Carly Sharples

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Tackling Imposter Syndrome

Tackling Imposter Syndrome

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I was in two minds whether to post this.

What qualifies me to talk about imposter syndrome?

What if people see through me and realise I'm talking out of my arse?

Oh, the irony. Have you ever felt like a fraud? That you are just one step away from being "caught"? That you are not worthy of celebrating your achievements?

You're not the only one.

Five or so years ago, I was spinning many more plates than I do these days. I was a mother, wife, MA student, aspiring politician and ran my own business. All at once. Each of those tangents is arguably a full-time job in itself, yet I thought I could do it all.

Until one day I couldn't.

I felt like I was deceiving everybody. I constantly compared myself to others and the anxiety I used to experience at meetings was off the scale. Can they tell that I'm just blagging it? What am I doing here? How can they trust me? I just got lucky! I'm not clever. I don't really know what I'm doing! What will I do when they figure that out? 

It was crippling.

Looking back, I was in a manic cycle of bipolar disorder at this point and thought I could conquer the world. But I couldn't sustain being a human dynamo forever. It ultimately led to a monumental breakdown and a long subsequent dark period, the effects of which are still apparent today. But mental health aside, of course I was qualified, skilled and able to fulfil those aspirations. It just wasn't the right time for me to do so.

As time has moved on and I've reflected on that period of my life, I have come to realise that not all of the symptoms leading up to my breakdown were systemic of bipolar disorder itself. We leave full-time education full of enthusiasm, boundless energy and eagerness to impress and succeed.  Most of us are still naive and inexperienced. We adopt a 'fake it 'til we make it' mindset where if you pretend to be knowledgeable and confident then hopefully society will treat you as such. This in turn feeds your confidence and one day you realise you have, in fact, 'made it'.

But there's no imparted wisdom on what to do next.

You start to wonder if you've just stumbled upon a lucky break and become fearful that somebody will find out that you're a phoney. You're just pretending. You're a fraud and everything you've built is going to collapse like a house of cards. You'll be left with nothing, and nobody, and that will be just desserts for conning people into thinking you're something you ain't.

Believe it or not, those thoughts can be normal. You're (probably) not a con artist. It could be the shroud of 'imposter syndrome' creeping in and it is a phenomenon more common amongst successful people than you might imagine.

So what is it? Wikipedia (that vault of totes legit knowledge) defines imposter syndrome as a concept "describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalise their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud."

Now, doesn't that sound so touchy-feely and awfully millennial?

Bless those snowflakes and their inability to achieve their potential. Let's stick a label on it, give it an '-ism' and give them an excuse.

In actual fact, the term was coined by two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, in the 1970s. Evidence-based research culminated in their article entitled 'The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention", published in 1978 in the journal 'Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice'. Originally applying the term to high-achieving women, it has since been accepted that this issue transcends gender and manifests in high-achieving and highly successful individuals who struggle with their quest for perfectionism. It doesn't necessarily equate with low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence; it isn't purely the domain of the introvert, either. Granted, being introverted does make you more analytical, self-aware and self-critical but imposter syndrome can also manifest in extroverts. Perhaps even more so, in some respects, as the pressure to be confident can become overwhelming in itself.

Clance and Imes noted that "Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not that bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample objective evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the imposter belief."

With this in mind, I thought I would propose some positive affirmations to halt the imposter before it gets too comfortable. I'd love to hear if you have any strategies too; please pop me an email or leave a comment if you have anything to add!

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Comparison is the thief of joy.

Don't compare yourself to others. There will always be people 'better' than you, but equally you can bet your bottom dollar that there are others who aspire to be where you are right now. In truth, you can only really compete with yourself. Focus on personal bests and be the very best you. You are enough.

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Own your success.

You are where you are because of you. Luck or chance seldom plays a part. You've worked hard and you have made those specific life choices. Acknowledge this and take responsibility for your own success. We are all too quick to recognise our perceived mistakes or failures, but what about turning that on its head and embracing our achievements in life? Shift that mindset and appreciate that you have undoubtedly earned every opportunity that might have come your way. One way could be to write a list of everything you have achieved in the past year, no matter how small or inconsequential you might think these triumphs are. (sidenote: I bloody love a good handwritten list. I have lists for everything.) When you look back through the list you may not have cured cancer or solved the Syrian crisis, but I guarantee you will have achieved, and overcome, more than you give yourself credit for.

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Don't get bogged down with credentials, qualifications or fancy job titles.

