You’ve Got the Job, So Why Do You Feel Like a Fake at Work?
Published in Cosmopolitan, May 2011. Copyright Rachel Hills 2011.
With an Oscar nomination and countless critically acclaimed films under her belt, few people would question Carey Mulligan’s bona fides as part of the new generation of Serious Young Actresses. Few people, that is, except for Carey Mulligan. “I always think, ‘Oh fuck, they’re going to find me out,’” admits the actress, 25. “I mean, I still have days when I genuinely cannot act. There’s a scene in every film which I look back on and think, ‘That was the day I couldn’t act.’”
In her latest film, Never Let Me Go, it was the scene where she was sitting on the beach with Keira Knightley. Mulligan is facing away from the camera. “I’d love to say it was a creative choice, but it wasn’t,” she says. “[It was] ‘I’m going to look away and hide, so the audience won’t see that I’m bad at acting.’”
To anyone who’s seen Mulligan in action, these words probably sound ridiculous. Then again, they might also sound unnervingly familiar. Whether it’s our work, our looks, or being terrified we’re going to fail an exam, who among us hasn’t grappled with the niggling feeling that we’re not as talented as other people think we are? And worse still, that they’re going to figure it out sooner or later? As one Cosmo reader quipped: “Isn’t that just called being a professional woman?”
The experts call this feeling Imposter Syndrome, and 70 per cent of people will experience it at one point or another – usually following a big achievement or some other unsettling force that pushes us out of our comfort zones (like, say, getting nominated for an Oscar). One third of us experience it on a chronic level, which can be frequent, intense and have a huge impact on our lives, says Suzanne Mercier of imposterhood.com.
“Imposter syndrome is a very distorted self view. It’s a perception that we’re actually not good enough, that we don’t measure up to an ideal. This manifests in feeling like a fake and a fraud,” explains Mercier.
And the more successful you are, the more likely you are to experience it. “What happens is they focus on their weaknesses and failures rather than their successes, because they can’t see their successes,” says Mercier.
Take Stephanie, a 28-year-old political consultant and classic high achiever. “Although I was providing direct advice to very high level people, I still wondered… waited even,” she recalls. “I would get terrible headaches and anxiety, thinking about what would happen if I made a mistake, and what would happen if they found me out.”
To some extent, Stephanie knew she was doing better than okay. “There’s a constant battle between the intellectual side that knows you’ve done the work and the emotional side that makes you think ‘What if they find me out?’” she explains.
Some of the causes of Imposter Syndrome operate at an individual level. You’re more likely to suffer from it if you grew up with perfectionist parents, for example, or if your personality leans towards the dramatic or emotionally reactive. But Imposter Syndrome is so common – especially amongst young women – that we can’t help but think there’s something more cultural at play as well.
“There’s kind of a group girl thing of it’s good to be modest and to be humble,” observes Karen Adamedes, author of Hot Tips for Career Chicks. Admit it – you probably found Carey Mulligan’s every-girl insecurities pretty endearing. As a generation, we may have plenty of ambition, but it’s still not cool to say it out loud. “It has a sense of a little bit of arrogance,” admits Adamedes.
Then there’s the question of our sky high perceptions of how much talent is actually required in order to be successful – what Suzanne Mercier calls “the perfection driver”.
As Adamedes explains: “Women sometimes have unrealistic expectations about what is ‘good enough’. It’s part of thinking that whatever we do wouldn’t be good enough, because we need to be operating at an extraordinary level. If you set your standards for success too high, everyone’s going to struggle to measure up.”
At its worst, Imposter Syndrome can hamper your ability to progress your career, form relationships, travel and have new experience. But while Imposter Syndrome is common, it’s not inevitable – nor is it a reflection of any genuine deficiency on your part. “The fear you’re feeling is real,” says Mercier, “but the interpretation of the situation that led to the fear is probably not.”
Four Fast Tips to blitz your Fake-it Fears
Know your strengths. If you feel like your achievements aren’t up to scratch, write them down. Imposter Syndrome expert Suzanne Mercier recommends reviewing your successes at the end of each day. Can’t think of any? Ask a friend or trusted colleague where they think your talents lie.
Get numerical. It’s easy to feel like an underachiever if you constantly compare yourself to presidents, CEOs and Pulitzer prize winners. Instead of measuring yourself against other people, assess your achievements using quantifiable goals. Being able to say “I increased sales by 10 per cent” or “80 people attended my workshop” will increase your confidence and make your achievements feel more real, says Karen Adamedes.
Talk about it. You’ll probably find you’re not alone. “Little by little, talking to people about it made a big difference,” says Stephanie, 28.
Let it go. Everyone makes mistakes – even the most talented and accomplished people. When it happens to you, don’t dwell on it. “Take the lesson and let it go,” says Mercier.