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It was a Saturday morning. Actually, I remember the date – it was the 1st of March. I had woken early and I was at my computer working. The sound of the phone ringing pierced the silence. I had been lost in my thoughts and the wonders of the unfolding day for a few hours at this point. I love early mornings, only you wouldn’t know it now as I stay in bed to the last possible minute before I have to get up and ready for work every day. This is the direct result of spending years working late into the wee hours of the morning so I’ve had to compromise and seek out the beauty in the other end of the day, otherwise I would never have any sleep.

I digress; let’s get back to the phone ringing …

I was thrilled to hear the voice of my youngest sister, Valentina, at the other end of the phone. “Do you have a minute?” she asked, ” I have something to read to you.”

“Of course,” I replied.

She began reading. In no time at all tears streamed down my cheeks …

My teta

She is an elephant
big and bold.

She is an artist
always creating, painting, drawing.

She is a plane
always going to exciting places.

She is a big teddy bear
always wanting a hug.

She is a playground
adventurous and fun.

She is a genius
smart and knows the answers.

She is the sun and moon
shining brightly through the day and night.

She is a heart
that I love.

Elena Vassiliadis
29 February 2008
Aged 10 years

My niece Elena had written this poem about me (‘teta’ is the Croatian word for aunty) at school; it was her first entry in her literacy book for 2008.

Words eluded me as I sat there crying. My sister waited for me to get myself together. I was completely incapable of saying anything. How do you respond to such an unexpected overt message of love? Dare I say it – I was completely overwhelmed. This was so unexpected.

In my mind I pictured Elena and I could feel one of her wonderful all consuming boisterous hugs envelope me. She always makes me feel special. I remembered the moment she was born and how minutes later I held her in my arms. She looked at me in an all knowing way that penetrated me to my core. Her eyes fixated on me and I was in love.

Elena and Marica bonding instantly. A very memorable moment.

“Can you please read that again so I can write it down?” I eventually managed to say. At the same time I overheard my sister saying to Elena “You made her cry” and I had to smile. What else did they expect? They know me. They know only too well what presses my buttons.

a message from my niece

As I talked to Elena on the phone and thanked her for her wonderful gift I had the realisation that she saw me in a completely different light to the way I viewed myself. We were not on the same page at all! She saw a strong, intelligent, adventurous woman who was fun to be around. Elena had described the last ten years of my life in a way that didn’t resonate with me on any level. Why was that?

My incredible 10 year old niece had managed to stop me in my tracks.

“Wow, Marica, you sound pretty cool,” said the voice within.

As I reflected on the last ten years through the ‘Elena lens’ an alternate reality presented itself to me. This reality centred on what I had accomplished, and on how much I had grown and changed. I realised that I have lived by my values and not compromised on these. Loving my family, and being there for them, has always been a priority and my wonderful relationships with all the members of my family are a reflection of this.

The more I looked at my life through the ‘Elena lens’ the more I realised how much I have managed to pack into my life in a very short period of time. Why is it then that I doubt myself so much and never feel like I am good enough or worthy enough? Even in my work I am highly critical of myself and always doubt my abilities and what I can offer. This is despite the fact that all the feedback I receive is to the contrary. I do hear it. I do accept it. A part of me knows it’s all true and yet that voice inside says “They’re only being nice!” and for some reason I believe this to be the absolute truth even though logically I know this is not the case. All too often I think others have made a mistake in relation to their belief in me and my abilities, and the fear that I will be found out can at times be paralysing.

Then the other day a colleague of mine asked me if I suffered from the ‘Imposter Phenomenon’. I looked at her perplexed.

“Where did that come from?” I asked myself. I had only been in this job two weeks. I was still very much immersed in the process of getting to know the people I was working with. The reality is though that it takes one to know one – as I was soon to learn.

“What is the imposter phenomen?” I asked innocently.

Within seconds I could hear alarm bells clanging very loudly in my head as I listened to my colleague describe this phenomenon to me. In fact these bells seemed too loud for comfort.

“Mmmmm …. so there is a name for it is there? At least you’re not alone!” I found myself thinking.

These are the moments when I am so thankful to have Google at my fingertips.

Yes or No

  • Do you secretly worry that others will find out that you’re not as bright and capable as they think you are?
  • Do you sometimes shy away from challenges because of nagging self-doubt?
  • Do you tend to chalk your accomplishments up to being a “fluke,” “no big deal” or the fact that people just “like” you?
  • Do you hate making a mistake, being less than fully prepared or not doing things perfectly?
  • Do you tend to feel crushed by even constructive criticism, seeing it as evidence of your “ineptness?”
  • When you do succeed, do you think, “Phew, I fooled ’em this time but I may not be so lucky next time.”
  • Do you believe that other people (students, colleagues, competitors) are smarter and more capable than you are?
  • Do you live in fear of being found out, discovered, unmasked?

