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The female impostor complex

Categories: Career Talk, Working Women Issues, Your life


When I was starting out in my career I spent several years slaving away — quite literally, I am talking 20 hours days and I mean 20 hours, not 16 hours that seemed like 20 — at a well-known consulting firm. On one of my first projects there my manager was a woman. She was ridiculously impressive, you know, the works: Multiple graduate degrees, ultra sharp, creative, a great speaker. We got to know each other pretty well — working our 20 hour days and all — and at the end of our project went out for a late-night drink. And that’s when she dropped the bomb…

… she told me that she is afraid that soon the higher-ups will find out that she is really not as smart or as good as she might seem and fire her.

I was stunned. When I tried to argue with her that she shouldn’t think that, she she is amazingly smart and great at what she does, I realized there was nothing I could say — she felt the way she did very strongly. This seemed so strange to me until the day when I began to feel it myself.

I’ve had, what you might call, a fairly successful career — interesting jobs, management positions, respect from my colleagues and partners. Yet for a lot of it I’ve felt that somehow, I am not really as good as people think and boy, when they find out, I am in trouble.

I call this the female impostor complex simply because I’ve never heard a guy talk about it but have talked about it with some of my friends who are women and who can relate. It’s almost like we’re not able to get behind our own success, like we — OK, let’s get real, I — don’t feel like it’s for real, but rather, a fluke.

Don’t get me wrong, though, in a work environment I don’t let on for a second that I might feel this way. (You know, I am not currently blogging about to hundreds of people.) I know that confidence — whether you feel it or fake it, baby — is critical to getting what you want, even though confident women risk being considered bitchy at work.

So, anyone else feel this way (or have thoughts to share on the subject)?

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13 comments so far...

  • I’m just coming to terms with my impostor self. Heck, I didn’t even remember that impostor didn’t have an ‘e’ in it until I started typing because I too afraid to look at it closely! The one great thing about these feelings? They can, and should, make you reach even higher and work harder (not longer, by no means do I mean longer) to be the best you can be at your job or craft.

    Mandy at Dandysound  |  September 11th, 2008 at 9:53 am

  • I don’t think this is a female thing at all. My husband and I have discussed it many times. I think everyone feels like this sometimes.

    It’s related, I think, to that bizarre feeling that you’re only pretending to be an adult.

    Jan  |  September 11th, 2008 at 12:07 pm

  • Absolutely, not a female thing. My brothers have stated that same feeling on more than one occasion. They are both successful! Trying to gain confidence when you get to a certain point in your career is challenging. When I was young and niave that thought didn’t even begin to occur to me. Now I feel like a complete imposter but somehow I know I can get the job finished.

    Terri  |  September 11th, 2008 at 12:49 pm

  • I am so feeling like an imposter this week, but not only in my work life, in my home life as well. I am really not as good of a mother, wife, daughter, co-wroker, friend as others seem to think. In fact I feel like I am doing them all half ass and I am overwhelmed right now. How do I get out of this?

    Leann  |  September 11th, 2008 at 1:53 pm

  • I think it is real Nataly and I love this post. For me, I had a hockey coach who really got me start thinking, “why not me?” whenever there was some goal I wanted to achieve. Seriously, someone out there needs to do the challenging jobs, win the championships, why not any one of us? Someone needs to do it. It is such a fine line of being humble and not arrogant but also being confident enough to say, I am smart enough to do the most challenging job I want to do. Last year at a performance review I was shocked when I saw my net billings for the year. They were great. And yet, all year long I worried about my time and questioned my abiliities. We so have the brains to do what we are doing, we just have to keep reminding ourselves to be confident.

    This was a message I needed to hear today. Thanks!

