Help! I’m an imposter!

Guest post by WINS Herts Hub Lead, Virginia Cinquemani.


Your presentation is in five minutes. You start panicking.

“Why did they ask me to do it? I’m the least qualified to do this. I know nothing about it!”

Your mind goes blank. You frantically search your brain for answers and you get back only deafening silence.

You manage to start but your presentation is shaky. You forget important points you could have made and you feel judged by your colleagues. In your head, you keep on saying: “You see? You know nothing.”

The more you think you are a fraud, and you shouldn’t be doing what you do, the more your brain scans for proof that this is indeed true.

Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation?

If you have, you are not alone. You might be one of the 75% of people that suffer from imposter syndrome, from author Elizabeth Gilbert to scientist Albert Einstein. The term originates from research by Clance and Imes (1978), which was focused on women who are high achievers. They describe this as an internal state of mind where a person believes they are unintelligent, unsuccessful, and incompetent, although this is at odds with the view others have of them. The person often feels like they are a fraud or a fake, and they worry that at any moment others are going to discover the real truth about them.

At times in life, I found myself feeling out of my depth, way beyond the edge of my comfort zone, and that’s when my imposter syndrome made an unwelcome appearance. Whether that was originated from the inside because I felt incompetent for the task I was given, or imposed by a hostile environment that pressured me to perform beyond my abilities or belittled me, it always happened when I started a new job.

My brain couldn’t cope with the uncertainty, in particular with the learning curve that any new job requires. I’m one of those imposter syndrome sufferers that seek perfection in everything they do. And although I learned to let go of it at times, when I have to put out in the world something that I feel is half-baked, or that I haven’t researched thoroughly (in my view), I feel so vulnerable to judgement that it makes me physically nauseous.

We do our best work when our skills are directly proportional to the challenges we have and these challenges are stretching us in a good way: this is when we enter a state of flow (as psychologist Csikszentmihalyi explains). We all have experienced the bliss of doing something so engrossing that we lose track of time. On the opposite, anxiety and overwhelm kick in when we feel out of our depth and that our skills are not enough to face the challenges ahead.

At times though, this is purely a strong belief we hold for ourselves: we filter reality and scan it to find proof that we aren’t good enough, no matter how many times people around us tell us otherwise. We dismiss their comments as ‘they are just being nice’.
We become our own stumbling block on the road towards success.

I’ve being coaching people for a few years now, many are women who want to enter sustainability because they look for more meaning in their careers. Almost every single one of them have what can be described as imposter syndrome. And although some form of self-doubt can be normal especially at times of change and transition, or in unfamiliar surroundings, in the worst cases it can cause severe anxiety and crippling fear. The consequences of leaving this unchecked can be dire: we don’t apply for the jobs we can nail, we stagnate and we pass on opportunities to people that are less smart or qualified.

In sustainability, we might not act because we assume our contribution doesn’t matter or that we don’t know enough yet. I find that the best possible way to overcome imposter syndrome starts from being aware of it: understanding that we might be filtering reality and not looking at ourselves objectively, means that we might do ourselves a disservice when we dismiss our actual knowledge, achievements and strengths. It might be worth exploring what strong beliefs we hold about ourselves that might hinder us, and where those come from. I suggest journaling on it, going back to episodes that might have knocked our confidence and self-esteem in the past.

The next thing would be to assess our strengths and unique selling points.

What are we good at? What comes natural to us that others might struggle with? There are plenty of strengths tests that can be done online, the best known of which is the Gallup Strengthfinder, which has been a real game-changer in my professional life. After taking the test, I understood why I enjoyed tasks that involved strategic thinking and coming up with new ideas, while struggled with approaching strangers. Instead of beating myself up for not being able to do everything perfectly, I started playing to my strengths and see how I could delegate tasks that I wasn’t great at to others.

Finally, we can look back at your past achievements. As human beings we are so good at deprecating ourselves when we make a mistake, and so bad at remembering and celebrating our successes. I suggest to keep a “successes and praises” notebook, with all the good stuff that happens to you or all the compliments you receive from others.
Counting our blessings and finding proof that we are qualified and respected, and that others genuinely mean it when they compliment us, can help shift our mindset.

Overcoming imposter syndrome is a process, and you might lapse before you feel strong enough to grab opportunities with both hands. But it is possible to get there, and especially women in sustainability not only deserve to realise their full potential and shine bright, but they also have the responsibility to put their passion and knowledge to good use for the planet.

If you’d like to hear more about overcoming imposter syndrome and how other women have coped with it, join us at the Women in Sustainability Herts Hubs online workshop on 18th May 7.30 – 9.30pm. We will look at what imposter syndrome is, how it manifests and how you can bust it so that you start enjoying your achievements, lower your anxiety and give yourself the credit you deserve.

Get your tickets here: