Imposter syndrome holds men and women back in different ways

When coupled with limited views of masculinity, imposter syndrome can silence men and restrict their opportunities for growth.

Personal Growth

Ever have that feeling that one day someone is going to find you out for the fraud that you are? That feeling like you lied on your CV and someone is going to call you out for it? Or you read your own bio and wonder who it is really about because it can’t be you? If you have felt these things or similar, chances are you suffer from imposter syndrome.

The bio example happens to me all the time. For years I wouldn’t even call myself a journalist and used to tell people, “I write stuff sometimes.” Sometimes I still choke on the word when introducing myself. And it is not lost on me that I’m telling you this within a piece that I’ve been commissioned to write as a journalist – that’s just how unfounded these beliefs about ourselves can be.

Even Michael Parkinson had imposter syndrome. For those of you who grew up admiring the man who skilfully interviewed the biggest names in show business, world leaders and, indeed, some difficult characters, it might be rather shocking to read that. Parkinson certainly never presented himself to the audience as someone who deeply doubted their ability to be in this position. It was actually his son who made his imposter syndrome public knowledge in a BBC Radio 4 interview after his death.

Another surprising name to throw into the mix is Bradley Wiggins. He has won the Tour de France and claimed gold in the Olympics, but the highly decorated British road cyclist admitted in a BBC interview that his ‘off the bike’ achievements – such as his knighthood and winning the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award – left him with imposter syndrome.

How imposter syndrome holds you back

If, like me, you are used to imposter syndrome being more commonly linked to women – particularly women in C-suite business positions – then you would be forgiven for being surprised to hear that men suffer the syndrome too. It’s just talked about less.

And, when it comes to men, imposter syndrome can have a slightly different impact. Women might use imposter syndrome as fuel to fight on through but with men it can inhibit them more than we think, particularly in a world where exaggerated masculinity is at play.

US-based psychologist Dr Richard Orbe-Austin outlines how a ‘macho’ environment can exacerbate the problem, writing: “It prevents men from admitting they are struggling with imposter syndrome or to realise it is not helpful to have imposter syndrome.” This can then impact whether men reach out for the support they need to deal with their inner doubter. “[It] leads them to believe that they should just ‘push through’ rather than get in touch with the emotional impact of imposter syndrome,” Richard writes.

He suggests that some men with imposter syndrome might actually thwart their growth potential throughout their career by not allowing themselves to admit mistakes and learn from them. Further to this, they may be drawn to peers with less advanced skills or focus on mastery rather than growth, which can also limit their career advancement.

International tech journalist and editor Bojan Stojkovski suffers from imposter syndrome. He says the only time it is silenced is when he is under pressure and has deadlines and does not have time to think about it.

This is certainly something Bojan feels held him back in his earlier career. “If I was more determined in my pitching to international outlets back then, I think my breakthrough would have happened way earlier than it happened,” he says.

Changing your core beliefs

Cognitive behavioural therapist Maria Gleeson says that imposter syndrome is more associated with women “because of the gender inequality; there are a lot more hurdles involved for them”. But she often sees it present itself in all genders, particularly people who have been promoted throughout their careers and feel somehow ‘unqualified’ for their current position. For example, if they gained the role through work experience rather than through a university degree.

So where does all this self-doubt come from when there is clear evidence to the contrary? “Nine times out of ten I would say it is linked to core beliefs: what you feel about yourself, your self-esteem and self-worth. It is not always the case, but it tends to link to that,” says Maria.

“When we go looking at that, we look at childhood and background – and I’m not saying parents. Sometimes people hear ‘we are going into childhood now’ and [think] the parents are always going to be at fault, but it could be bullying in school or a harsh word from a teacher. It could be being left out from something,” she explains. “One statement, normally, is all it ever takes.”

Khrystyna Savchuk who works as a senior PR manager says that she often “grapples” with imposter syndrome. “Especially when dealing with PR projects impacted by varying business changes or when maximum efforts yield different results,” she says. She shared some of her coping strategies, such as reflecting on past successes by writing them down, reflecting on past failures and learning from them, and accepting that it’s normal to feel this way.

“[I accept] that feeling down or introspective at times is normal. It is important to embrace all facets of oneself,” she says.

Tips for dealing with imposter syndrome

Speaking to someone, like a therapist, is always recommended if you suffer badly from imposter syndrome, and there are a few tips Maria gave us to help get you ‘unstuck’.

First: it is a slow process. If your imposter syndrome is rooted in something you learned when you were five, that’s many, mnay years of you feeling that way. It is not going to go away from you doing something once; you have to give it time and continuously believe in yourself.

To help you on that journey, try this: every day, write down one positive thing that you did in your job that day, one thing that you succeeded at, or something you did well. With this exercise, you can reduce the negative thoughts and increase the positive.

And when you are having negative thoughts about yourself, remember to focus on the evidence that is in front of you. Ask yourself: is it fact or is it opinion? For example, if you think your boss will think you’re an idiot, is it a fact that this is going to happen or is that your opinion? Challenge your negative thoughts and work based on facts only.

Know that imposter syndrome is incredibly common. You can reach out to others to learn more and ask for help. To do this, you need to become OK with asking for help.

Finally, I’ll leave you with some advice passed on to me from privacy and cybersecurity consultant Dr Valerie Lyons: “When imposter syndrome passes, it gets replaced with either arrogance or humility. The choice is yours – choose wisely.”

Take our confidence masterclass with life coach Mark Fennell to challenge negative beliefs about yourself and learn to build up your self-esteem.

Fiona Alston
Fiona is a freelance journalist and news reporter who can mostly be found spreading the good word about European tech news, business, lifestyle and fitness; that’s when she’s not attending tech events, on the back of a horse, in the sea or on a bike.

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