By: Vreneli Stadelmaier
Do you ever feel as if you are pretending to be bigger or better than you are in reality? That everyone has expectations of you that you may not be able to live up to? That you are afraid of being found out, while you do know that, actually, that is not correct? Or perhaps there is nothing wrong at all with your self-confidence, and you really know what you are capable of. You exude confidence as well. And yet, sometimes there is that little voice that makes you doubt. That’s called the impostor syndrome.
The impostor syndrome causes us women to pull out, to set the bar lower instead of higher. Or to set it very high, so that we can’t stay the course. That impostor syndrome makes us less visible, less inclined to stand up for ourselves, and more likely to neglect our self-interest. Diminished ambition is also caused by this insecurity. Rationally, we know that we can do it, that we are in a position that we earned, or that we are good at our jobs. But our feeling tells us differently. We (secretly or otherwise) think that we can’t do it after all, that, unavoidably, the moment will come when we will be found out. We have the feeling that we are impostors, and that we are presenting an image to everyone, including ourselves, that does not correspond with reality.
The impostor syndrome can play tricks on you in your private life, too. I am a good example of this. Before we had children, my then husband and I worked full-time. We had agreed that we would both cut back to working four days if we had children. I earned more than my husband and I also had a better position than him; he worked at the Mergers and Acquisitions department of a big bank, I was general affairs manager at a large home-care organization. And yet, after our son had arrived, my husband refused to even ask for a four-day workweek. Because that would be bad for his career. He didn’t think it was bad for my career, by the way.
And I went along with this. I have thought long and hard about how that was possible. I had always been a great feminist and yet I let that happen. For a long time, I thought that it must have been due to hormones. That is so nice about hormones, you can blame everything on them. But that wasn’t it. It was the imposter syndrome. Deep down, I thought that my career was fake and that the moment would come that this would become painfully clear to everyone, including myself. I was afraid of being found out. It was better if I didn’t play for high stakes right now, because his career was real. I had better put on the brakes, so that I wouldn’t fall down so hard when it all came out.
What probably played a role too was that I didn’t particularly want to quarrel with the new father of my child. I am the type that likes harmony, I hate quarrels. But the most important thing was the feeling that I was taking everybody for a ride where my career was concerned.
It was a self-fulfilling prophecy: because I didn’t put up a fight against my husband about this, his career did become more important than mine. I got saddled with everything. Kid was ill? I took time off work, because he couldn’t. (In those years, the stock market had crashed. There wasn’t any work to do in his department. They were glad when four o’clock came around, which was when the afternoon newspaper was delivered, as it gave them something to do. But to pick up his son from the day-care centre because he was sick, that was bad for his career … and I put up with it.) Doing the housekeeping? I did all of it, because I worked ‘only’ four days. (It was once calculated that doing the housekeeping takes about 23 hours per week. Add four times eight hours of work to that and you have a 55-hour working week.) He found his career more important, more intelligent and more interesting than mine, and I secretly agreed.
Would it have been different if I hadn’t agreed? I think so. Perhaps our marriage would have failed right then. In that case, I would not have had two more beautiful children. With hindsight, I am happy about it, but I can remember very well from that period that I suppressed my career. After all, it felt as if I was fooling everybody.
I would have been glad if someone could have helped me with that. Because of course there was a solution that would not have meant the end of my career or marriage. But, in that case, I would have had to take a firm stand for my career, for myself. And I didn’t. Not because I did not think it was important but because of the impostor syndrome. It felt fake.
Fortunately, we now know about the impostor syndrome. And fortunately we can do something about it. But you can only improve something if you know what is wrong. If you know what causes it.
That’s what my book is about. To learn more about the causes and the consequences. And to provide you with a seven step-plan to deal with those impostor feelings.
Vreneli Stadelmaier wrote the book ‘Sure she can. Crush this insecurity’, a self-help book for women who suffer from the impostor syndrome, or the fear of being found out. She’s an MBA, registered coach, source of inspiration, speaker, entrepreneur, author, blogger and publisher. In 2015, winner of the prestigious Joke Smit Award for gender equality, awarded by the Dutch government. Follow her on her website, Facebook and Twitter.