Constantly feeling inadequate. Doubting your intellect and talents. Being convinced that sooner or later you are going to be exposed as a fraud -as the ignorant person you really are. Long nights sweating over the assignment, the presentation, the paper you are writing. Basically never feeling enough. The challenges of professional women, no matter how smart and successful, are often a secret well hidden -exposing themselves as having these doubts, the imagine, would make them all the more fragile. Here I give you some ideas on how to grow from Impostor Syndrome to confidence: How to be a kick-ass professional woman.
Impostor Syndrome or Impostor Experience refers to the haunting feeling that you have not really earned your success in life and some day someone is going to expose you as a fraud. In our times of over-diagnosing ourselves with Dr. Google and misusing clinical jargon, it is really important to keep in mind that the impostor phenomenon is not a “real” medical syndrome or a diagnosis. However, this does not make it into any less real of an experience.
Also, not everyone who occasionally feels insecure or doubts their capabilities needs to say they suffer from impostorism. It is only normal to sometimes feel nervous and question your abilities. When we talk about impostorism, we talk about something quite different than that: People suffering from the impostor experience are always tormented by the feeling that some day people will figure out they have no business in being in whatever position they have in the working life and regularly attribute their successes to good luck or the goodwill of others, not to their own abilities.
The Impostor Experience
The term impostor syndrome originates from the 1970’s, from the clinical practice of two psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who noticed among their clients many high-achieving women completely unable to internalize their own success. Research has shown that feeling like an impostor is not excluded to women, nor to any specific professional group. More people than you would guess are genuinely tormented by the feeling that they have just gotten lucky in getting that professor position or research grant, and that some day all the world will know what a fraud they are.
Recently, there has been a lot of conversation both in the academia and outside of it about the impostor phenomenon, possibly related to the ever-increasing demands and pressures of academia triggering these experiences among many others. Women and their professional insecurities is a topic worthy of much more attention than a simple blog post, but I will for my part open the conversation here. Feeling like an impostor is just one slice of the big cake called Females in Doubt of Themselves. However, if you do recognize yourself as indeed suffering from the impostor experiences, it is a good idea to stop and take a closer look at that. Pay attention to your self-image and to the kind of goals you set to yourself. Pay attention also to your strategies to achieve them: overpreparing is common to people with impostor experiences, because in their mind, they have to work harder than others in order not to get caught in their inabilities. Make sure to study how you receive feedback and especially, how you mitigate and negate positive words you hear about your work. Keep going out of your comfort zone, practice the skill of taking negative feedback gracefully, and move on despite adversities. Foster an attitude of growth and constant learning and pat yourself on the back for doing your best and learning something new; getting fixated only on concrete achievements makes you more vulnerable to feeling like a failure when you fail. Perhaps most importantly, separate yourself from you work: you are not your achievements. This also means that when the evident failure and negative feedback comes -because it always comes and keeps coming at all of us- you will be better able to remember that because you fail you are not a failure.
Other Traps for Female Professionals
I have both in my clinical practice and in my personal life met so many women who are smart, educated, hard-working, and incredibly talented, yet they find themselves in constant doubts of their abilities or act in ways that do nothing to serve them in getting the success and respect they yearn for. Many women tend to have an incredibly complex relationship with success, whether it means money, professional positions, degrees, or something else. They want it and they don’t want it, because they don’t feel they deserve to succeed or because it makes them feel guilt or shame. They want to play the game but don’t want to take the risk of losing. In addition, they are prone to certain thought and behavior patterns that undermine every step they take toward success.
The usual detrimental patterns I keep observing include:
- Doubting oneself, mitigating one’s talent and experiences
- Not aiming high, because [insert excuse concerning other things that are more important in life except that for the woman herself, they really are not]
- When acting in their professional circles, focusing on things and behaviors that are not helpful in getting the respect they want, such as too much attention on appearance and too little attention on what they can do
- Fostering twisted and unrealistic ideas of what it means to be a smart and successful person/woman
- Not taking credit for themselves and letting other people take the front row even if it is undeserved
The number one advice on how to be a kick-ass professional woman is that you focus on what you are doing and you keep your mind under check -don’t let that negative self-talk sway your attention away. Don’t go to self-pity, flirtatious attempts of trying to get away with less than you know you can do; don’t play with doomed attempts of trying to be perfect and better than everyone else, either. I swear that just stopping to think so much about what we as women have been programmed to think -how we look- and putting that energy into how you think takes you a long way.
Playing it Dull
One very curious phenomenon I have noticed is women thinking that to be believable, they need to be dry and boring and especially hide their femininity. And I am talking about women who think that wearing small earrings in a conference is too much, or who have the idea that you can’t smile and laugh while giving a presentation, because that is “unprofessional”.
In one of my first study projects as a young psychology student perhaps in 2006 or 2007, I went to a kindergarten and asked the kids to draw God. You guessed right -most of them drew a man. The same happens when you ask kids to draw a wise person. Well, even if the world has changed a lot in 14 years, it still seems that the subconscious archetype of a smart and successful person for many women is a man. They define successful in ways that excludes themselves -women.
