One of the great things about my job, working with small kids, is that the parents come from all different walks of life. Kids are a leveller in that way. In one room I can have a mother on benefits and sat next to her a mother who sits on a board. In those 40 minutes that we’re all together with our kids we’re all equal and I have to say it’s one of the things I’m most proud of when it comes to my business.
It’s taken me a long time and a bit of coaching (thank-you Kate Greenstock of Wild Rubies) to be able to internalise that achievement and feel proud of it. It’s not an achievement that people would immediately associate with me and Story Storks. In a straw poll my achievements are listed by others as selling out my last show at the Rose Theatre or that I’ve created a storytelling model that is now proven to enhance the reading skills of kids. Massive achievements, and don’t get me wrong, I have internalised them too, but I don’t just rely on others or external factors to support my confidence and impact any more. I recognised a couple of years ago that I needed to take that bad boy by the balls and own it for myself. Only I could do it. Potentially that realisation is my greatest achievement and for me it was a huge turning point. Once I’d made that realisation I reached out and got myself a mentor because I finally believed for myself that I could make a success of my business. At this point my business was 4 years old – the signs were there! Most of you probably think I’m mad to have ever doubted myself.
My services have recently been engaged by a senior director for a television company (and a Story Storks mum which is how I know her before you all get excited) to help out with the preparation of a key note speech for a conference she’s chairing. During the briefing she introduced me to ‘Imposter Syndrome’, and WOW that’s a page turner!
The phrase was first coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes and is defined as
A concept describing high achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalise their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.
Right now, reading this, Kate Greenstock is laughing her arse off. If she had a pound for every time I’d sat in those coaching session and said “I feel a fraud” she’d be living in Bermuda.
Imposter Syndrome is mostly seen in high achieving women, particularly career women who doubt their achievements have earned them a place in the room. As women progress up the career ladder some can find themselves in a more male dominated environment due to a number of factors (women dropping out because of emotional and financial stresses of motherhood being a big factor) and all of a sudden they wonder if they should still be there. Are they a fraud?
It can hit at any point in life. Some working mums ooze confidence in the office, but stepping into a PTA meeting is for them the equivalent of going on ‘The Childcare Mastermind Special’ and running up against SuperNanny. What can they say up against these incredible mothers who each have 10 children and still manage to apply make-up, have perfect hair and bring pavlova’s to the school cake sale – not shop bought. ARRGGHHH.
For me it didn’t hit until I set up my own business. Until then I was pretty sure of myself in a work environment. When I set up shop I honestly thought ‘what on earth am I doing thinking I can be a business woman. I have all these dreams and ambitions but really, I’m a bit silly. Surely. I mean come on!’
I used to dread going into schools. I would say Story Storks delivered against the EYFS and live in mortal fear that a teacher would ask me a question about it and I wouldn’t be able to answer it. I memorised the damned thing just incase. I couldn’t see that what I brought was a different approach that teachers really valued because they couldn’t deliver it themselves. I get repeat bookings! The issue of course was that I couldn’t internalise the success.
Imposter Syndrome itself is not a mental disorder. Current thinking suggests rather that it is a ‘reaction to certain situations’. Because it’s currently far more prevalent in women than men it may be playing a huge role in stopping women from reaching leadership positions. Recent data puts only 22% of board members as women in the UK, yet the evidence is clear that companies with mixed gender boards see an increase in the bottom line.
Though it’s not classed as a mental disorder, the little nagging voice of doubt in your head can become so severe that it turns into anxiety or depression. Although this reason is the more pressing to address the condition, that solving it may impact companies profits may wind up being the greater motivator.
There is good news though. It’s solvable. It’s a reaction to a set of circumstances and we can control our reactions. We just need to talk about it. Imposter Syndrome is characterised by the knowledge that you are the only person who feels like this. Yet in a room of 10 people at least 2 others will feel the same. This syndrome already has poster children, including Neil Gaiman, Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook) and Emma Watson.
Clance and Imes have gone on to study the phenomena in some depth and have used group therapy sessions to great affect. Their groups will consist of 10 women who hold titles such as professor, doctor, amazeballs sculptor etc and as each of them talks about how they fear that they are going to fail and be unmasked as the fraud they are the other 9 look at them in utter disbelief. Yet hearing that other people feel the same way totally works. Because once you realise that you’re normal you stop fighting it, stop winding yourself up, start forgiving yourself a bit and give yourself room to take a risk with the possibility that you might fail. And of course, we all know…
Failure is the key to success: each mistake teaches us something.
Weirdly flattery doesn’t work. Water off a ducks back – don’t waste your breath. You can tell somebody with imposter syndrome that they are totally amazeballs, with stats and diagrams, and they won’t believe you. Michael Aspel could come out with his ‘This is your life’ book and still they wouldn’t get it. It’s part of the syndrome.
For me the thing that worked was subscribing to Entrepreneur magazine and reading the stories of other Entrepreneurs. A man in the US had a company employing 50 people and yet every 6 months he would think ‘I can’t do this anymore, I have no idea what I’m doing’ and would spend half a day looking for a job. OMG I do that!!! Or at least I used to. I haven’t looked for a job for over a year. For an entrepreneur with doubts that’s a really long time.
It’s hard to talk about achievement, especially as a Brit, and not think you sound like a total big head. Perhaps it’s something that we learn in the playground. Childhood taunts stop us from pushing our achievements to the fore. My gifts as an actor have helped me to hide my fears behind my ever present smile and a well honed wit. Yet knowing that others felt the same way gave me comfort and support and, most importantly, gave me ‘permission’ to fail a bit. I now believe that Story Storks is here to stay.
If any of this has rung bells for you find someone and talk to them. If it’s at work talk to your boss or somebody who you think might empathise. Don’t be afraid to ask them if they feel the same way. Equally if you are a boss don’t be afraid to tell your minions that you sometimes feel like you’re winging it. That you may look like a cool customer, clad head to toe in designer tailored stuff that’s not from M&S but sometimes you don’t feel it. You’ll be amazed how empowering that could be to the person who is afraid that you’re about to find them out for the fraud….that they’re not.
PS if you read this blog on an iPad the picture of the dog pretending to be Brittney Spears might have been cropped. Just incase, here it is again!
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SARAH CANTRILL is a woman on a mission to inspire every young child to become a reader for pleasure. She is the Artistic Director & Founder of STORY STORKS, a social enterprise that delivers interactive story workshops to early years children and their grown ups, that help kids to fall in love with stories and develop their early language skills meaning that they have an easier time of learning to read when the time is right. Infact 85% of the kids who come through STORY STORKS are right where they should be or ahead in terms of progression through the reading book scheme once they get to school and the ones who are behind are trying hard because they know that it’s worth it – that to read is to unlock a whole world of fun and adventure and learning and imagination and they might take a bit longer to get there but they’re determined that get there they will.