I did well in school. Really well. I studied carefully, I paid attention in class, I achieved excellent marks. I won a few awards. When people congratulated me, I proudly accepted their praise. I’d worked hard, and I was pleased to receive their recognition. I’d earned it.
As I grew older, something shifted. Telling people about something I’d achieved started to feel like bragging; rather than accepting people’s praise, I started to deflect it. If they congratulated me on an achievement, my default response became to laugh it off or suggest that some other reason had enabled me, rather than my own work. Being lauded generated an awkward mix of feelings, including gratitude, embarrassment and active discomfort. It felt like I’d taken something that didn’t belong to me.
I started unconsciously compiling a list of go-to excuses for when I’d done well. “I don’t think that many people applied for it”. “Oh thanks, it sounds better than it actually is”. “Right place, right time, you know?” I would respond to praise with one of these deflections, then feel confused and frustrated afterwards at having undermined myself to other people.
Why was this happening? Why had I become so uncomfortable with the idea of acknowledging my own achievements, of recognising that I had earned something?
I first heard about impostor syndrome last year. Some women and I been discussing what it was like to work or study in STEM industries. It was one of those moments where somebody said “hey, I heard about this thing, I feel like this all the time, does anybody else feel this?”, and a chord was struck. The rest of us each felt like a crucial part of our own identity had suddenly been unpacked and named.
Impostor syndrome affects many high-achieving people, especially women
It means that we have difficulty internalising our achievements and are afflicted by a fear that we will be exposed somehow as a fraud, as someone who didn’t earn the accomplishments with which they are credited, but who has fooled other people into believing that they did. As I progress through my career in tech, and actively seek to work and connect with other women in the industry, I’m finding that this is a pattern. Taking the step to even acknowledge, let alone celebrate our achievements, is sometimes almost more difficult than achieving them in the first place. We don’t want to feel like the loudest voice in the room if we’re talking about ourselves. We often think that other people worked harder, did better and deserve it more. We second-guess ourselves and fixate on our perceived mistakes.
I asked a few women I know if they’d felt it. All of them had. I asked them some more questions – when did it start happening? Why do you think it started? How do you express it? It’s impossible for me to capture the unique experiences of everyone who is affected by impostor syndrome in a single article, but I wanted to isolate some reasons why this was happening to us.
Two stories: Tali and Jane
Tali and Jane are two talented women I know working in the tech space. They both kindly gave up their time to share their different experiences with impostor syndrome with me for this article.
I first worked with Tali when I asked her to take part in a hackathon with me last year. She was keen to take part, but cautioned me that she might not be that useful. I didn’t know it at the time, but Tali was already an experienced hackathon participant. During the hackathon itself, she helped to develop a wonderful prototype and also delivered half of our pitch. She nailed it. She was awesome. But she didn’t acknowledge it when we first spoke.
I asked her when she thought impostor syndrome started to affect her life. Tali thinks that her first experiences stemmed from attending a selective school, where the atmosphere pushed students to work incredibly hard, but to remain “super humble” about their successes. As she says, it was easy to “almost…convince yourself that it was just luck”. Once she started university, where she studied a double degree in science (with honours) and computer science, she found that most of her peers, teachers, course material writers and senior academics were men. Consequently, it was difficult for Tali to find women to view as role models or to envision herself at any of those levels. Now that she’s actually reaching those levels of achievement, she describes an internal pressure for “excessive humbleness” and to avoid the spotlight, even when she’s earned it.
“Oh! I just remembered something”, Tali added, once we were wrapping up our conversation. She tells me that when she received a phone call offering her a graduate role once she finished studying, she told her friend that “I’m pretty sure I’m only here because they’ve got a gender quota to fill”.
I was saddened and angered at hearing this. Not because Tali had said it, but because she’d evidently absorbed a social narrative that made her feel like she had to say it. I’d absorbed the exact same narrative. A friend at university and I had applied for the same graduate role and I’d progressed one step further than him. “Affirmative action”, he’d muttered when he found out that his self-described “awesome” application had been rejected and mine hadn’t. I tried to dismiss it at the time, but the doubts had taken root. The term “affirmative action” slid so easily into my own discourse as a feature of my own impostor syndrome, as one of the many reasons, outside of my own hard work, why I’d achieved things.
I asked Jane the same questions that I asked Tali. Jane mentioned that she used to try and deal with impostor syndrome by spending her free time attempting to learn everything about her work or related technology. It’s pretty much impossible to learn everything about something, so her attempts would leave her feeling “useless”. She didn’t want to feel like she’s deceiving others into thinking that she’s an expert on a topic, even though she’s worked on it for years, or risk being asked questions to which she doesn’t know the answers and being exposed as a fraud.
Jane also described occasions where she’d make comments that were disregarded until the exact same thing was said by a man. I’m sure this has happened to many women reading this article. This would lead Jane to question the validity of what she was saying, except that the exact same thing was said by a man and met with approval. So apparently it wasn’t what she said that was the issue, but the fact that she was saying it.
Women’s voices are not viewed as authoritative or informative
They are often dismissed as shrill or irritating, or not heard at all, because we’ve been taught to be quiet and gentle. A partner of mine once frustratedly asked me to stop talking about things I’d achieved in front of them if they’d already heard it before. This was after I told my parents about an award I’d won. He’d happened to be there when I told them, and when I’d told my housemates a day or two earlier. This was incredibly annoying for him – he didn’t want to listen to me “showing off” so much.
I was deeply hurt by this. Was I really just annoying people when I told them I’d done well? Were the achievements even worth talking about? Did I really deserve to be where I was, or was I just boasting about something that didn’t merit recognition? I, like so many other women, was already plagued by self-doubt. It was becoming more deeply ingrained the more I tried to fight against it.
So, what did I learn from my conversations with Tali and Jane?
I learned that impostor syndrome is powerful. It manifests in many ways and it is pushed upon us by numerous social patterns.
We don’t see enough women at the top, and it’s hard to picture ourselves at the top when there’s nobody else like us up there. Women so often work behind the scenes, patiently and humbly, and without sufficient recognition. When we do try to speak up or acknowledge our work, we are often met with dismissal or criticism. We aren’t encouraged to toot our own horn, to challenge the status quo, to be the biggest and loudest voice in the room. We are constantly inundated with social cues that tell us, either subtly or overtly, to quiet down, to not boast, to not do something that a man could supposedly do better or deserves more.
I’d like to wrap up this article by telling social cues to politely shove it.
I did my work; I studied hard, I applied for jobs, I suffered rejection and celebrated acceptance. I put my hand up even when I was afraid and went the extra mile and reached out when I could. This is how I got to a position where people tell me that I’m kicking goals or “smashing it”. So did Tali and Jane. Not because only a few people applied, or because we were in the right place at the right time, or because of affirmative action: because we earned it.
If you are succeeding, pat yourself on the back
It is hard to succeed, and it’s sometimes even harder to believe that you are actually succeeding. It’s so important to recognise that your achievements are genuine. If you do something great, tell people. You’re just relaying the facts. If someone tells you that they’ve done something great, congratulate them. I’m constantly blown away by the fiercely supportive networks women share in different realms, whether they be professional or social. Tall poppy syndrome also exists – some people who hear about what you achieve will try to tear you down, but many more will help you lift yourself up as high as you can go. Let them, and make sure you lift yourself up too.