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Feeling Like An Imposter

I’ve been getting a number of messages from women saying that the more senior they are becoming in their careers, the more they are starting to feel like an imposter. 

I can relate to this. 

When I got my seat at the table, that was when I really started to feel for the first time that I don’t belong. I started to doubt my abilities and whether I was good enough to be there. 

Much like the Spiderman quote ‘with great power, comes great responsibility’. 

It felt like that responsibility was too much to bear. It didn’t just feel like I had a responsibility for the role and in the organisation, it also felt like I had a responsibility for women, women my age (I was 30) and for young working mums (my sons were 10). I’d never had those feelings before, until I got that seat at the table. 

If we don’t tackle this feeling, we reach burnout. That’s where I got to. 

I didn’t have a big community of people around me. I had great friends, but none were at the level I was at. I didn’t have any peers my age and the table I found myself at was definitely the wrong table. It was a toxic environment, so I didn’t feel I had the support from my peers and other leaders in the organisation. 

Those who were supporting me were at a different level and doing different roles. I didn’t even feel in the HR community that there were other women at my level, or doing things differently like I was. 

I felt like I had no one to reach out to and no one that could understand me. 

It wasn’t until nearing the end of my in-house career that I first became aware of Patty McCord. If you are in the HR space you probably have heard of her. 

Patty McCord was the head of HR for Netflix. She was part of the co creation team of creating the Netflix culture deck. For me, I discovered this near the end of my career and I wish I had someone like Patty at the time. 

I didn’t have any role models in the HR space, nor anyone to look up to. 

The CIPD is the awarding body for HR in the UK (SHRM in the US) and even when I qualified in 2006 felt very old hat, patriarchal in terms of it being very process driven and not anything about people. The stuff I was doing 2006-2009 and beyond, were in some cases being ripped apart by the CIPD. Saying ‘this is not how we do things, it’s not how it is…’

I had a number of conversations with some very senior people in the CIPD and I felt let down by them every single time. Particularly in the latter stages of my in-house HR career, this feeling of being an imposter started taking over even more. Because even the awarding body for my profession was telling me that what I was doing and the way I was doing it, was not what the people space would look like. 

It absolutely is. 

When I speak to HR professionals and they say I’m not a typical HR Pro, we are very like-minded in our approach. We recognise it’s about putting people first. 

I felt like this total imposter within my own industry. 

I felt like this total imposter within my own organisation. 

I felt like this total imposter at the level I was at. 

I felt like this total imposter within my friendship group. 

It felt really, really lonely. 

So many women who are climbing the ladder in their career and reaching senior levels, are feeling more like an imposter than ever before. There isn’t a quick fix to this, but there does need to be change. 

It almost feels like if we’re not feeling this level of imposter syndrome, then there must be something wrong with us. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s natural to get to the top and suddenly think, shit, now the pressure is on and now I need to maintain it. That wanting to maintain it is a natural thing. 

Serena Williams; she’s just made a big announcement about her evolution. She got to the top, but the pressure was to maintain that success and her wins. Because she wouldn’t want to be seen as a ‘one competition wonder’. She always faced a lot of criticism for the way she dresses, for how she looks, her perceived masculinity. I’m sure there were also some comments made about her skin colour, her stature, her size and her power. The pressure to maintain that level of competitiveness and being a champion, is what a lot of us feel when we reach those top positions. 

But I’ve never once heard Serena Williams say that she feels like an imposter. 

If what we think we are feeling when we get to the top is imposter syndrome and everyone around us is telling us it’s imposter syndrome, I think that’s different from wanting to successfully perform at that level. Is it the natural feeling of being at this level, or because we are told it’s imposter syndrome, we then start to feel like an imposter?

Imposter syndrome is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. Some of it is natural apprehension, because let’s face it, you wouldn’t be at the level you're at if you didn’t have the ability. 

I can remember feeling doubt as burnout started to take its hold. The more I stepped away from who I was at the core, the more I stopped trusting my intuition. The more I started to feel like a fraud, the closer I got to burnout. The more I felt like an imposter and my confidence dipped, the more I started to get closer to burnout. 

This self doubt cycle. 

The more we feel like this, the more we want to counter those feelings. But this then makes us push ourselves harder and harder. We hold ourselves to an even higher standard. 

This feeling of I need to hold myself to this higher standard compared to everyone else round the table because of my age, because I’m a young mum, because I’m a woman. 

In spite of those things, I’m still good enough. 

I wasn’t accepting that I had received my seat at the table because I was already good enough. 

I was trying to prove to people whose opinions didn’t even matter, those inner voices ingrained in my head for years; that’s who I was trying to prove it to. Instinctively and from a core-led perspective, I knew I was deserving of the seat at that table. But it must be arrogant of me to think this way. So then came the fear, the fraud, the doubt. 

Nobody was telling me I wasn’t good enough. Even in the toxic environment I was working in, the chief exec was asking me what support do you need etc. But for those whose opinion mattered about my performance, they knew and told me I was doing a good job. I didn't believe any of them. 

Sometimes we are not ready to receive praise and I think a big part of overcoming imposter syndrome has got to start from the point of acceptance. 

Accepting I am good enough to be where I am. 

I am knowledgeable enough to be where I am. 

I am skilled enough. 

I am enough. 

Accepting that there may be things you need to learn and develop, because I don’t believe any of us are the finished article. You are enough, but that doesn’t mean there’s not anything you can’t change, adapt, master or learn at a deeper level to be successful. 

But you are enough!

We have to accept that we may have moments of doubt, dips in confidence, we may need to learn more about who we are at the core. 

Accepting that I am a high achieving woman. 

Accepting that if I continue to hustle and try to constantly prove yourself, I will get close to burnout. 

Accepting that I cannot be everything to everyone. 

Accepting that I can give only what I can in the moment. 

Accepting that I only have a certain amount of hours in every day. 

Accepting that I may need help and support. 

Accepting that I may need to say no to things. 

Accepting that I may need a coach to help me. 

Accepting that there may be things that no longer work for me. 

Accepting that I am enough. 

You wouldn’t be in your role if you were a fraud (unless you were actually a fraud). If you have been conning people through your entire career to date, lying about your skills, experience and qualifications, it’s highly likely at some point someone will catch you out. 

I doubt that any of you have been living your life as a fraud. 

You may not have been living it as the core-led you. You may have been wearing a mask and have 2 versions of yourself. Work you and home you. You may not be being your whole self, but I don’t believe you are a fraud. 

Those of you that are living a core-led life or close to core-led, I bet money that integrity, authenticity and being true and honest are big values and drivers of yours. If they are, then there’s no way you’ve been living as a fraud. 

Accepting that you’ve been living your life as you in the best way that you can. Accepting that there may be more of you that you can bring to the table, is not the same as feeling like an imposter. 

You’ve proved your worth by getting that seat, now it’s time for maintenance. You can maintain it by listening and understanding, speaking to your people, your peers and what you need in your role. 

Be curious, ask questions, make changes but don't feel like you need to always be proving yourself and working harder. 

You are enough!


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