice inside your head.