    Lindsay  |  September 11th, 2008 at 2:06 pm

  • Nataly, this was a great post! (I love posts that make me think!) I think it’s a universal issue; my partner has expressed similar thoughts (men might feel the need to cover it up even more than woman do). It speaks to the widening gap between the identity of who we really are and the identity of who we think we *should* be. Anyone good at what they do is going to have high expectations of self; that comes with the territory. But the pitfall is feeling disconnected from the strength of who we are and the feeling that it’s okay to simply let that stand alone as it is. We tend to derive much of our sense of identity and belonging from the reactions of the people around us, and as a result live in constant fear that we just aren’t enough.

    Karen Murphy  |  September 11th, 2008 at 2:33 pm

  • Nataly, awesome post! I know all about the “imposter complex!” Been there, done that! And, for me, it comes and goes. As an observation, I felt the complex more when I was stretching out of a comfort zone and surrounded by peers who I wanted to impress. Owning my own business, interestingly, I feel none of the imposter-ish-ness. I wonder if the core speaks more to things we can control or autonomy? When I am in a situation where I have to make a decision, I can make the decision. When I was working at the bank, and knew I had “85 other people” to get buy in, that is when the imposter-dude showed up. So, is it really “self” confidence, or more of our “compliying with what is expected of us when we don’t agree with having to comply?”

    Becci Hall  |  September 12th, 2008 at 5:18 am

  • I actually think this is very common with men as well. I think they don’t really talk about it because it makes them appear weak (especially in front of a woman), but my husband says that he has felt that way before and also heard it from some of his close friends.

    Robyn  |  September 12th, 2008 at 4:57 pm

  • Fabulous post and it hit home. Maybe its our way of staying modest. When I’ve felt this way I’ve found its helpful to reach down and help out those with less experience. It usually boosts my confidence and at the same time, I’m able to help others move up. I’ve found that the more success I get, the more I want to help those that are trying to get where I am. Maybe its just the mom in me. And I agree, guys feel it too they just hide it better. At the same time, I’ve also seem some very talented men fail because they get in over their heads and don’t realize it. A little modesty every once in a while doesn’t hurt as long as we keep our confidence overall. We do need to hoot our horns more often than many of us (me included) are comfortable with.

    Stacey  |  September 13th, 2008 at 12:35 am

  • I can definitely relate to that feeling. I read a fictional book a few years back (I now cannot for the life of me remember the title) where the main character, who was female, continuously fought that “feeling”. The author used the term “walking the abyss”. I remember feeling a familiarity with that term. It sounds a little dramatic but I think it’s a great way to describe it.

    Unfortunately for me, that feeling has risen because of different men, who were my supervisors, that felt they were superior for the simple reason that they were a man. I had to look like a bitch by standing up for myself.

    I am sure that the abyss is a reality to many women, especially minorities. You are exactly right, we have be confident. We’re not faking it if we are doing it.

    Pamela  |  September 13th, 2008 at 11:20 am

  • I get that panic now and then, and I’m a public school teacher. Parents like to judge us; after all, they were students once, so they must know! So despite my advanced degrees, my published articles, and my respect from my peers, I (too often) get that “OMG I’m a fraud” feeling.

    Daisy  |  September 13th, 2008 at 10:04 pm

  • Feeling “If they just found out how I really am, they’d all despise and hate me” or “they’d realize that I’m not any good after all” is a very classic feature of clinical depression. I’m certainly not saying that anyone who feels that way is depressed! But we all get demoralized from time to time, and it’s a natural way to feel. Even when you know it’s wrong, that doesn’t necessarily change your feelings when it happens.

    I think men get exactly the same thing, but they’re socialized to never talk about such things. Boys learn that showing weakness is just a way to get yourself into trouble.

    Daniel Weinreb  |  September 14th, 2008 at 10:35 pm

  • I spent the first five years of my career positive that my boss would find out my shameful secret of under-the-table ineptitude.

    I’ve never heard anyone talk about this — how interesting! I’m better now, but it’s nice to know, as always, that there are others in the same boat.

    Kristin  |  September 14th, 2008 at 11:37 pm