THE IMPOSTER SYNDROME

 

THE woman is unarguably a success by all objective standards. She earns more in her high profile career than most women dream of while also managing to keep her marriage and her children healthy.

She dresses well, looks beautiful and goes home at night to an impeccable and impressive home. Her friends, understandably, feel sick with envy every time they meet her. They may even call her "Miss Perfect" behind her back - or even to her face after a glass or two of chilled Chardonnay.

Little do they know, however, that beneath her facade of capability and control, she feels like a fraud and is convinced that someone has made a terrible mistake to place her in such an exalted position. Every morning she wakes with a knot in her stomach and the appalling sensation that it is only a matter of time before she is publicly exposed as a failure.

Like seven out of 10 professional women, she suffers from "imposter syndrome", a crippling form of paranoia. In the office, when she sees colleagues in a huddle she is convinced that they are talking about her. She opens each memo from her superiors with trepidation, convinced that it is going to contain a letter of dismissal. Her feelings of inadequacy drive her to greater and greater successes, yet praise and accomplishment make her feel empty and depleted, rather than happy and fulfilled.

Imposter syndrome has become so pervasive that it pops up regularly in interviews with famous, successful women. Michelle Pfeiffer recently told Barry Norman that with every new film role, she is convinced that the critics are finally going to reveal - that she is a bad actress.

Women like Pfeiffer constantly worry about other people's opinions of them. Beneath the mask, they suffer fear, panic and anxiety symptoms before having to perform a task in front of others. Whether they are professional actresses, or film directors, barristers, bank managers or surgeons, these women always feel like they are acting - and badly at that. Psychologist Petruska Clarkson calls this sensation "pseudocompetency" in her book on the subject, The Achilles Syndrome.

Whatever you call it, it begs the question: is there any successful person out there who feels adequate, praise worthy and fulfilled?

Yes - but probably not the really creative, risk taking high flyers. There is something about the very nature of achievement which makes achievers destined never to reach the top of the mountain. Clarkson believes that this dissatisfaction stems from a deeper inner drive to better the human race which is deeply imprinted in the brain.

Don't mistake imposter syndrome for false humility. Sufferers have a genuine feeling of I am not doing as well as I could". Because they tend to be brighter than average, they are painfully good at analysing their own flaws and obsessively worry that other people are picking out their inadequacies as well.

It may he that the roots of the syndrome are contained in the nature of being a woman and a success. A woman who dares to excel is breaking all the gender rules in order to enter a male world which is emotionally and psychologically alien, suggests Gail Grossman Freyne, a psychologist in Dublin, who readily admits that she suffers the syndrome herself. Isolated, unsure and bereft of female role models, the sufferer worries too much about how others perceive her.

AT THE heart of it all however, is not the fear of failure - but the fear of success. By being defined as "successful" according to the male rules of the game, the successful woman is contradicting the essential values which women cherish, she suggests. Women value sharing, communication and mutual support - all emotions which may have little place in the cut throat business world which values competition, not cooperation.

Successful women may also suffer from a disconcerting sense of gender disorientation. "As women, we are constantly surrounded by messages telling us that we are not good enough - that we are not as good as men. It is virtually impossible to overcome that," Ms Freyne believes.

The successful woman may secretly feel that she is neither man nor woman, but "some kind of freak".

"If she has succeeded to earn, produce and influence on a par with men - then she must not be a real woman," she says.

But Dr Ciaran O'Boyle, Professor of Psychology at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, says that imposter syndrome is merely the latest catchphrase for the very real and distressing symptoms of workplace anxiety, a common experience shared by women and men. At the base of the issue are our old friends low selfesteem and lack of assertiveness, he argues.

And if while reading this article you have already diagnosed yourself as suffering from the syndrome - blame your boss and your parents. Dr O'Boyle, who specialises in teaching managers how to "empower their employees, to achieve their maximum potential", says that we all need regular feedback on our work and genuine two way, personal communication with our colleagues and superiors.

If we don't get it, we naturally feel anxious because such feedback is essential to the process of "sell"actualisation", psyche speak for the need for fulfilment which inspires us to achieve. Employers need to understand that salary, bonuses and even a company car are not enough to achieve this profound need. The kind word of praise and the pat on the back may actually be more important.

EMPLOYERS need to be available to give such feedback on a weekly basis, if necessary, Dr O'Boyle believes. The "annual assessment" which has become fashionable in management circles is not enough.

At the same time, sufferers of the syndrome need to work on their self esteem, improve their assertiveness and start questioning the dominating role which their careers have in their lives.

"A lot of very, very successful people have a belief system in which their self esteem is tied to the success ethic. They constantly tell themselves: `I must be successful at everything I do' and if they fail in just one area, they feel that, they are a total failure," says Dr O'Boyle.

Their expectations are so unreasonably lofty, that every time they achieve one of their goals, instead of congratulating themselves they merely raise their expectations even higher so that nothing is ever good enough. Achieving these constantly escalating expectations, brings no satisfaction however for a person with low self esteem.

As children, sufferers had the kind of parents who equated love with success and always criticised their school reports, no matter how well they did. In university, a 2.2 was never good enough - it had to be a 2.1.

As adults, sufferers are inclined to indulge in chronic rumination over their achievements, constantly monitoring their performance to ensure that their success is maintained. But their perceptions of how well they are doing are warped because they have only their own deeply self critical and warped point of view to rely on.

Dr O'Boyle maintains that managers who wisely learn the art of "performance management", a process in which managers offer employees genuine, honest, balanced feed back, can counteract this in their employees and thus make them more productive.

The world isn't going to change overnight and sufferers of imposter syndrome who work for non empowering employers can help themselves by learning to be assertive and to control stress. Finding a way to obtain objective external feedback is also important. says Dr O'Boyle, by talking with colleagues and sharing perceptions of each others' achievements.

HE believes that women are particularly good at offering each other support in this context - but if so, why do so many successful women suffer from imposter syndrome? It may be that many successful women have flown so high in their professions that there aren't any other female colleagues for them to consult. A surgeon may be the only female surgeon in the hospital and a barrister may be the only female barrister on a case. She may be wary - even terrified - of consulting male colleagues for fear of appearing insecure or because she feels she doesn't know the rules of interaction.

Whether male or female, the sufferer needs to "lighten up", Dr O'Boyle advises.

He teaches men and women attending his seminars to practise at saying "little I's" as in "I can do this well, I can do that well". They learn that failing at five "little I's" during a day or a week, actually means that they have been successful at 95 per cent of their "little I's".

And when you are lying in bed at night agonising over your belief that you are about to be revealed as a fraud, dig a little deeper and find that looped tape on which your parent says over and over again, "you should have done better". When you find it, you may never be able to erase it, but the least you can do is tell it to shut up and be quiet.