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  • Writer's pictureRachel Swanick

Straightening our Crowns: Imposter Syndrome and Feminism


I haven’t been here for a while because…. Well… life took over. When life gets busy or overwhelming, the first thing I lose is my creativity. Creativity is my voice and the way I connect with myself and the world. So, when this happens, I know that my trauma responses have kicked in. Trauma responses are those niggling behaviours and voices that tell us to retreat or to look after everyone else. They tell us we are not worthy of our own love and our value is only gained by providing for others to the extreme. And then, and then, that dreaded phrase appears in your mind. Imposter Syndrome. I mean, this isn’t the worst phrase in the world (‘Rail Replacement Bus’ and ‘It’s the Journey not the blahaahah’ spring to mind) but how much do we hear this now, and what does it actually mean?


Imposter Syndrome is term coined in the 1970’s to explain those feelings of self-doubt and, basically, that the success we are experiencing is not ours and is due to things outside of ourselves. And, with more women than men experiencing Imposter Syndrome, I feel it is linked to feminist values, too. In Tulshyan and Burey’s brilliant article in the Harvard Business Review (https://hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndrome), they explain that with this label, there becomes an onus on women to ‘fix’ themselves, when actually, it is more likely the system we are working in that has created this culture and therefore needs fixing. The definition of imposter is someone who pretends to be something else in order to ‘deceive’ others. Why on earth would a talented woman, working hard and rising through the leadership ranks, be deceiving others? To what end? And why are we using a ‘syndrome’ to label someone who is experiencing anxiety about not feeling good enough in their work? A syndrome to describe someone’s low self esteem because the system they are working in is not safe.


I have been in a few conversations in different work places where women who were displaying their anxieties in different ways (being ‘difficult’ or ‘overbearing’) were brushed away by other women for having Imposter Syndrome, like it was the difficult person’s fault and there was nothing to be done about it. As Tulshyan and Burey state, it was about the individual fixing the problem and the problem not belonging to anyone else. However, all behaviour is communication and there is a need not being met when someone acts out. So why are we not asking women experiencing these feelings what they need? If we are to change the workplace to be more inclusive of women’s needs and rights so we can all thrive instead of survive, then women need to be modelling some compassion with our colleagues. Instead of stamping on their crowns, we need to be straightening them.


If women, or anyone else for that matter, are feeling insecure in the work system and Imposter Syndrome is rife, we need to start by providing safe places for them to express themselves. Mayseless & Popper (2019) wrote an interesting paper on attachment theory and leadership. They said that leaders with the most successful work force, longest engagement for the team and least burn out displayed secure attachment behaviours. That is, the leaders listened, empathised, responded, set clear boundaries and were consistent. They took a parenting role in the workplace and it paid off. By doing this, the leaders created safe bases for employees where they could consistently predict how they were going to respond, and they knew the rules. In these teams, there was less Imposter Syndrome as employees were praised for their work ethics and felt secure in their working relationships. So maybe the question of fixing the system is to go back to basics and create a secure base where people feel valued and listened to, instead of competitive and unheard. And, I am going to throw a call to alms as always, if the system we have been working in has been male led for so many years, maybe it is time us women started to straighten each other’s crowns and raise each other up when we are worried about not being good enough. Let’s end with Maya Angelou’s prayer to woman kind, “I’m a woman, Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that’s me”.


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