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A Woman's Guide to the Impostor Syndrome

09/30/2014 05:28 EDT | Updated 11/30/2014 05:59 EST
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I am not one to ever use the word hate, but I've always had one exception: I hate phonies. I'm not sure where the origin of this antagonism arose. But I think it had something to do with my fixation on J.D. Salinger and The Catcher and the Rye. But that's the subject of another article. In a strange twist of fate, about a week ago, I had the unsettling realization that I have being suffering from a mild form of impostor syndrome for the past year and a half. Try to be gentle with me as I lay it on the line.

This is where the story began: I'm a self-taught artist. I've been writing poetry since the age of 12, and painting since the age of 20. About two years ago, I started making jewelry. It happened organically as I was experimenting with creating a mixed media painting. A few months later, due to a serendipitous series of events, I launched a jewelry company.

Up until a week ago, despite some meaningful strides: appearing in World MasterCard Fashion Week as part of the Toronto Fashion Incubator (together with some amazing designers, including Pontus & Hawke); being featured in The Globe and Mail and Canadian Living, I felt like I was having a bit of an "out of body" experience; like I was not exactly the person I seemed to be on the surface. So who am I? I'm an executive in the non-profit sector; a fundraising, marketing and branding expert. But then this happened and it changed everything. Why am I admitting this to you? Truthfully, it's for the sake of all the people out there (women in particular, high-achievers, I'm looking at you) that have felt the same way at some point, perhaps right now. The question is: why, despite "hitting it out of the park" accomplishments, are we so inconsolably hard on ourselves?

Sheryl Sandberg writes about the "impostor syndrome" in Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead : "many people," she notes, "but especially women, feel fraudulent...Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made." While women are more likely to fall prey to the "syndrome," men are not immune. Generally though, while men attribute their success to handwork, drive, perseverance, will and talent, women tend to question ourselves like it's the inquisition.

The term "impostor syndrome" first appeared in the late '70s in an article by clinical psychologists Clance and Imes. They observed that many high-achieving women tended to believe they were over-evaluated by others. Studies suggest that 70 percent of all people feel like frauds at one time or another. Before you get a referral to a psychiatrist, you should know that impostor syndrome is not deemed a psychological disorder. I refer now not to the DSM but to the Harvard Business Review, which upholds it is most common in perfectionists, women and academics, and, while it may seem counterintuitive, it's not associated with low self-confidence, self-esteem or a lack of success.

Case in point: the late, great American poet and author Maya Angelou once said: "I have written eleven books, but each time I think, 'uh oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out.'" Maya Angelou, for the love of G-d, after eleven books and a Nobel Prize, suffered from impostor syndrome too.

We often attribute our success to chance or luck, or say that our accomplishments are no big deal. In our society, there is such a strong onus on achievement, and such a fierce predilection towards criticism, that it is no wonder people feel inadequate. I will admit it: I grew up thriving on validation and striving at all costs to drive inadequacy into the ground: I wanted to score the winning goal; win the first prize; get the best grades. So I pushed myself with an unquenchable ferocity. The truth is that I still do. This is not uncommon. Many people put immense pressure on themselves to succeed, which is just another way of saying we contort ourselves like Cirque de Soleil performers to avert failure. How does this connect to impostor syndrome? Perhaps, in some subconscious way, we are trying so hard to avoid being "found out," like Maya Angelou wrote. My father notes that women often feel the imperative to work "harder" to overcome this fear.

The point, as Brené Brown, that gorgeous lover of vulnerability reminds us, is that shame -- that awful feeling that "I am just not good enough," is the ultimate deathblow. It's the psychological nail in the coffin. Brown argues that it prevents us from making true connection, both with ourselves and with others. She calls it, poetically, the Swampland of the Soul.

But here's the thing: Impostors by definition are vulnerable. They are nervous of being unmasked. But what I have discovered time and again is that exposing our insecurities -- laying them on the line -- actually makes us less vulnerable. It allows others to empathize with us; it opens the door for people to see us as human -- just like them. When I tell people "I am not a jewellery designer, really," they generally just laugh. They don't think I'm serious.

The truth is: I am a jewellery designer, but the reality is that I am so much more than this. Maybe it's not the word phoney I hate, but the notion of labels. I cannot be put in a little, convenient bento box. I am not X, Y, or Z. I am a complex mixture of the whole alphabet. My other big "aha"/Oprah-esque moment: perfectionism is often our worst enemy. Because it often leads to the feeling that we are not measuring up -- despite every sign in the world pointing to the fact that we are totally awesome, thank you very much. Like impostor syndrome, perfectionism is tiring, and inaudacacy is draining. They serve no one.

I am not saying that we should not strive to be the very best people and professionals we can be. This is not a call to "lean out." By all means, let's strive to be amazing, but let's also aspire to be more gentle with ourselves and with others. Ladies and gentleman, I am not perfect. Neither are you. I am not an impostor. Neither are you. Hopefully, we are growing, experimenting and stepping out, courageously, on bold, new adventures. We can't let the fear of failure or our own vulnerability stop us from evolving. We are "flawed" creatures in a myriad of exciting, interesting and poetic ways, but the beautiful reality is that this does not make us impostors. It makes us brave, honest and deliciously human.

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