The women waiting to be found out

07 August 2015 - 02:30 By Ufrieda Ho

Fancy house on the hill - check; trophy cabinet with your name on the silverware - check; butt-kicking CV - check; belief you deserve it - let's not go there. Meet the paradox that is imposter syndrome. It's an affliction of some super-successful high-achievers who are unable to claim their accomplishments fully. They put their obvious achievements down to dumb luck or good timing. Their worst enemy is the nagging internal drone of self-doubt; and we're not talking false modesty from shrinking violets or introverts. Those who have said they suffer from imposter syndrome include actresses Emma Watson and Kate Winslet and poet Maya Angelou. They use words and labels like "fraud", "sham", feeling they're "not really good enough" or that they will be "found out and exposed at any moment". This even as Watson was recently appointed a UN goodwill ambassador, Winslet has won numerous awards and Angelou, who died last year, remains a literary giant.Women are more affected by imposter syndrome than men. Cape Town-based executive coach Sunny Stout-Rostron says this is because of the socialisation of girls and women. They are not raised to be leaders or icons of success. Add to this South Africa's apartheid legacy: 15 to 20 years ago there was as little room for women as there was for people of colour in any role of prominence. Even now society props up glass ceilings and salary disparity, and divisions of household labour and child-rearing responsibilities stack up higher on women's plates."Men are socialised to step up to leadership positions while women are almost hard-wired to build relationships in the background which means they mostly assume a secondary role," she says."So when a woman succeeds and goes from being invisible to visible, she doubts herself because all her life she has missed out on the skills and messages that would have prepared her to step into leading roles more comfortably, so she feels like an imposter."Stout-Rostron can relate directly. She remembers being told by her parents at the age of 12 not to aim for university. She should learn to be a good wife and mother and aim to be a teacher or administrator instead."I was a top student, I was the eldest, but my parents didn't put my further education as a priority, my brother's education was the priority," she says.Linda Kelsey, former editor of UK Cosmopolitan, writes about feeling like an imposter. She started her rise in magazines at age 26 when she was made features editor at the title. Today, her accomplishments run the length of her arm as freelance journalist, speaker and novelist. Still, she writes in The Daily Telegraph: "Feeling like an imposter has dogged my every achievement. I'm not claiming any of this is rational, but it is how I feel, even now at age 63."Kelsey's view is that imposters hold unrealistically high standards for everything they do, setting themselves up for failure, or at least a sense of failure."It's all or nothing with us imposters. If we don't know it all, we know nothing. If it's not perfect, it's a disaster; if we're not the best we're useless," says Kelsey.For award-winning South African poet and performance artist Phillippa Yaa de Villiers imposter syndrome is her shadow - familiar and ever-present."Now that I'm nearly 50 I keep thinking: will it ever stop? But it never does. I can state unequivocally that I suffer from imposter syndrome," says Yaa de Villiers, who was selected as Commonwealth Poet last year.She delivered her poem Courage in Westminster Abbey with Queen Elizabeth in the audience. Today Yaa de Villiers also lectures in creative writing at Wits University.She says: "I was adopted. I learnt to doubt myself from a very young age. In my head were the words people said to me, 'you coloured, you stink, you kaffir, you stupid, you can't do anything, rubber-lips, you pig'."Feeling rejected by her biological mother stained her self-image - "a throbbing undercurrent that I was worthless and innately repulsive".But today she has made peace with her shadow, she puts it in its place.Taming the demons of self-doubt, not trying to eliminate them, is the trick, says Stout-Rostron. Her advice for those with imposter syndrome is clear: "Understand your limiting thoughts and assumptions. Reflect on hurdles you have overcome, the lessons you learnt. Know your strengths and unique gifts and use them wisely."It's surrender, not defeat. As Yaa de Villiers says: "We all feel worthless at times - these are the theatre of our mind, entertaining us and dazzling us with splendid narratives of our importance. I have no solution to this problem. It seems to be what being a human, especially a woman human, is all about."..

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