This phenomenon runs deep and we could spend years discussing female stereotypes, the history of labor, the hidden hierarchies of academia, the ways girls are brought up in families and schools. For the purposes of this post, let me state that for many women, the archetype of success is someone they can’t be by definition, because it is a man. Even if they would have female ideals and role models, there are other, subtler ways they limit themselves when thinking that, in essence, they cannot be smart and successful simply being themselves. Often, women also think that to be professional they need to hide their personality and their femininity and basically act like they are someone else, another person altogether.
The idea that a smart and successful, convincing woman needs to be dull, wear grey and never have any facial expressions is a dangerous belief to have. I don’t deny that in some odd situations, conforming to this kind of an image might serve you well, but if you think you can leave a mark in people’s mind or build genuine connections in working circles, you cannot and should not limit yourself to being a shadow.
How To Be a Kick-Ass Professional Woman: Be You, Everyone Else is Already Taken
Women are often criticized for being too this and too little that. I shall not even repeat these instructions delivered to us in explicit and implicit ways on an everyday basis in the media and in the norms of many workplaces. Be pretty but not too pretty, be smart but not intimidating. Too many women shrink themselves into shadows just to conform to an impossible ideal of someone who exists but does not threaten, challenge, or pose any other inconvenient feelings to people around them.
The challenges of being yourself as a professional woman are real. All women know that when they talk in a conference, at least one older man is going to sit in the front row shaking their head and showing their disapproval to the woman’s presentation. The world is full of head-shakers and man-splainers -men who think they know it better and have to educate the women. My only advice is that whatever you do, don’t shrink yourself and start making yourself into a smaller, colorless version of yourself to skip the criticism of the head-shakers. They are going to shake their head anyway.
Giving a presentation, whether it is at a scientific conference or explaining the last quarterly budget to your boss in a meeting, we are talking about a situation where many women are very triggered to feel insecure. They have to stand there in front of other people, deliver their content, be exposed to criticism. They imagine how the audience is going to criticize them and ridicule them, find problems in their presentation, point out their mistakes. I am not saying that men are not having similar kind of fantasies, because they do. I am talking to women who are prone to apply the strategy of “let me be invincible to survive this situation” and who actually plan out strategies on how to draw as little attention to themselves as possible. Surprisingly many think that hiding their gender and their persona is the key to, if not succeed, at least to not die when giving their talk.
I have my own totem women, my personal female spirit animals, from whom I have gotten a lot of inspiration on how to be confident in being me. These women show that it is possible to be an inspiring, convincing professional while also having a personality. They are all different -quirky, funny, sensual, sharp- in their own ways, but they do not compromise their professionalism. What is also important is that you don’t see these women using their femininity in ways that would distract the audience from their message. Acting in a coquettish way and doing your thing in a manner that shows you want to be considered first an foremost as an attractive woman and only then as a professional is one strategy everyone is free to use. f you choose this one, then don’t come to me complaining you are not taken seriously.
Sometimes when I give this blunt advice, women think I am saying that they should not be feminine or sexy. That’s not what I am saying at all. What I am saying is that if you want to be considered as a smart and capable professional, focus on that. Think about what you want to say and how to deliver the message. Put your energy into showing what you can do with your mind. Then wear whatever the heck you want.
How To Be a Kick-Ass Professional Woman: Some Inspiration
On your journey from impostor syndrome to confident thriving and on learning how to be a kick-ass professional woman, it is a good idea to draw some inspiration from relevant role models. It’s easy to say that yeah, when you are a best-selling author or an award-winning actress, it is easy to come across as confident. Everyone listens to you anyway. That might be true, but it doesn’t prevent you from learning how to be yourself while letting the world know what you can. Being smart doesn’t mean being boring. Being a successful woman doesn’t mean you have to hide the woman-ness (it also doesn’t mean you have to focus on it.
Take a moment to learn about these women (you might already be familiar with some or all of them anyway) have their take on how to be a kick-ass professional woman: a historian of ideas, Dr. Hannah Dawson, the founder and CEO of IDOLOGY, Caroline McHugh, actress Helena Bonham Carter, and author Caitlin Moran. I could have picked many more, but these ones are here because I think they are awesome public speakers and very inspiring every time they talk.
That is why reading about them is not enough, you must see and hear them talk. Here are some videos to give you a good impression on the kind of natural, confident charisma they have. They do not deny or hide their femininity, but even more important than that, they let their personality shine through. First, Hannah Dawson:
Helena Bonham Carter:
Lastly, Caitlin Moran:
You might argue that the ladies are just wearing their public persona in these clips, but that does not matter. The point is to inspire women who think that to be a confident professional one needs to hide one’s personality. These women are their own selves, present, natural, and connected to their audiences. Each one of them is not only a professional but a professional kick-ass woman with a personality. That is something even bigger and greater than being just a man or a woman -you are both, and much more, a human.