When I was 12, my family moved to New York. It was exciting and a big adventure and it fundamentally shaped who I am today. This was not to say that moving at such a critical age wasn’t without its challenges. I went from being at the top of my class in London to failing in New York. I was in a whole new system and I wasn’t until my final year in high school that I was again able to master how to be ‘successful’ in the American education system.
I repeatedly failed to achieve outstanding ‘status’ at high school, especially when it came to applying to universities. I didn’t make honour society because of one teacher’s decision that despite getting the highest mark in the class I had missed too much ‘teaching time’ because I had to come back to the UK to renew my visa. I dropped advanced chemistry because I didn’t think it was for me, I was told my writing was weak so I didn’t aim for the top universities and I got an average SAT score. I was convinced that I was a mediocre student and so it came as quite a shock when I got my acceptance letter to a top Canadian university. I’d applied on a whim because it didn’t require much writing. “It must be a mistake, luck or not a very good school” I thought, after all I had convinced myself I wasn’t really as intelligent as those around me.
At university I became heavily involved in extra-curricular activates, which I loved. I stopped focusing on my academics and started putting all my time into student societies. In my last year, when I decided I should focus on something to do with my psychology degree, I applied to be in a child and adolescence depression lab – as one of the undergraduate researchers. It was very competitive and I have no idea how I made it through the 2 rounds of interviews. Once I was accepted I still had to pass a test which most people fail on their first try, so I decided to take the test with very little prep so I could see what it was like and then study for the second sitting. I passed immediately and instead of feeling proud I felt like I’d lied myself through the exam and didn’t know what I was doing. So I stopped attending meetings and trainings and eventually left the lab only having done a fraction of the work I was capable of.
At the time I had no idea that my feeling, of being found out as an fraud, attributing any success to luck and undervaluing my achievements were core to what is called ‘imposter syndrome’.
I got into a Masters programme in the UK and although I loved what I was studying and I was doing well I would dismiss my success – by saying that the programme was much easier than other Masters degrees my friends were doing. Even when I was able to secure a job before graduation and write my thesis while working full time and did well, I said I was just lucky. My imposter feelings were less intense during this time, but it was mainly because I didn’t consider what I was doing as particularly difficult or prestigious.
It was in my last job that my imposter feelings returned in full force. When I first started I felt confident and that I was the right person for the role. But as my responsibilities changed and I tried to input more into the policy aspects of the organisation’s work I felt constantly rejected. I felt that my colleagues didn’t think I was smart enough and that my ideas were naive. I distanced myself from policy work – carving out a new niche that worked in isolation away from the team. I also stopped writing – anything from blogs to funding bids. I hated my writing being criticised and torn apart – it felt like being back in high school. I thought it was a waste of time and avoided any work that required writing. None of this made me feel more secure, I felt like a fraud – that any moment my boss would realise that my work was superficial and unnecessary and I would be let go. I started to devalue what I did and struggled to see why it was important. I worked in human rights but felt like I did nothing relevant and that I was a fake
So where am I now? At the end of 2015 I decided to leave the job that was causing my so much doubt and feeding my gremlins and took the huge leap of starting my own business. My gremlins didn’t go away but they changed their tune. My imposter syndrome now manifests in lots of ways that are common to people running their own business or freelancing. Will anyone value my skills, will I find any business, am I good enough to go it on my own? Even when I secure business my gremlins like to butt in to question my ability to deliver on projects or replicate my success.
But something important has changed.
Through writing, reading and speaking to others about imposter syndrome I am now able to recognise when my gremlins are speaking. I’m able to identify what thoughts are coming from my feelings of imposter syndrome and I question if they are real. I question any assumptions I make about not being good enough; I don’t just accept them and spiral into a black hole of doubt. I am taking more ownership of my accomplishments; I am speaking about what I do and what I have achieved with more confidence and pride. Most of all, I’m taking the big step of writing about imposter syndrome publically and putting my thoughts out there for others to see.