It might seem counterintuitive to the point I've just made, but accept that we are never going to be experts in absolutely everything. Drill down and think about what it is that you do excel in. Take parenthood, for example. Being a mother is by far my most difficult job, yet I have no qualifications to prove that I am the best mother in the world, EVER! Am I an expert on children? Big fat resounding no. Am I an expert on MY children? Abso-f*cking-lutely.

I talked about character vs. career for children in this post but the concept can equally be applied to grown ups, too. Being a good human gets you a long way in life. You may well be the most well-qualified person at an interview, but you're not going to be offered the job if you're a d*ck. Think about what makes you, you. In the words of that esteemed philosopher, Dr Seuss:

"Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You."

Own it. You are where you are because you are YOU. Your personality and character traits are what endear you to others, instil trust with them and ultimately lead to respect from them.

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Authenticity

In this digital age there is an obsession with 'being authentic'. Okay, so if we say that for this definition authenticity comes from using your own voice, staying on message and building trust so that you always come across as the person you think you are in real life.

But in real life there is no one size fits all, is there?

You talk about different things with different people in different ways.

This doesn't make you a fake. It makes you, YOU (unless your spirit animal happens to be Hyacinth Bucket). It is natural for humans to adapt their voice and message depending on the audience.

Furthermore, we are constantly evolving and developing as people. You might not remember how to solve a simultaneous equation these days but that does not mean you didn't deserve your maths GCSE at the time. Equally, you may have taken up a hobby then discovered that actually, you can't be bothered with that anymore. That doesn't mean that you have rescinded the right to discuss that pastime, because you're no longer participating, like some sort of out of bounds topic Voldemort. As we go through life we develop new interests and different opinions and that is perfectly natural. Twenty year old me thought the only exercise you needed was the walk to your car on the driveway and busting some grooves at a cheesy provincial nightclub on a Saturday night. Thirty-five year old me is training for a marathon. Does that mean I'm not authentic? Absolutely not.

It's called personal development.

Enlightenment.

Change does not mean we are cheating on a previous version of ourselves.

Embrace that.

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Don't fear failure.

Henry Ford once said that "Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently". If you really were a fraud and were exposed as such, what is the worst that could happen?

Will the world implode? Will you be exiled to Siberia? Will your friends suddenly desert you because they only liked you for the kudos of being your friend?

Probably not. The worst case is you may have to retreat, regroup and in the wise words of another fabled philosopher - Aaliyah - "if at first you don't succeed, dust yourself off and try again. You can dust it off and try again". I'm full of the academic quotes today, aren't I?!

Seriously though, mankind is a perpetual work in progress, not a finished product. Use your perceived failure to learn and develop; reflect on what was done well and what you may do differently next time. Make sure you take a metaphorical step back and look at the bigger picture. If you happen to fail in a particular area, it does not mean you're failing at life in general.

Life goes on, and although it may seem difficult for a while, it will get better.

Trust me on that one - after all, I'm living proof.

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I feel like I should sign off with a flourish, like "AND THAT'S HOW CARLY SEES IT!" in the manner of Coach Sue from Glee, complete with my fingers in a C shape. Perhaps I should have entitled this piece with a snappier, more clickbait-worthy headline like "CURE YOURSELF INSTANTLY FROM IMPOSTER SYNDROME IN FIVE EASY STEPS!"

But I'm not an expert on this subject.

I don't know the cure.

I'm just a girl sharing her opinions and experiences.

Anecdotally though, I've discussed this topic at length and it would seem that the imposter phenomenon is more prevalent than I’d initially thought. It's not a level playing field out there in the big bad working world to start with. Many have other obstacles to overcome, be it gender, race, religion, disability or something else. I'd consider myself introverted and I have that rather weighty chain of bipolar disorder around my neck, trying to pull me down and make me sink at every opportunity. I overthink everything. You would think that would make me more susceptible to these feelings of being an imposter and perhaps that is true, but I was surprised to discover that even those that are outwardly confident, self-assured Myers Brigg ESTJ types with successful careers also find themselves wondering if they are duping others.

After all, if we forget all my quasi-reliable quotes from children's fiction writers and dead pop singers and focus on the two psychologists who discovered the concept, they noted that it is a phenomenon largely experienced by highly successful, high-achieving individuals (we'll leave the specifically women part out for the purposes of this point, shall we?).

Ergo, if you are afflicted then most likely you are a high-achiever.

You've ACHIEVED.

Therefore, you are not a fraud.

Remind yourself of this and then pat yourself on the back.

Carly xo



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