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The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women by Valerie Young

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I came across this book when I attended a personal development course recently. It addresses the recurring issue of “why capable people suffer from the IMPOSTER SYNDROME and how to thrive in spite of it.” The writer aims the book at women but makes it clear that men, especially those from minority groups, may also experience this. She begins the book with numerous examples of “intelligent, competent, talented women who feel anything but.” She links to lots of relevant research and makes good use of real life examples. She quotes both Kate Winslet and Don Cheadle who despite their talent express feeling like a fraud.

She suggests that there are many reasons why some people will feel like an imposter despite their competence and achievements. She believes that these feeling may thrive because:

  • We are all raised in imperfect families and those early experiences remain into adulthood.
  • If you are a student or in a new job/role/industry then you are being monitored and assessed continuously.
  • Some adversarial organisational cultures like academia and business can contribute to this.
  • If you work alone you can lose perspective and demand too much from yourself.
  • If you work in a creative field then what you produce is public and there are people who are paid to critique your work – and you.
  • If you are a stranger in a strange land then that outsider feeling may contribute to feeling like an imposter. This could be working outside of your culture, class or country.
  • If you represent your whole social group then you may feel extra pressure “to carry the competency torch for one’s entire gender, race, sexual orientation, disability or religion.”
  • Having identified the reasons why some people experience imposter feelings she goes on to explain the societal context that contributes to this. She encourages the reader to see the impact this is having on their life and begin to take steps to make changes.

Some of the effects of feeling as an imposter leads people to over-prepare, hold back, maintain a low or ever-changing profile, use charm to win approval, procrastinate, never finish projects, and self-sabotage. By doing this they may avoid negative feedback and scrutiny but they are putting themselves under enormous stress, won’t have the chance to learn from their mistakes and will never know how far their talents could take them.

The remainder of the book seeks to help the reader recognise the reasons why they feel like an imposter and provide them with some tools to see things differently. In her chapter on ‘the competence rule book for mere mortals’ she quotes the writer and filmmaker Julia Cameron: “Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us nothing we do will ever be good enough.” She goes on to show, for example, that there is a place for hard work and a place for asking for help. The point is to be aware of what is impacting on your behaviour and get the support you need to help you make the best choices for the way ahead. If you recognise this situation then this book may be of benefit to you. Leave a comment below to let me know what you think.

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