If you answered yes to any of these questions — join the club!

Source: Dr Valerie Young’s Overcoming the Impostor Syndrome web site

Did any of this ring true for you?

The Imposter Phenomenon was first proposed back in 1978 when two American academics, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, reported their research findings in The Imposter Phenomenon Among High Achieving Women. Even though the women in their study were high-achievers (there was ample evidence of this such as academic qualifications and achievements, recognition, promotions) they considered themselves in a different light and demonstrated an inability to internalise their accomplishments. Basically these women secretly held the belief that they were not as capable as others thought they were. They felt they had simply managed to successfully fool others into thinking they were smarter and more capable than was actually the case. The fear of being ‘found out’ could in some women become all-consuming.

Since this initial research was undertaken there is now documented evidence of similar fears occurring in adults of all ages and amongst both sexes, as well as in adolescents.

At home later I spent some time searching, reading, doing another self-scored online quiz and listening to a BBC report about this phenomenon. Even though I connected with so much of what I read and heard I realised that at different times in my life this phenomenon presented itself more strongly than at other times. For example, as I have already mentioned I recently started a new job which is in a completely new area of work for me. Initially I was really scared of not being able to produce what was expected of me. I let this fear paralyse me into believing I was incompetent and unable to do the work. Frankly I convinced myself that my employers had made a mistake and I convinced myself I wasn’t good enough to do the job. The feedback I was receiving from my manager did not however correlate with what I thought yet I still doubted what I was hearing. This feeling has been particularly strong for me during this period of change as I go about learning a totally unfamiliar job.

So what can we do to overcome these ‘imposter’ feelings that make us feel so worthless and scared? As I read these suggestions from Dr Valerie Young I had to smile. Most of her suggestions are very familiar to me and yet I still struggle to apply them in a way that ensures long term behavioural change. Perhaps I need to print out this list and place it somewhere where I can see it on a daily basis as a constant reminder and call to action.

10 Steps to Overcome the Impostor Syndrome
by Dr. Valerie Young

  1. Break the silence. Shame keeps a lot of people from “fessing up” about their fraudulent feelings. Knowing there’s a name for these feelings and that you are not alone can be tremendously freeing.
  2. Separate feelings from fact. There are times you’ll feel stupid. It happens to everyone from time to time. Realize that just because you may feel stupid, doesn’t mean you are.
  3. Recognize when you should feel fraudulent. If you’re one of the first or the few women or minorities in your field or work place it’s only natural you’d sometimes feel like you don’t totally fit in. Instead of taking your self-doubt as a sign of your ineptness, recognize that it might be a normal response to being an outsider.
  4. Accentuate the positive. Perfectionism can indicate a healthy drive to excel. The trick is to not obsess over everything being just so. Do a great job when it matters most. Don’t persevere over routine tasks. Forgive yourself when the inevitable mistake happens.
  5. Develop a new response to failure and mistake making. Henry Ford once said, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” Instead of beating yourself up for being human for blowing the big project, do what professional athletes do and glean the learning value from the mistake and move on.
  6. Right the rules. If you’ve been operating under misguided rules like, “I should always know the answer,” or “Never ask for help” start asserting your rights. Recognize that you have just as much right as the next person to be wrong, have an off-day, or ask for assistance.
  7. Develop a new script. Your script is that automatic mental tapes that starts playing in situations that trigger your Impostor feelings. When you start a new job or project for example, instead of thinking for example, “Wait till they find out I have no idea what I’m doing,” try thinking, “Everyone who starts something new feels off-base in the beginning. I may not know all the answers but I’m smart enough to find them out.”
  8. Visualize success. Do what professional athletes do. Spend time beforehand picturing yourself making a successful presentation or calmly posing your question in class. It sure beats picturing impending disaster and will help with performance-related stress.
  9. Reward yourself. Break the cycle of continually seeking and then dismissing validation outside of yourself by learning to pat yourself on the back.
  10. Fake it ‘til you make it. Now and then we all have to fly by the seat of our pants. Instead of considering “winging it” as proof of your ineptness learn to do what many high achievers do and view it as a skill. Don’t wait until you feel confident to start putting yourself out there. Courage comes from taking risks. Change your behavior first and allow your confidence to build.

Bonus Tip: Decide to finally put an end to that tired, self-limiting tape that plays over and over in your head. Then actively take steps to overcome the Impostor Syndrome so you can finally start feeling like the bright, capable person you really are.

Thank you so much Elena for helping me to realise that I am better than I think I am. I know I still have lots more work to do to in this regard. This doesn’t scare me. I am always keen to take on a challenge!

I love you so very, very much Elena xo

Elena March 2008

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